Emily Hecht, a ninth-grader from Westfield, said her plans for the winter break were not to party and just hang out with friends; they were, instead, “to make a change in a person’s life, make a difference in the community, and inspire others to do the same.”
Emily fulfilled those plans as one of the 100 Jewish high school students from all over the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico — including 26 from New Jersey — who spent their winter vacation on Young Judaea’s “Alternative Winter Break.” From Dec. 22 to 27, they volunteered on rebuilding and community development projects in distressed areas of Los Angeles, where Emily went, and New Orleans.
Established following Hurricane Katrina, the AWB program aims to develop in its participants a sense of community, provide a close-up look at the hardships suffered by people in disadvantaged areas, and give the teens an opportunity to become social justice activists by fulfilling the Jewish mitzva of tikun olam.
In New Orleans, the teen volunteers renovated homes and worked with local youth and other residents in the hard-hit Ninth Ward, where they learned about post-Katrina rebuilding efforts and issues affecting the Gulf Coast region today. At holiday parties organized at a local church, the Young Judaeans took part in activities to further the congregants’ understanding of Judaism and the Jewish people.
The Los Angeles group tackled issues around poverty by volunteering at shelters and food banks, including the LA Regional Foodbank, Midnight Mission, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), and the Jewish Big Brothers and Sisters of LA.
Also part of the LA team was sophomore Rayna Landa of Springfield, who, as a Tel Yehudah camper, was glad to help out cleaning the grounds of a summer camp for needy children. “I have a deep love for summer camp and was so glad I could help bring this priceless experience to others less fortunate,” she said. “Young Judea has taught me the value of healing the world, and I was so glad I could play my part in a larger effort for change, for happiness, and for peace.”
AWB participant Rachel Powell, a ninth-grader also from Springfield, said she appreciated the opportunity to “jump outside my comfort zone and help those in need. I feel that, as a Jew, it is my responsibility to give back to people who need me.”
Andrew Fretwell, Young Judaea’s AWB program manager, admired the teens for “rolling up their sleeves with hands-on service projects in a new environment. This was an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
“By living and working in communities where the effects of their efforts can be felt,” he said, “these teens learned firsthand about the issues affecting those who live in recovering and struggling areas. AWB ensures that participants develop a sense of building community, get the chance to further explore their Jewish identity, and ultimately go home more committed and better equipped to offer service where it is most needed.”