Hollis Hills teen wins national essay contest

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Eleventh grader Rachel Trager of Hollis Hills has always thought about what it means to be Jewish, so when a national Jewish foundation asked students to submit essays about what it is that binds all Jews together, it only took her about half an hour to write the essay, she said.

“The question was perfect for me. I knew exactly what to say, and I just wrote it,” said Trager.

The high school junior’s essay was recently selected as the best out of 346 entries by the Morris & Betty Kaplun Foundation, which sponsored the contest targeted at Jewish 10th through 12-graders throughout United States and Canada.

Trager, 17, who attends Ramaz Upper School, a private Jewish high school in Manhattan, won a grand prize of $1,800, which she plans on applying toward her college education. The prize was given to her at an awards luncheon held at the Lincoln Center Synagogue in Manhattan on June 15.

In her essay, Trager said it is the history, hardships and celebrations that Jews have gone through over the years that bind them together.

Growing up in a conservative Jewish household, Trager sometimes had feelings of “not (being) Jewish enough” compared to her Orthodox classmates, she said. But during a religious getaway organized by her school, she realized while singing and bonding that all Jews share a common ancestry.

“For once, we were one. We were all Jewish enough. We were all just Jewish,” wrote Trager. “That night we realized that it was our history as Jews which bound us stronger than anything. Our families had been Jewish forever, since the time when they were slaves in Egypt, and as we cried we remembered our shared sorrowful periods.”

Shared hardships that Jews have gone through include the Holocaust of World War II, the mass murders during the pogroms in Russia in the 1880s and the Jewish mass suicides at the Masada fortress around 70 A.D. to escape Roman capture, said Trager.

Last week, Trager returned from a trip with the Jewish group Betan, which arranged for students to do volunteer work around Israel, such as planting trees and bushes, beautifying landscapes and working with Ethiopian children.

Trager said she would definitely like to live in Israel after she finishes college.  “I love having the history at your fingertips. I love that there’s Hebrew everywhere,” said Trager of Israel. “That was the land that was promised to us that we got back in 1948. As a Jew, I should be there and no other place.”

Trager has been learning Hebrew since she was in first grade at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens in Flushing. One of her favorite experiences in Israel is Jerusalem during the sabbath, she said.

“Sabbath in Jerusalem is just such a gorgeous thing. It’s such a holy experience,” said Trager. “The people are so strong-willed and determined and the traditions are so ancient.”

Trager is not sure which sect of Judaism she will join in the future. She prefers for now not to label herself as a certain type of Jew, she said.

“There are many sects of Judaism now, but Jews respect the plurality of beliefs,” said Trager.

Trager is currently the editor of her school’s literary magazine, co-editor of the school’s weekly Israel Magazine, features editor of her school’s newspaper, Rampage, and a member of the softball team. She hopes to become a novelist in the future.

Aside from Trager, five other contestants, including Aryeh Pearlman of Far Rockaway, won $750 each for being finalists in the Kaplun essay competition.

In addition, a grand prize winner and five finalists were chosen from 639 contestants in an essay competition for 7th through 9th graders that asked students to write about their favorite Jewish hero or celebrity.

Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:24 pm, October 10, 2011
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