Ariela Rivkin, an eighth-grader from Yavneh Academy, captured first place in the statewide Patriot Pen essay competition sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The Teaneck resident beat out 12,000 competitors from around New Jersey to win the annual contest and is up for the nationwide title. Veterans and members of the local VFW came to Yavneh to honor Ariela at a ceremony last week and presented the school with a plaque.
As a top winner, she was awarded a $1,000 savings bond.
The Patriot Pen contest is designed to foster patriotism in young people through a 400-word essay on a theme related to patriotism. This year’s contest urged applicants to respond to the question, “When should we honor our veterans?”
Ariela didn’t have much time to contemplate the topic because she only discovered the contest during an online search several days before the deadline. Luckily, she knew exactly what she wanted to say: that America can honor its veterans only when people have a fuller understanding of the sacrifice they have made.
“Before asking ourselves when to honor our heroes, we must determine how to honor them. I believe real honor means making sure that we and future Americans know and remember what they did for us. To me, honoring means understanding and appreciating,” she wrote in her essay.
Writing the essay was easy for Ariela because the topic is one she feels strongly about. But “I never imagined I’d win,” she said. “It seemed worthwhile to participate. I wrote the essay two nights before it was due.”
Patriotism is “something that my whole family feels strongly about and we talk about stuff like this all the time. This country and its heroes and its future is something that’s been a high priority at my house,” she said.
Cheryl Rivkin, Ariela’s mother, said she was thrilled by her daughter’s victory, because loyalty to America and patriotism hold special meaning for her family. “My father was the only Jewish person at the United States Coast Guard academy when he went to college in the 1950s,” said Rivkin. “He served in the Coast Guard for 20 years. My husband and his parents and his grandmother came from the Soviet Union in 1975.”
Winning the essay contest, Rivkin continued, “was a very big deal for Ariela. She was touched by the fact that they were so appreciative of what she wrote. She said, ‘They [veterans] got shot at and I just wrote a paper.'”
In her essay, Ariela wrote that young people today don’t know about this country’s military history. To remedy that, she suggested that schools teach courses in America’s military history. She also thinks there should be greater interaction between students and veterans, so that they can pass their stories on to the next generation. Finally, schools should arrange for student visits to America’s battlefields, military bases, veterans hospitals, and cemeteries so that students “can see and feel our heroes’ sacrifices.”
Ariela learned in November that she had won the local competition and later that she won the district race. At the state VFW dinner two weeks ago in Cherry Hill, which was attended by members of 21 districts, Ariela’s statewide title was announced and she read her essay aloud before the crowd.
Ariela said she was particularly touched when one of the veterans presented her with one of his own “challenge coins,” typically awarded to soldiers for outstanding achievement on the battlefield.
Yavneh Principal Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, who recited the prayer for the American military at the school ceremony last week, said, “We are proud of Ariela’s unique accomplishment.” Leonard Hennig, the commander of VFW Post 1429 of Teaneck, and William Thompson, a senior vice commander of the state VFW, spoke at the ceremony, where Ariela read her essay for the Yavneh students.
“It was a great honor for our school to host the program and shine a spotlight on honoring our local veterans,” said Knapp.
Hennig said that Ariela’s essay speaks right to the question of how to best honor our heroes.
“Her essay is saying, how do you honor someone if you don’t know what you’re honoring them for? Her essay speaks about education of battles past so we can learn for the future. It’s saying that we need to be appreciative of our veterans all the time. After all,” he said, “one of the nicest things that can happen to any veteran is when someone says thank you.”
|At a ceremony at Yavneh last week, VFW members presented a plaque to Ariela Rivkin. In the back, from left, are Rich Sowtel and Stanley Kober. In front are Leonard Hennig and William Thomson. At right are Ariela’s parents, Oleg and Cheryl Rivkin. Debbie Abramowitz|