By Deb Silverthorn
Sixteen Dallas-area students made memories and performed mitzvahs around New Orleans last month as part of the Teen Relief Mission of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) and Jewish Student Union (JSU).
“To serve others, by taking a sledge-hammer to the sidewalk or by serving up a meal, and to see the demeanor and graciousness of the community was unbelievable,” said Jewish Student Union Director Chana Ben-Abraham. “It was very special to have our kids in kippot among the diversity we experienced, and I believe it had us all feeling stronger in our Judaism.”
Joining Ben-Abraham were students Simon Abadi, Raphi Blumenthal, Noa Buaron, Sydney Denn, Noam Gurfinkel, JJ Klein, Tessa Kraus, Eli Levine, Danielle Levkovich, Eli Raphael, Chavy Rothstein, Benjamin Sheena, Noah Schwartz, Zach Schwartz, Avital Sullum, Leah Weisglass, NCSY’s Teen Relief Mission National Director Rabbi Ethan Katz and Dallas’ NCSY City Director Rabbi Michel Lomner.
For Katz, working with the Dallas group was exciting and inspiring.
“It’s empowering to be back performing acts of tikkun olam in person. Your kids are motivated and fantastic and they left an incredible impression,” he said of the Dallas group. “Chana’s a powerhouse who never runs out of steam and Rabbi Lomner is tremendous. We absolutely look forward to working together again.”
The students spent their time volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, building a flood prevention system, paving driveways, putting up fences and painting the home and storm boards. At Green Light New Orleans, the team created rain barrels for capturing and storing water from downspouts of homes.
“Volunteering is so much a part of Judaism and of NCSY, and we were so happy to be able to be out doing what we love to do,” said Leah Weisglass, NCSY board city coordinator and Plano West’s JSU president. “Most of us didn’t know each other very well as we haven’t been able to be together as a group for a long time. Working hands-on, we bonded like never before.”
The students shopped for and prepared a kosher barbecue meal for more than 50 residents of the 9th Ward. While none of the residents keep kosher, it was important to the NCSY group to serve a kosher meal to live their Jewish values
The students worked alongside Burnell Cotlon, owner of Burnell’s Lower 9th Ward Market. His store is believed to be the only one in the neighborhood, nearly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the area. The students shopped ahead and brought the goods to Cotlon’s store, stocking his shelves to help his neighbors.
“The kids were beautiful, and it feels so good to help one another,” said Cotlon, who had returned to the Lower 9th Ward, where he’d grown up, just prior to Katrina, after serving in the U.S. Army for 11 years. Katrina destroyed his home and the restaurant he worked at, but not his spirit. “So many hands helping out in every part of my store, with friendly faces and kind hearts.”
“They represented your people with honor,” said Cotlon, “and it was a pleasure to meet and work alongside them.”
That representation of Dallas’ Jewish community was also shared with Rabbi Yossi and Chanie Nemes of the Chabad Jewish Center of Metairie, where the group spent Kabbalat Shabbat. Davening, dancing and bringing in Shabbat together, Rabbi Nemes, who lent the group a Torah for Shabbat morning, said Dallas’ NCSYers elevated Shabbat for them and their guests.
Raphi Blumenthal, a rising senior at Akiba Yavneh Academy, described the mission as transformative. “I’m grateful for the opportunity. I really believe we brought some light with us.” Blumenthal read Torah (incidentally his bar mitzvah parasha, Korach). “We learned in the parasha about being grateful and how blessed we, the Jewish people, are, and this mission was all about that.”
The group is continuing its efforts of tikkun olam. Dallas’ NCSY will spend the nine days (July 8-18) leading up to Tisha B’Av, giving back to the Dallas-area community through its It Takes A Village series of programs and events for teens in grades eight through 12. Participants will partner with Dallas’ Friendship Circle, make sandwiches for local shelters, host a clothing drive and more.
“Chesed, kindness, is literally the bedrock of Judaism, and to see the next generation take initiative, spending their vacation to share time with others, is truly heartwarming,” said Lomner. “At Dallas NCSY, not only do we inspire the Jewish future, but we create and build a brighter Jewish future.”
Registration for It Takes A Village is limited and open now at tinyurl.com/NCSY-SUMMER-VILLAGE. For more details about JSU or NCSY email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.