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Meir Lichtenberg, center, with friends.

When disaster strikes, as it so often does – just think of last week’s tornados in Oklahoma and last year’s superstorm Sandy – people come from all over the country to help.

But some groups help all the time, not just when nature wreaks havoc but when lives are shattered by something as daily as poverty.

One such group is the American Jewish Society for Service, founded in 1950 to realize the vision of social justice activists Rabbis Arthur Lelyveld, Isidor Hoffman, and Ferdinand Isserman. Created by New York attorney Henry Kohn, AJSS sought “to take kids out of the bubble of the New York Jewish world and put them in communities where they would see things differently,” said Rena Convissor, executive director of the organization, now national in scope and based in Bethesda, Maryland.

“When it first started, Henry Kohn ran it out of his law firm with some volunteer help,” she said, noting that the program has taken teens to 47 states in the 62 summers it has been in operation. “Before the Internet, they used to run an ad in the back of the New York Times Magazine.”

According to its website, the group wanted to see Judaism “translated into action in a way that would help repair the world.” Its first project was to help build a single-family home for a disabled African-American veteran in a run-down neighborhood in Indianapolis. This year, AJSS brought a group from Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun to the Rockaways to help clean up after Sandy.

Working for either three or six weeks during the summer, or during school breaks and long weekends, high school students join local organizations to address the needs of specific communities, whether painting community centers, building facilities for teens in crisis, or repairing storm-damaged homes. So far, AJSS has conducted more than 140 projects in the United States, Canada, and Israel.

Local students participate

Meir and Miriam Lichtenberg, a brother and sister from Teaneck, each have spent a summer working with AJSS.

Meir, now 19 and studying at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, spent the summer of 2010 in Little Rock, Arkansas, helping Habitat for Humanity “build houses and take apart a warehouse so that the wood could be resold at cheaper prices.” At the time, he was 16 and a student at the Frisch School in Paramus.

“We also painted houses,” he said, adding that “some of it was pretty tough but there was a very rewarding feeling.

“After painting one of the houses, the family was so grateful they broke down crying and said how touched they were that a bunch of teens, complete strangers, had done this. It was very emotional.”

Also “pretty cool,” he said, was a trip to meet the governor of Arkansas, who thanked them for their work.

Rooming together with 16 fellow volunteers – bedding down on sleeping bags in a local synagogue – “we also helped make minyans for the community,” he said. “The Jewish community there is struggling a bit.”

Making friends with the other teens in the program, Meir, who is modern Orthodox, had a chance to learn more about other Jewish denominations.

“I hadn’t had these kinds of conversations about beliefs [before],” he said. “It was a first time for me. It was valuable and helped us work together as a unit. The counselors did a great job in helping to break down barriers.”

In choosing AJSS, Meir said he wanted “to have a meaningful summer, to help out a community,” adding that he had been inspired by a family chesed project during his sister’s bat mitzvah celebration.

“Young people should definitely get involved in social action,” he said. “You think ‘What can I do?’, but every small thing counts. I simply painted someone’s house and it meant so much to him.”

Miriam Lichtenberg agreed, saying that “everyone should in some way be giving back.” But while she participated in an AJSS program in Louisville, Kentucky, Miriam, who is a junior at the SAR Academy in Riverdale, New York, said “you don’t have to go to Louisville. You can start small.”

The 16-year-old said she was inspired by her brother’s experience.

“It sounded like a cool thing to be doing,” she said, adding that like her brother, she had “valuable conversations” with Jews of other denominations.

In Louisville, Miriam and her 15 fellow volunteers worked on a handful of projects.

“I volunteered at an old-age home, worked with young children who had been homeless, volunteered with an organization called WaterStep, which provides clean water [technology] for third-world countries, helped fix up local parks, and built a porch at a center for troubled youth with an organization called YouthBuild,” she said.

While some of the projects did not bring her into direct contact with the people she was helping, “with the kids, we saw the changes we were making. We put smiles on their faces.”

According to their parents, Barry Lichtenberg and Sandee Brawarsky, Meir and Miriam definitely benefited from their time with AJSS.

“They still talk about it a lot,” they said. “They did all kinds of things and they were definitely moved by their experience. It made a deep and lasting impression.”

Brawarsky particularly recalled Meir’s stories about distributing food to the needy, and a local pastor thanking the group for being “brothers in equality.”

“This was the first time they were confronted in a real and personal and daily way with people who are much less fortunate, and discovered they are ultimately not that different,” she said.

And the volunteers themselves “build community,” she added. “It brings together Jewish kids from all different backgrounds. They live together in the back of a synagogue, sleep in sleeping bags, shop, and cook their own meals.”

While participants had different levels of kashrut and ritual observance, “they found ways for all of them to be comfortable.”

Eitan Boiarsky of Englewood participated with AJSS last summer, also in Louisville.

“I was looking for some kind of program revolving around chesed, charity,” he said. His older brother had participated in such a program, and he wanted to do the same.

“My school, SAR, posts a list each year with different opportunities,” he said. AJSS was on that list.

Now 17 and going into his senior year, Eitan said he particularly enjoyed his work with WaterStep.

“The organization collects shoes and sells them to a retailer,” he said. “They use the proceeds to build water pumps for third-world countries. You can set up systems for $750 that [can benefit] 10,000 people.”

Eitan was so impressed with this project that he brought the idea back to his school, organizing a shoe collection that netted 150 pairs of shoes.

In Louisville, Eitan and fellow volunteers cleaned out the group’s new facility, painted walls, and sorted shoes. While the work wasn’t quite what he expected, “that’s what they needed,” he said.

Eitan said he was surprised to find such a big Jewish community in Louisville, which he said included several Reform and Conservative synagogues. Volunteers stayed at one of the Reform shuls.

“It was fine, a big air-conditioned room,” he said. “I thought it would be worse.”

Food, however, proved a bit more difficult for the four modern Orthodox volunteers.

“We had to watch over the kitchen a little more [closely] to make sure they used the right dishes,” he said. Still, “they tried to make sure everyone was comfortable. While the program wasn’t Orthodox, they still strived to talk about Judaism.”

In addition, the volunteers were able to daven and attend shul on Shabbat.

“It was my first time going to a Reform minyan with a singer and piano player,” he said. “I came to respect how some [non-Orthodox] kids care about their Judaism. They could have gone on other programs, but they specifically came to AJSS.”

He said that the experience “definitely inspired me to do more chesed work.” This year, he will be going to South Africa to work on two projects: one with BBYO (which used to be called the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization) and one with LaLela, which uses the arts to help poor children in Capetown.

Speaking of his summer with AJSS, Eitan said, “It definitely is a great program, but you have to be serious. You wake up early and work hard.

“It can be pretty tiring, but you realize that it’s a good thing.”

This year, Convissor said, AJSS is joining forces with Young Judaea and Tivnu: Building Justice for J-Build Portland, a 25-day summer program addressing the housing crisis in Oregon. In addition, the group will partner with the San Diego-based Camp Mountain Chai for a five-week Kavanah leadership program in Roseburg, Oregon, working with a community development agency to assess the needs of local residents and beautify public spaces.

AJSS also is returning to Louisville for its Summer of Service, 6 Weeks of Impact program, bringing together 60 students from 12 states and Canada.

Closer to home, AJSS has received a grant from Jewish Federations of North America to begin Sandy clean-up work in Ventnor. Working with a diverse group of organizations, including local federations, Hooked on Ventnor, and the Atlantic County Long-Term Recovery Group, AJSS plans to bring synagogue and school groups to the city over long weekends and breaks during the school year, Convissor said. Her organization also will bring a group of 15- 18-year-olds to the area in early August.

For more information about AJSS synagogue and school trips, call Rafi Glazer at (301) 664-6400, email info@ajss.org, or go to the AJSS website, www.ajss.org.