Area mission dedicates Cambodian schools
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Area mission dedicates Cambodian schools

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Barnert Temple children who spent their winter break opening a school in Cambodia included, from left, Julia Louzides (Ridgewood), Emilie Louzides (Ridgewood), Siena Hasbrouck (Ridgewood), Ava Fiddle (Ridgewood), Alex Brover (Allendale), Annika Lane (Wyckoff), Ariane Hasbrouck (Ridgewood), Alexandra Gerstel (Ridgewood), and Dylan Gerstel (Ridgewood).

Jewish students don’t generally spend their winter breaks in Cambodia. Nor is it usual for members of local synagogues to haul supplies to Southeast Asia to dedicate rural schools.

But it does happen – and it happened here.

In February, led by Rabbi Joel Soffin, social action rabbi-in-residence at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, a 25-member delegation of students, parents, teachers, and other social activists traveled to Cambodia to open two schools in villages outside Phnom Penh.

“The people [in Cambodia] told us were a blessing,” said Soffin. “But they were a blessing to us. We gained at least as much.”

Planning for the trip began about a year and a half ago, said Soffin, who last January invited some 20 people to his home to meet with Bernard Krisher, chairman of American Assistance for Cambodia. The original plan, he said, was to dedicate a secondary school in Cambodia, funded by the rabbi’s Yad Soffin Foundation: Jewish Helping Hands. The group was established in 2006 to give need-based non-sectarian tzedakah.

The school, in the village of Vihear Khpos, was to be named for his late brother, Barry Soffin, who was a teacher in Buffalo, N.Y.

Before the meeting, Soffin and five others had visited Cambodia to determine whether building a school would, in fact, be the best way to help the youngsters there. The six – including his son Aaron, who chronicled the trip in a video – came back “revved up,” said Soffin.

The people at the meeting at his home were inspired as well. According to Soffin, two of the people there, who had children in the Ridgewood schools, said they would try to raise money for a second Cambodian school through the town’s school system. Working together, the groups earned enough money to finance the two schools, each of which will serve 500 students.

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Rabbi Soffin receives the dedication plaque for the school named for his late brother.

A third initiative was successful as well.

While in Cambodia, Soffin met a man named Sothea Arun, whose mission is to place orphans in foster homes, enabling them to attend school rather than having to work in the fields. To make this possible, Arun gives foster families $5 a month in “rice money” to cover the children’s food costs.

Soffin’s foundation is not only helping to defray this expense for 63 orphans but is contributing additional monies to pay for school-related items the children may need. As part of the February mission, large suitcases filled with clothing and food supplies were delivered to the orphanage.

“We gave Arun 10 suitcases, filled with 500 pounds of supplies,” said Soffin. “He started to cry.”

In all, Soffin’s delegation brought 17 suitcases to Cambodia, each filled with 50 pounds of clothing, toys, and school supplies.

“We collected 1,300 pounds of supplies,” said Soffin, noting that the group was able to bring 90 percent of what it collected.

The visitors were in Cambodia for eight days, he said, spending much of the time traveling but fitting in tours of Pnom Penh and Siem Reap.

According to Soffin, “the dedication ceremony was beautiful and impressive,” drawing not only the children who will attend the new schools but those in primary schools, together with parents and others from the village. After the ceremony, “there was an opportunity to have a good time,” added Soffin, with children from the mission distributing, and joining in, the games they had brought with them.

Soffin, who said he was particularly impressed by the hard work and dedication of the students who collected the needed supplies, singled out 13-year-old Allendale resident Alex Brover for special mention.

Alex, a seventh-grader at Brookside Middle School, first heard about the project when Soffin addressed his bar mitzvah class. The synagogue requires each youngster to choose an act of gemilut chasadim, loving kindness, said Alex, recalling that “the rabbi explained the Cambodia trip and I thought, ‘This is amazing.'”

Designated student liaison for the mission, Alex was given a list of items that needed to be gathered. His job was to tell student volunteers what, and how much, to collect. Materials were stored in an extra bedroom in Alex’s home.

In addition to school supplies, Alex collected games and toys that the American and Cambodian youngsters could play with together.

“We tried to think of things that didn’t involve language,” said Alex, pointing out that the group also brought along jump ropes, jacks, maracas, and kazoos.

“Each kid got a reusable shopping bag with a notebook, pencil, pen, sharpener, and toothbrush,” said Alex. “The bags never left their sides. You could see they were so happy.”

“It’s an inspiring experience when young people have a sense of mission,” said Soffin, who called the efforts of the youngsters “spectacular.”

Those who participated “stretched – they got taller,” he said. “They grew up in a spiritual way and have a new sense of confidence and capability.”

Barnert member and Ridgewood resident Linda Fiddle, who went to Cambodia with her daughter Ava, pointed out that of the 25 people who went on the trip, 20 were Barnert congregants.

Ava, a 15-year-old sophomore at Ridgewood High School, said she was very excited when she learned about the project.

“I like seeing new customs and helping others,” she said.

Her job was to collect yo-yo’s. She collected 100 from the Ridgewood middle schools and high school, and the Duncan Yo-Yo Company contributed another 100.

Ava noted that most of her fellow students had no idea about the living conditions of Cambodian youngsters.

“They didn’t know that they live in straw houses and have no electricity,” she said.

While she was sad to see those conditions firsthand, she said, the trip “made me appreciative of my own lifestyle.” Ava said she wants to “help more. I hope to go back to see how the school is doing.”

She is also sponsoring an orphan and will begin an e-mail correspondence, with the help of a translator.

According to Linda Fiddle, students Emilie and Julia Louizides and Siena and Ariane Hasbrouck held bake sales and designed and sold T-shirts and greeting cards, among other fund-raisers, as did many other students in Ridgewood schools, so that the Ridgewood School District could build a school in the village of Khsach.

In addition, she said, Alexandra and Dylan Gerstel brought soccer balls and art supplies to the school dedications and chronicled the event in a video. All four are Barnert members who attend Ridgewood schools. Also on the mission was 9-year-old Annika Lane, whose grandmother, Susan Lane, is a Barnert member from Wyckoff, as well as three representatives of the Ridgewood schools – Katie Kashmanian, principal of George Washington Middle School, Shauna Stovell, house administrator at Benjamin Franklin Middle School, and Mary Lou Handy, a teacher at GW.

For more information about Yad Soffin, visit www.jewishhelpinghands.org.

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