On Jan. ”, in lieu of winter break, 14 girls from area high schools set out for a five-day trip to the Gulf Coast to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. They knew the outlines of their mission, but they didn’t know each other nor the tremendous effect the trip would have on their lives.
"They met with a social worker the night before," said Adir Posy, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, who, together with his wife, Dr. Hindi Posy, planned and led the trip. The Posys are one of two couples retained by the Englewood-based Community Jewish Enhancement Program, housed at Cong. Ahavath Torah.
"The girls were a bit awkward with each other at first," he said, "but by the end of the trip, they were a tight group of friends."
Besides making new friends, the girls were inspired by the people they met and appreciated the opportunity they had to spend their winter break helping to rebuild the affected communities.
Seventeen-year-old Aleza Yaros, a Teaneck resident and junior at Ma’ayanot High School, said that while she knew they were going there to do some work, she was surprised to see "how much they really needed our help and how much we were able to contribute."
Adir Posy credits the girls with exerting "two kinds of impact" on the communities they visited. "They had a practical, physical impact, cleaning up day schools and synagogues, cooking and delivering meals. But they also brought a message of hope."
Among other activities, the girls "helped a friend in need," according to Hindi Posy, who said the group deviated from its written schedule to help a member of Cong. Beth Israel in New Orleans clean "the ruins" of her home and gather her salvageable items.
She added, "As a team, we soaped and scrubbed, bleached and cleaned, to sanitize these important items and make them useable and transportable."
The girls met with Jews of all ages who described the destruction from their own perspective including a man who not only lost his restaurant to the hurricane but whose house was subsequently ransacked by looters. Aleza says she was very moved by the experience of helping this man salvage his family’s few remaining belongings.
"We found things he thought had been destroyed," she said. "He was so overjoyed that he was practically in tears. He told us we should never take anything for granted. We should treasure every blessing we have."
In Biloxi, Miss., the team spent hours at the city’s Orthodox congregation clearing debris and packing siddurim and other books that survived the flooding. At Cong. Beth Israel in New Orleans only a block or so away from the 17th St. levee break the group saw what was left of the synagogue, which had been submerged under nearly 10 feet of water and had lost seven Torah scrolls to the flooding.
Said Hindi Posy, the group saw "over 3,000 religious books covered with mold, the bimah water-logged and buckled, the pews swollen and unusable, and all of the administrative documents and records washed away by the flood waters . A 100-year-old shul crushed, reduced to a few remaining memorial plaques."
The girls also helped out at the Torah Academy, the local Jewish day school in Metairie, La., which now has less than half the number of students who attended before Katrina. Group members cleaned, shopped, and helped restore the school’s kitchen.
According to Adir Posy, the idea for the trip took shape at his dinner table. "We were discussing the fact that many kids didn’t have vacation plans and [also] that people tend to forget the news, even though people are still in need."
The couple formalized the idea and presented it to the CJEP, Yeshiva University, and UJA of Northern New Jersey. All three groups "responded enthusiastically" and provided the necessary funding and resources.
"The leaders of UJA-NNJ made themselves available at all times," said Posy. "I’ve developed a new appreciation for Jewish communal service."
After circulating a flier in local Jewish high schools, the Posys selected 14 girls to participate. "We originally envisioned 10, but we went with 14. We still had a huge waiting list," he said.
"We contacted agencies in New Orleans, and they told us that most of the volunteers were working [on things] like cleaning mold. We went with a different vision," he said, noting that clearly there was also a need for tasks such as meal delivery and visiting the sick and the elderly. "We wanted to convey a feeling of hope and concern from the people of New Jersey," he said.
Their success is evident from the numerous e-mails they received after the trip. Roselle M. Ungar, assistant executive director of the federation, wrote the couple, "It is always a pleasure to meet young people who care about others . Thanks for bringing so many smiling faces to my city."