Helping, sharing, learning
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Helping, sharing, learning

Local BCHSJS students grow on trips to New Orleans and Israel

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The BCHSJS and Israeli Young Leadership contingents in Nahariya.

Jeremy Fine and Miranda Alper, both students at Fair Lawn High school, were shocked to discover that nine and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ Ninth Ward still looks like a disaster zone.

The two 17-year-olds were among 10 Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies students in Louisiana over their winter vacation. The trip was run by the New Jersey office of the Orthodox Union’s youth movement, NCSY, which has sponsored 20 missions to New Orleans since Katrina. They joined Habitat for Humanity volunteers in constructing a house, and went door to door on behalf of the nonprofit organization Green Light New Orleans, educating homeowners about energy-saving light bulbs that they offered to install at no charge.

“I was completely emotional to see that the destruction and despair from almost 10 years ago still has an effect,” Jeremy said. “What I took away from that is that bad things happen, but there are people in the world we can rely on to help. It felt good being a part of that, ending the year by helping people start afresh.”

Miranda noted that one of the trip’s advisers, Avital Moss, who also is one of her teachers at BCHSJS, led a session during the service-learning trip about “who we’re obligated to help as Jews, and who comes first – your family, your community, your town, fellow Jews, and all humankind. There was really no right answer, because ‘community’ stretches so far.” They were mindful that they represented Jewry for many of those they met.

BCHSJS is a supplemental Jewish high school program for students who do not go to high school in day schools or yeshivot. It meets on Sunday mornings. This year, the enrollment stands at 135, and the program has moved from Teaneck’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls to the Moriah School of Englewood.

While some BCHSJS students were touring Jewish sites in New Orleans and helping to rebuild the city, another contingent was in Israel with BCHSJS principal Bess Adler, getting to know their peers in Nahariya, a city in northern Israel that’s twinned with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“The trip to Israel was the culmination of a year-long leadership program, sponsored by Partnership2Gether, federation, and BCHSJS,” Ms. Adler said. “It was a delegation made up of ten 11th- and 12th-graders from the second cohort of Young Leadership that learned weekly last year what it means to be a Jewish leader. We were paired with a Young Leadership group in Nahariya that we had met twice on Skype and interacted with on Facebook during the school year. This Israeli delegation came to visit us last May for a week.”

Ms. Adler said that the goal of the December trip was to introduce American Jews to Israelis in Nahariya and to foster lasting friendships between the 10 American and 10 Israeli kids, while the Americans got to know some of Israel’s history and culture. In addition to touring, the New Jersey visitors made presentations in two high schools and ran activity programs for Ethiopian children in a Nahariya immigrant-absorption center.

They were housed in their new friends’ homes and discovered they had mutual interests in music, sports, and television shows. Jonathan Levin of Woodcliff Lake, a junior at Pascack Hills High School, said the major difference was that the American teens are preparing for college while the Israeli teens are preparing for military service.

Jonathan said he found it “truly spectacular” to visit Nahariya’s Medical Center of the Galilee and learn how the hospital provides lifesaving treatment to many victims of the Syrian civil war. After a tour and briefing by the hospital’s media spokesperson, the young leaders painted a mural on a blank wall outside, depicting the nearby Mediterranean shore.

“I had friends who were in Israel over the summer during the war, so I was a little nervous about going at first, but I was confident about being in a country that would always be there to protect me,” Jonathan said. “Once I was in Israel I felt right at home, and I felt like I was never safer in my life.”

While sightseeing in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Rosh Hanikra, and Tel Aviv, he was surprised to find Israel was not as he had imagined. “I had pictured a lot of deserts and Orthodox people, but actually it was full of so many different religions, cultures, points of view, and geographical landscapes. That was amazing for me to see.”

Alyssa Seigel-Laddy, a Fair Lawn High School junior, loved helping Ethiopian 5- to 7-year-olds make friendship bracelets. “I don’t speak any Hebrew, but we still managed to make it work,” she said. “All the kids were so excited about it. It was adorable.”

Alyssa stayed with a girl named Mavi, who lives in Nahariya and whose family speaks Hebrew and Spanish at home. Despite the language barrier, the two bonded and found they have much in common. “People are basically the same,” Alyssa observed. Since returning to New Jersey on January 2, she has been texting and Snapchatting with the Israeli group and hopes to stay in touch long term.

The New Jersey NCSY mission was made possible by the generosity of Roz and Steve Flatow in memory of their daughter Alissa.

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