Almost 100 high school students from around the Midwest descended on Temple Israel the first weekend of November for the Western Fall Chavurah, hosted this year by the Omaha Temple Youth Group.

OTYG, the Omaha chapter of NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, began planning for the annual fall event early in the summer, according to Co-Chair Zane Fletcher, who, along with Morissa Miller, spearheaded the committee.

“We … were further ahead in our schedule than a lot of other youth groups are for their events,” said Fletcher, a senior at Westside High School. “As we got closer to the event we had weekly meetings Sundays after Hebrew school, and [we] would communicate via text and email during the week.”

The chavurah, held from Nov. 2 through Nov. 4, brought together teens from Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and Colorado for a weekend of socializing and social action, beginning with a Friday afternoon welcoming session hosted by freshman Abby Hack, one of OTYG’s Vice Presidents of Membership, and ending with a pancake breakfast and tear-streaked goodbyes Sunday morning. In between, OTYG members led their youth group peers through a series of games and activities with an emphasis on social politics and volunteerism.

Hannah Radler, Vice President of Social Action, created a Saturday afternoon program designed to make the teens think about the societies they live in and how they could be made better.

The kids were split into six groups, with each group assigned a different organization to visit and volunteer at. Kids assembled entertainment centers at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, sorted clothes at the Open Door Mission, straightened a stockroom and sorted miscellaneous donated items at Together, visited the Youth Emergency Shelter, cleaned medical equipment at HELP Adult Services, and sorted donations at the Food Bank for the Heartland.

“I think the social action program went really well,” Radler said. “Some teens came up to me and told me how much they enjoyed it. Pretty much all of the kids felt that they had made a difference, and I hope they go on to help out in their community.”

Solomon Marburg, a freshman attending his first chavurah, “particularly enjoyed the social action.” He was part of the group that went to Together and he plans to continue volunteer work around Omaha.

“Not everyone lives as fortunately as we do,” Marburg said. “[Poverty and homelessness] are not just a problem elsewhere. They exist in Omaha, too. These organizations are here because they need to be.”

Morissa Miller created a mock presidential election in which platforms for social issues like education and poverty were read anonymously to the group. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were referred to simply as “Candidate 1” and “Candidate 2.”

The kids then split into smaller groups, where they learned more about whichever issue they felt most strongly about, and tried to lobby their friends to come over to their way of thinking. In the end, a vote was held and the teenagers learned which candidate their views most closely aligned with. Barack Obama won the election handily, defeating Mitt Romney by a 2-to-1 margin.

While everyone seemed to enjoy the social action and political discussions, the biggest highlight for many was having the opportunity to meet and socialize with their peers from other youth groups. A social was held Saturday evening for just such a purpose.

“I’m most happy with the connections and joy I saw in people,” Fletcher said. “I walked out of the weekend with new friends, and I feel comfortable saying so did everyone else.”

Radler had a difficult time picking a favorite part of the weekend.

“The entire weekend was a success,” she said. “I think the entire weekend was my favorite part, though I really enjoyed the senior circle, because you get really close to the people you’ve known for years and really have fun.”

The upcoming Winter Chavurah, which is from January 18-21, is being held in Denver. Registration will be open soon. Check out NFTY.org/MV for details.

(Note – the version of this article that appeared in the Jewish Press erroneously stated that Hannah Radler had created the mock election when, in fact, it was Morissa Miller. This has been corrected in the online version. We regret the error.)