By Deb Silverthorn
Dallas Jewish teens in the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) and Jewish Student Union (JSU) organizations gave their gifts of time, energy and care to community agencies in downtown Dallas over winter break.
The teens participated through the It Takes a Village campaign, organized in spring 2020 by the youth organizations.
“Putting our teens on the end of the giving side throughout the last year and a half has kept our It Takes A Village initiative going and, even at the height of the pandemic, we have continued to provide our teens with safe ways to engage and grow in their Judaism,” said JSU Director Chana Ben-Abraham, who, with her 10-week-old daughter Sarah by her side, chaperoned the activities with Gedalia Dock, Natan Roth and Lexi Shafron Stein.
“The Dallas NCSY and JSU Relief Mission brought tears from the kindness our teens were able to provide,” said Ben-Abraham, “as well, of course, as lots of laughter.”
As summer approached in 2020, with most students missing opportunities for social connections, volunteer service and all that comes with teenage life, NCSY/JSU created the It Takes A Village initiative. At first a nine-day opportunity in July 2020 to be safe, have fun and give back, the program has continued in that fashion with monthly programs, including a relief mission to New Orleans last summer.
In December, participants shared in a 48-hour staycation. During it, they packed bags which they dropped off at Family Gateway and they delivered snacks and supportive messages to first responders at the Dallas Police Central Patrol Division, Dallas Fire Station 4 and at Parkland Hospital. They cleaned up trash at Campbell Green Park, packaged approximately 300 meals at the Crossroads Food Pantry, packaged and delivered Meals on Wheels for the Veterans Association and then organized and handed out blankets to those in need through the Austin Street Center.
Before the volunteer activities, NCSY Director Rabbi Michel Lomner and Southwest NCSY Senior Educator Rabbi Israel Lashak addressed the students in person. They also took a break during their service to meet with Dallas City Council Member Cara Mendelsohn, who represents District 12.
Participating during winter break were Dor and Noa Buaron, Sydney Denn, Payton Graham, Baila Grebenau, Noam Gurfinkel, Nata and Tamar Gurman, Leah Hargrove, Grant Katz, Shauna Kaykov, Kayla Kosfiszer, Tessa Kraus, Danielle Levkovich, Steven Mendelsohn, Eli Raphael, Danielle Rotman, Ben Shaked, Ella Sharoni, Sydney Sornoff and Ben Spaulding.
“These kids are incredible and amazing and they’re going to be that as adults; you can just see it in their dedication to their community and to the world-at-large. That they would take vacation time to give to others, speaks volumes,” said Mendelsohn. “I shared my own story with them; we toured much of City Hall and discussed what service means in this building and beyond.”
Participants represent NCSY members from Akiba Yavneh Academy and Greenhill School and JSU chapters at Highland Park High School, J.J. Pearce High School, Parish Episcopal School, Plano Senior High School, Plano West Senior High School and Shepton High School.
“Being able to help hands-on, and even the chance to meet some of the recipients of the support, was awesome. Handing out towels, for instance — you don’t think about how much a towel could be appreciated,” said Baila Grebenau, a freshman at Akiba Yavneh Academy. “The police and firefighters and the ER staff, one of them even crying, were so grateful for our appreciation. Everything has been harder during the pandemic. For these people who give so much, they really welcomed the gifts, and the happiness we spread went a long way.”
Eli Raphael, a junior at Highland Park High School and founder of that school’s JSU chapter, said students appreciate the NCSY and JSU programs for providing space for them, especially during the pandemic. The organizations are a place for teens to find what Judaism means to them — apart from their families — opportunities to start realizing what kind of Jewish life they as individuals want to live.
“Our leadership is incredible and inspiring. Chana is the life and soul that keeps us running and making spirituality relatable, and Rabbi Lomner is the rock that helps us grow,” said Raphael, who, with 11 other locals, represented Dallas at NCSY’s National Convention in New York. “I’ve seen spiritual lives change amongst my friends and, at this time of our lives, that is so important.”
In addition to its special programming, NCSY/JSU hosts meetings on the school campuses as well as weekly Picnic and Parsha programs at 8 p.m. each Wednesday at Campbell Green Park, and Chili ‘n’ Cholent at 8 p.m. each Thursday.
“We are constantly creating opportunities on and off of our students’ campuses to provide meaningful experiences,” said Ben-Abraham. “You know something is going right when the first question you get asked at the end of the program is, ‘When is the next one?’”
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