Rwanda is not New Orleans after Katrina.
It is not Houston after Harvey or Long Island after Sandy.
In those American cities, like others that suffered natural disasters over the past 17 years, thousands of teen volunteers, members of the Orthodox Union’s NCSY youth movement, went to help rebuild what had been destroyed.
Rwanda is different. Not only for the obvious reason that it’s not in North America. In Rwanda, over the space of 100 days in 1994, Hutu militias attacked and massacred about 800,000 people, most of them from a minority ethnic group, the Tutsis.
The genocide created many orphans. This tragic situation spurred the creation of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Colline Nawe, 37 miles from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, in 2008. The village, called ASYV, is modeled after Yemin Orde, an Israeli youth village established in 1953 to care for orphans of the Holocaust.
Grouped according to grade level, orphaned teens at ASYV live as families in homes managed by “mamas,” many of whom also lost immediate family members in the genocide.
Rabbi Ethan Katz of Bergenfield brought six young adults to ASYV for a week in June to lead art, music, and sports activities.
Over the last 17 years, as director of NCSY Relief Missions, Rabbi Katz led about 225 relief missions to some 20 American and European regions. The program was rebranded this year as OU Relief Missions to broaden the scope beyond teenagers.
Rabbi Katz said this was the first OU Relief Missions trip for college students and recent graduates, and the definition of “service mission” changed slightly for this trip.
“While in Houston, Kentucky, and New Orleans the service was building; in Rwanda the service is talking to the orphans, showing them that these American Jewish youth care,” he said. In Rwanda, the work went beyond the physical to the personal, maybe even the spiritual.
While ASYV residents today were born after the genocide, they all are affected by the societal trauma and intergenerational ramifications of the massacre, Rabbi Katz noted.
“We can’t fix mistakes of the past, when the world didn’t come to their aid,” he said. “Our purpose was just to be there, to make the Rwandan teens feel valued and heard, to support them and to show them that we care about them.
“Agahozo Shalom strikes close to home because it’s modeled after Yemin Orde, and there are a lot of comparisons between our histories,” Rabbi Katz continued.
“The youth village is all about systematic change and creating a better future for Rwanda, which really taps into our value system as Jews. We feel that it’s important to use our experience as the post-Holocaust generation to help them post-genocide. Five years from now, these teens are not going to remember any of our names. But they will definitely remember how we made them feel.”
Sydney Beberman of Highland Park, 21, a psychology student at Stern College of Yeshiva University, viewed the mission as a chance to support underprivileged teens who are not much younger than she is.
“Only 29 years ago, there was a genocide in Rwanda and the world did not show that they cared,” Ms. Beberman said. “I took this opportunity to show these teens that I care about them, I’m excited to see what their future looks like, and that I value them and everything that they’ve been through.”
Frayda Glucksman, the director of operations for OU Relief Missions, joined Ms. Beberman and participants from Dallas, Denver, Long Island, and Philadelphia.
“There are a lot of places on our list where we’d like to go, including Nepal and Mumbai,” Ms. Glucksman said. “For our first African trip, Rwanda had the best infrastructure, so it was a good place to start.”
Ms. Glucksman, who lives in Washington Heights but comes from Clifton, said the most meaningful moment for her was “meeting with five of the mamas, women who lost husbands and children in the genocide and now are caring for other people’s children.”
She was deeply impressed by what she called “the Rwandan openness and friendliness.
“They really accept you into their family,” she said. “They are very into handshaking and hugging. They want to get to know you, to make you feel so loved in the first two minutes. This experience made me want to be a more accepting and loving person to people from other cultures.”
The participants — each of whom paid $1,000 plus airfare — slept in the village’s guest house, in which the kitchen had been koshered. Their Shabbat meals were catered by Chabad Lubavitch of Rwanda.
They sat with the teens to chat with them at mealtimes, even though they weren’t eating with them. They cheered on the Rwandan teens at a village-wide talent show, and participated in family time each evening, as the residents met with their mamas to pray, play games, and share the highs and lows of their day.
Ms. Beberman said that the bonding during family time was especially memorable.
“A group of 10th-grade girls invited us into their home, introduced themselves, asked us questions, and played a game with us that involved singing, dancing and lots of laughing,” she recalled. “It was so fun to be able to join the teens at a time that they clearly loved, and their warm welcome meant so much to me.”
Ms. Beberman said the greatest lesson she came away with is “how to properly treat people and the power of staying resilient. The culture in Rwanda is to greet everyone with a big smile or handshake, regardless of whether you know them or not, and they treat everyone with the utmost respect. I think this is a lesson that should be carried out throughout the world.
“It was also so inspirational to see how resilient these teens are, knowing what they have gone through. Yet they have such high ambitions and are taking advantage of all the amazing things ASYV has to offer.”
The mission included visits to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which also devotes space to the Holocaust; the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, which empowers women by teaching them trades; and the Hotel des Mille Collines, where more than 1,000 Rwandans sought refuge during the massacre, and which inspired the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
The group also went on a guided safari in Akagera National Park, and Rabbi Katz led classes on such topics as the similarity between halacha — Jewish law — and Rwanda’s cultural norms.
Speaking from Romania in early July, where he was leading 14 post-high school Israelis of American origin in aiding orphaned Ukrainian refugees, Rabbi Katz noted that the Rwandan teenagers “have a strong connection to Israel, Jewish history, and Jewish culture. They know that Jews come and help them. Every graduating class designs a huge poster featuring their personal heroes, which is displayed at the sports field. Each poster features about 15 heroes, including people like Chana Senesh, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.”
Ms. Glucksman said that everyone there knows some Hebrew words and has learned the Jewish value of trying to make the world a better place, one person at a time.
“The biggest takeaway was a feeling of purpose,” she said. “It’s incredibly important for the Orthodox community to show Rwandan kids they can make a difference.”