While the twice-yearly conventions of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth’s New Jersey Region traditionally include elements of social action, this year students will have a different kind of volunteer experience.
“In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we decided that instead of the usual Thursday night recreational activity at the [convention] hotel, we’ll give students the opportunity to make a real difference,” said Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, New Jersey director of the NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth group.
According to Glasser, the 300 or so students attending the Dec. 6-9 convention will not go straight to the hotel, based at the Hudson Valley Resort in upstate New York, but will travel instead to the Hoboken community center run by the city’s housing authority.
“There’s a large contingent of kids connected to that community center, many from the projects,” Glasser said. “Our kids will be running a carnival for their kids.”
To give the Hoboken youngsters a respite from the dislocation of the hurricane, the NCSY students are preparing a host of carnival-related activities for them. The youth organization also will offer a full kosher dinner to the 400 middle-schoolers expected to attend.
“I met with the head of the housing authority to discuss the menu,” Glasser said, joking that while it would have been less expensive to serve cheeseburgers, he’d explained to the Hoboken official why this was not possible.
NCSY students are already planning activities such as ring-toss, juggling, face-painting, knocking down cans, and balloon animal-making, said Glasser.
“It’s whatever the kids create, what they make of it,” he said, noting that the NCSY delegation will arrive Thursday afternoon to set things up. “The housing authority will construct a tent and we’ll design the booths around tables.”
After the carnival, NCSYers will be bused back to the convention hotel for a “debriefing – a multimedia presentation about what we did,” he said. On Friday morning, they will have an additional opportunity to do volunteer work in upstate New York and then will regroup for Shabbat.
Glasser said that although the youth group is sponsored by the Orthodox Union, it attracts high school students “from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, from completely unaffiliated to Orthodox. We’re trying to instill within Jewish teens of all affiliations a passion for Judaism and a motivation to further discover and cultivate their Jewish identity.”
“It’s different things for different kids,” he said, explaining that some may choose to focus on Israel, some on tikkun olam, and still others on Shabbat. “The commonality is in inspiring the next generation to want to perpetuate Jewish identity.”
Glassman said the New Jersey NCSYers are “extremely excited, extremely motivated” by the carnival project, which is being coordinated by regional associate director Rabbi Ethan Katz.
“It’s one thing to learn about the values of Judaism – caring for the world and being a light unto the nations,” he said. “It’s another thing to put them into action. [Students] usually have the opportunity to be educated and inspired. We rarely provide an opportunity for the kids to manifest those values by making a difference.”
The carnival project also fits in well with the convention theme, he said.
“The theme will be chesed, kindness, and responsibility,” Glassman said. Unlike volunteer experiences created specifically for the students, “this is real. They’re walking into a community where kids have been impacted in a major way.”
While NCSYers already have done volunteer work centering on the hurricane – for example, working with the Minnesota-based Nechama disaster relief group – Glassman said he was looking for a way to involve a large number of teens.
He noted that the Hoboken project “flows beautifully into the theme of Chanukah and the notion of putting a menorah outside and in the window. We want to illuminate the outside world with our value system.”
Glasser said the carnival project shows the versatility of informal education – “that it can adapt to changes in the environment and to what’s going on around us, that we can reshape the educational experience so that it resonates with the [teens].
“It’s what we should be doing,” he said. “It’s a proud moment for informal education.”