Izzy Wilson of Livingston decided to use her recent time off from school to help people.
An 11th grader at Livingston High, she traveled to Puerto Rico last month with other New Jersey high school students on an NCSY relief mission to help with the cleanup from Hurricane Fiona, which struck the area in September and caused significant damage.
NCSY — the National Council of Synagogue Youth -– is the Orthodox Union’s youth group.
“It was a very interesting experience,” Izzy said. “I never really did anything like this before, and it was great to be able to help people.”
Izzy’s group spent a day cleaning a home that had been flooded. “It was cool to share this experience with the other people in my group.” Cleaning together made the work more meaningful and helping others together resulted in group members really connecting to one another.
Ethan Ten-Ami of Ridgewood, a 10th grader at Ridgewood High School, also enjoyed the trip. He was part of a group that painted a house that had been damaged by the hurricane. “It was hard work but also a lot of fun,” he said. “The group of us doing the painting was lively and we had a great time talking to each other while we worked. And it was amazing to see how happy the people who lived in the house were when we finished the job.”
Fifteen teens went on the mission. The other participants came from Tenafly High School, East Brunswick High School, Bergen Academies, Glen Rock High School, and Fair Lawn High School.
The group spent the next day packing backpacks with new school supplies for students in need.
“I didn’t realize how many people are in need of these donated school supplies,” Izzy said. I’ve always been given them. It gave me a different perspective.”
Ethan found the packing meaningful too. “It was great knowing that the kids would get a bunch of new stuff that they need and would enjoy,” he said.
The teens also enjoyed a little time off. They went banana boating and kayaking and had a chance to see glow in the dark algae. “The boating was amazing, and it was a fun way for the participants to get to know each other,” Ethan said.
Izzy agreed that boating with the group was a lot of fun and described the glowing algae as “really cool.”
The group spent Shabbat mostly at the local Chabad. There were some prayer options -– a traditional service run by Chabad, an explanatory service run by the NCSY leaders, and a discussion group on prayer –- and lively Shabbat meals. The group also spent time together reflecting on the trip.
“Shabbat was a time when we all really bonded,” Izzy said. “It was a good group, and I enjoyed talking to everyone and connecting with everyone.”
Rabbi Reuven Lebovitz led the mission. He is the director of NCSY’s Jewish Student Union –- or JSU –- program in New Jersey. In that role, he oversees JSU clubs that meet in about 20 public schools throughout the state. The clubs give students an opportunity to meet other Jewish students, strengthen their Jewish identity, and learn about their heritage.
“It’s amazing that the teens chose to use their vacation time to help people,” Rabbi Lebovitz said.
NCSY started running relief missions in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, NCSY has sent more than 2,000 student volunteers to help in disaster-stricken areas. Rabbi Lebovitz has led about a dozen missions, usually those, like this one, that are comprised mainly of students who are involved in New Jersey JSU programs.
“Part of the reason we run these trips is to get teens out of their comfort zone and give them an opportunity to experience the world,” Rabbi Lebovitz said. “We can do this type of volunteer work in New Jersey, but the idea is to give them an opportunity to see other communities, to see how other people are living their lives, to understand what poverty is.
“We were at the home of a 90-year-old man whose house was flooded. We were helping him clean up and were considering throwing out a moldy shirt. But it became clear that he needed the shirt. He didn’t have a lot of clothing.
“These experiences tend to be very meaningful, often life-changing. The mission gives teens the experience of giving to other people but also helps them realize how fortunate they are.”
The missions also focus on creating Jewish community and strengthening Jewish identity. “The trip included multiple opportunities for bonding, and the Shabbat we spent together was an opportunity to really build the group,” Rabbi Lebovitz said. “We had discussions near the beach and talked about the experience. We also talked about Jewish values in general and the Jewish value of service –- of giving to other people, both Jews and non-Jews.”
“The trip was one of the highlights of my life,” Ethan said. “We had the chance to physically help people and to meet all these new friends. And Rabbi Reuven is a great guy. He’s fun to be around and he led some great discussions.”
The group has already had a reunion. They recently got together at the Bergen County Chanukah Toy Drive to help sort toys. “The reunion served to strengthen the bonds formed on the trip and also gave participants an opportunity to help locally,” Rabbi Lebovitz said.