Twenty-eight local high school students recently Teen Mission 2 New Orleans, a humanitarian “mitzvah” project organized by the Teen Department at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. The effort, which took place over a 3-day weekend in January, brought together a committed group of local students, who wanted to visit New Orleans to help make a difference in the lives of so many who are still struggling with the day-to-day devastation of Hurricane Katrina that hit their homes five long years ago.

“Jewish Law requires us to give 10% of our income to charity each year, but sometimes giving money is not enough to make a change in the world,” says JCC Youth Services Director Judy Nahary. “Lending a hand, working with peers, seeing firsthand the needs out there is what makes us compassionate people. It is what inspires us to continue to help those in need, which is what we wanted to communicate to these teens, as it is an important message that needs to be passed on from one generation to the next.”

The trip was a non-stop learning experience. They met at the airport at 4:00 am, and the moment their flight landed, they went directly to New Orleans’ 9th ward, where they witnessed the devastation first-hand and spoke with people who lost nearly everything but their lives. Later the same day, they visited a charter school, Science Academy, built by a generous grant from Ophrah Winfrey, where they toured the classrooms and spent hours organizing textbooks and classroom closets. That night, they met with Klene Up Krewe, volunteers from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, who were on their eighth mission to the city and joining the teens to work with them on the St. Bernard Project, a non-profit based in Louisiana that helps rebuild damaged houses for its residents.

Several parents of the participating teens came with the Krewe to share in parts of the mission with their children, and bright and early the next morning, off they all went to the St. Bernard Project, rolled up their sleeves, and under the supervision of construction experts supplied by Americorp, they began to spackle, install insulation, and mount drywall in four homes requiring urgent repair.

“The kids spackled and hammered from 8:30 am to 4:00, and when they were done, they didn’t want to leave,” said Sara. “However, every time a house restoration is complete, the Project holds a ‘welcome home party’ and the teens and 75 locals from the neighborhood had the chance to attend a festive celebration for Mona Lisa, a social worker for the Project, whose home was restored during their stay.”

Other highlights of the trip included a “ghost tour” in the French Quarter, a stop at the Garden District, and a tour of Tulane University, where they met with admission personnel, got a first-hand glimpse of the campus life, and visited its new Hillel building ““ the Goldie and Morris Mintz Center for Jewish Life.

The real highlight of the trip, however, was the nightly discussions the teens and counselors held on the topic of short-term missions.

“According to a recent article in the American World Jewish Service, it is commonly believed that missions of this type really benefit the people who come more than the people they are looking to help,” says Sara Lewis. “Often, the expense of the trip can cost several thousand per person, money that could build schools, hire teachers and provide medical care for so many in need. In addition, many students who make these trips return home and speak more about what they saw and how lucky they are not to live in such poverty, as opposed to what they accomplished or what they learned about the causes of poverty and how to best effectuate a change.

“These nightly discussions were as exciting as the work we did,” Lewis continued. “We asked each other important questions like: Could the money be better spent in other ways? Did we make the trip to feel good about ourselves or to really make a difference? And we came up with amazing answers, like the one expressed by Jordan Meisel.”

“Even if we only made a small dent in the enormous work that needs to be done in New Orleans, I feel we made a difference,” said Jordan. “We not only worked hard to do what we could in a small amount of time, we really made an effort to learn and appreciate the unique kinds of problems these people are facing and real ways we can help them. The learning was as important as the doing, and now that I am home, I really want to share what I’ve learned with friends and find ways to do more. So, I guess I’ve come away feeling like this is the beginning of something important, not the end.”

For more information on teen programs at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, call Sara Lewis at 201.408.1469 or email: slewis@jccotp.org; or visit the JCC website: www.jccotp.org