Sima Wilhelm, a ninth-grader at Portland’s Maimonides Jewish Day School, won first prize in the Better Together Cohort V: National High School contest with her essay “One Full Year.”
Better Together, a school-based Jewish intergenerational program, launched the contest in recognition that social isolation and loneliness in the elderly is at an all-time high. Students were asked to reflect on the Jewish tradition of creating community and reducing social isolation in both seniors and the elderly.
Sima wins a scholarship to a Jewish camp (half the cost, up to $5,000) or gap year program (half the cost, up to $8,000), which can be used until 2024.
MJDS receives a $25,000 prize for the winner’s Jewish day school.
An email announcing the national winners notes: “The winning submissions were very meaningful this year. Our esteemed judges are most impressed by how the Better Together program has impacted the students as reflected in their feelings about seniors, aging and the mitzvah of caring for the elderly.”
Columbia Journalism School Professor Samuel G. Freedman has been a judge in the Better Together contest for seven years.
“I’ve always cherished both the goal of building intergenerational Jewish bonds and the high quality of the students’ essays,” wrote Freedman; he added that the essays from 20-21 were of an entirely different order of magnitude. “Amid a pandemic that particularly afflicted the young and the elderly – one group for the psychic toll it exacted and the other for the frighteningly high risk of infection – Better Together defied the unprecedented medical and logistical challenges to build relationships across a vast age difference and to inspire a deeply moving set of essays.”
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law Professor Dr. Leslie Newman, also a judge, wrote: “That the relationships described in the wonderful student essays filled incalculable voids during this past, hard year is palpable in the writing, in the details shared, and in the learning and feeling so beautifully described in the essays.”
Sima’s winning essay is in the form of a letter to her Better Together partner.
ONE FULL YEAR.
Just over one year ago, you and I would get together every month for “Better Together.” We would chat, cook, learn and connect. While you are older than me, our friendship became natural. You shared with me how your passion for running was a hobby you developed in your senior years, and you inspired me with the story of your first marathon which you ran in Israel. I shared with you our class politics and both my excitement and trepidation about going to High School. Through our conversations I learned that we are more alike than different, we both had fears to overcome, dreams to fulfil and we both loved making food for Shabbos.
But without warning that all changed.
COVID hit and an entire new lexicon entered our vocabulary. Social distancing, lockdowns, quarantine, transmission and pre-existing conditions.
Suddenly it was not safe to be together. While as a child I was more protected from the effects of COVID, you as a senior were more susceptible. A virus without a cure was ravaging our planet and the senior population was uniquely vulnerable. I can’t imagine how scary that must have been.
Scary and isolating. It was not just me you could not see. Your own grandchildren were unable to come into your home.
I remember how you shared with me how excited you were about your granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Now you were unable to attend.
Suddenly we felt so different. You a senior, I only a child.
Enter Zoom. Our Better Together program started meeting via Zoom. We could not cook or taste the food together, but we could sing. You in your home and me in mine. We could bond over melody, poetry and conversation.
One day, you allowed me to interview you. You shared the influence your grandfather had on your life, how meaningful you found volunteering, and how COVID impacted your life.
We shared the challenges we were facing. We were both isolated, worried and anxious and we spoke a lot about when we think this will end. We dreamed of what we will do once that day comes.
We realized we were fighting COVID – together. We were locked down. Isolated. Alone. Together.
And then, once again, it felt like we are really not that different from one another. We each face our struggles, have fears and inhibitions, and we each have to muster the courage to shine our brightest.
Better Together in COVID brought me back to that point of remembering: we are more the same than we are different.
I can’t wait for COVID to be over. You are one of the first people I want to hug.