Over the last 12 years, the New Jersey division of NCSY — the Orthodox Union’s youth movement — has taken nearly 60 groups of teenagers on volunteer missions to cities in need, such as New Orleans, to work side by side with organizations including Habitat for Humanity, South East Recovery, Hike For Katrina, Nechama, and Green Light.
Gershon and Aviva Distenfeld of Bergenfield recently made a major donation toward the annual budget for these social-justice leadership-training missions, because, they said, they believe them to be a significant aspect of Jewish education.
“Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to go on multiple NJ NCSY missions, with both day-school and public-school teens, and have seen firsthand the impact these trips have on our children,” Gershon Distenfeld, a senior vice president at AllianceBernstein, said.
Participants for the trips are recruited from public schools across the state, as well as from schools including the Jewish Education Center in Elizabeth, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, the Frisch School in Paramus, and the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies in Ridgewood.
The Distenfelds dedicated their donation in memory of Mr. Distenfeld’s parents, Fred and Rose Distenfeld.
“My parents instilled in me a desire to do good for others, and there are many ways you can do that,” Mr. Distenfeld said. “I’ve been blessed to have the financial resources to do good, but my wife and I were particularly interested in projects where Jews can get their hands dirty to help make the world a better place.”
Ms. Distenfeld said that although she never knew her mother-in-law, “my father in-law, Fred, was a man of kindness, always helping people without fanfare or attribution. Gershon and I are honored to be able to name this important program after them and to continue the legacy they taught us.”
A member of Bergenfield’s Congregation Beth Abraham, Mr. Distenfeld said he feels that his fellow modern Orthodox Jews are becoming more insular and not doing enough acts of kindness (chesed, in Hebrew) in the outside world. He finds this perceived trend disturbing, given the Torah’s often-repeated emphasis on helping the downtrodden.
“These missions provide a unique learning opportunity outside of the classroom, where teens learn from the same Jewish values that my parents instilled in me growing up of what it means to live your life as a proud Jew, helping others in times of need and being a light unto the nations,” he said.
“It’s about not just learning how to be a Jew but actually being a Jew.”
The 2018 schedule began in February with a JEC Houston mission, a BCHSJS New Orleans mission, a Ma’ayanot and public school New Orleans Mission, and a Metro West Nashville Mission.
Participants from Frisch will go to Charleston in March and Puerto Rico in May, while Ma’ayanot students will go to New Orleans March 21-25. Two additional New Jersey NCSY Puerto Rico missions are planned for June and August.
Mr. Distenfeld, 42, generally accompanies one mission every year. Last September, his 16-year-old daughter, Shoshana, went on her first mission, to Houston. The other Distenfeld children are 13, 10, and 2, “and I hope when they are old enough they will participate as an integral part of their education,” he said. “Kids often tell us these missions are the most meaningful experience they have in their high school years.”
One participant, Shira Rosenblum of Passaic, was part of the group that worked with Green Light New Orleans, which installs free energy-efficient light bulbs, rain barrels and backyard vegetable gardens for local residents. She reported that the mission “really gave me an appreciation for the small things I have in life that are usually taken for granted. Changing light bulbs with Green Light opened my eyes to the destitute lives of, unfortunately, many Americans.
“Seeing their homes made me so grateful for the home and life I was given, and has strengthened my drive even more to help others in need.”
Shaina Levin of Teaneck wrote that the New Orleans mission “taught me that everyone has a purpose; even I have a purpose,” and that she had learned to appreciate her role as a member of the Jewish people.
Mr. Distenfeld points out that in many cases the people receiving assistance from the New Jersey teens had never met Jews before. And he emphasizes that the benefits flow in both directions.
“The kids who go out lifting floorboards after a storm, or rebuilding homes, are doing a big chesed, but often it’s the kids themselves who are most impacted by what they have accomplished,” he said. “We want to continue to ensure that as many kids as possible can participate.
“In my day job I’m focused on investment returns and I’m also focused on the return of my charity dollars,” he added. “The payback on this is hard to quantify — but it’s tremendous.”