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Teens take part in USY service trip to Dominican Republic
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Teens take part in USY service trip to Dominican Republic

‘Life-changing’ trip includes visit to small Jewish community

Alina Keller gives a piggyback ride to a Dominican child. Photos courtesy Alina Keller
Alina Keller gives a piggyback ride to a Dominican child. Photos courtesy Alina Keller

Alina Keller of Highlands has never forgotten how others rallied to help her family when their home was destroyed in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.

Naomi Sessler’s appreciation of how fortunate she is to live a comfortable life in Edison motivated her to help others who are less fortunate.

They and other like-minded teens were part of a program sponsoring an annual 10-day teen trip to the Dominican Republic to help local children in schools, conduct art and building projects, and interact with the small Jewish community in Sosua. The summer program is a partnership of the DREAM Project, a Vermont-based nonprofit that operates educational programs in 27 Dominican communities, and the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth (USY).

The trip, which ran this year from July 22 to Aug. 2, provided 19 teens from across the United States with many unforgettable experiences, said Alina and Naomi — the only ones from New Jersey— and reinforced their appreciation of the little things in life.

For Alina, 17, a senior at Henry Hudson Regional High School in Highlands, the trip was “a way to give back.”

“I thought about how after Hurricane Sandy so many people helped us, and I wanted to help other people,” said the daughter of Amy and Scott Keller. “We were out of our home for about four years and had to go to multiple different houses.”

Naomi, 15, a sophomore at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, is the daughter of Marc and Lynn Kestin Sessler.

Alina Keller helps a student at a Dominican school during the USY community service trip to the island nation.

Both teens sit on the boards of their USY chapters, Alina at Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson, and Naomi at Neve Shalom in Metuchen, and both serve as volunteer assistants in their respective synagogues’ religious schools.

Naomi said she joined the program because she was curious to see how others live in a different country and wanted to lend a helping hand. 

In Cabarete, on the Dominican Republic’s northern coast, the teens took part in a number of tasks, including teaching children English, guiding them in art projects, building a swing set, and beautifying the area with a new garden.

In addition to morning community service projects, the participants toured in the afternoon, sightseeing and learning about the area, said Michelle Rich, USY’s national director of teen travel and programs.

“The teens do 35-40 hours of community service in the 10 days they’re down there, and that’s the real gist of this program,” said Rich. The USY teens also use the trip as an opportunity to work with the small Jewish community in Sosua, where 854 Jews who fled the Holocaust were allowed to settle; most of those who found refuge there immigrated to the United States after the war.

The teens conducted Friday night Shabbat services at the Sosua Synagogue and Museum and met with community members.

Alina Keller, left, and Naomi Sessler at a bonfire on a Dominican beach.

“We met with the first person born there after the Holocaust,” said Alina. “We spent time with her on Shabbat and then went to the Jewish cemetery and helped clean it.”

Naomi said she was impressed when the woman, whom she knew only as Edith, told the visitors that being the first Jew born to the community “defined her.” Edith also told the teens about her role in a conference in Paris about the Holocaust and its aftermath.

However, it was the teens’ time at the Dominican school that proved to be most memorable for them.

“The teachers, students, and staff were incredibly nice and accepting of us,” said Alina. “We weren’t completely fluent in Spanish, and yet they found a way to communicate with us. They were very patient and there really wasn’t a language barrier.”

“The kids were so excited we were there to help that they brought us food from home,” continued Alina. “When we left they chased the bus and didn’t want us to leave.”

Naomi said one of her most vivid experiences was having the youngsters run up to the group as they got off the bus and grab their hands. They were so grateful for the swing set the teens built them, she said, that one little girl gave her a homemade bracelet that she now treasures.

“I learned how fortunate I am to have all the things I have,” she added. “I learned to be grateful and not take things for granted. They were so happy and lived life to the fullest. I learned so much from them about how to do that. It changed my life because now it is a part of me.”

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