April 5, 2007
17 Nisan, 5767


New Orleans has profound effect on Jewish youth

Staff Reporter

BBYO and USY participants in New Orleans. [USY photo]

Gemilut chesed was in abundance from March 11 to 14.

That’s when 28 student members of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) and United Synagogue Youth (USY) and their group leaders helped rebuild homes destroyed by hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans.

The CJN reported on the trip before their departure on March 1.

They left unsure of what they’d find; they returned transformed.

Ariel Greenbaum-Shinder, 24, USY’s regional director of youth activities, called the trip one of “the most meaningful experiences of my life.”

She spent half a year planning the excursion for the Ontario teens from Ottawa, Hamilton, London and Toronto, and knows it was worth every moment.

“These students... understand that they must now educate their families, friends and communities at large about how much work is still to be done in New Orleans,” Greenbaum-Shinder said.

Three days of intense manual labour, working in abandoned houses among mementos of families who they will never meet and absorbing the devastation of New Orleans has left an indelible impression upon all who were there.

Last week, five of the participants eagerly shared their experiences with The CJN in a group interview at USY’s offices in Toronto.

Julie Zucker, 18, said she felt fortunate to have met one of the families and see how grateful they were to her for coming down to help and now realizes that her peers need to “make time in their lives to help others. We can do this.”

Samantha Friedman, 17, recalled her group’s chance meeting with a local named Darrell Clark, a homeless man down on his luck, who dispensed his own brand of wisdom and praise on the USYers.

“He wasn’t even a person whose home we were working on,” Friedman said. “He walked right up to us, he was drunk, but I’ll never forget him.”

At this, all the USYers present nodded their heads in unison and the story thread was seamlessly taken up by another.

“He told us we gave him hope to keep him sane and that he was so grateful people still cared,” Rachel Szereszewski, 15, said. “And he said one line that was so simple, ‘It don’t cost nuthin’ to be nice.’”

The phrase has since become the USYers’ unofficial motto.

André Ivory and Lior Cyngiser, 27 and 28 respectively, two of the group leaders, were also deeply affected by the trip.

“I think a lot of the kids underestimated their abilities morally and physically [before the trip began],” Cyngiser said. “But at the end of the day they could say, ‘I made a difference in someone’s life.’”

Ivory said he’s since spent a lot of time thinking about how it’s no longer enough for him to “sit back and watch the news [dispassionately]. I started practising what I talk about. You have to affect change.”

Students and group leaders alike all said this trip was a wake-up call for them and forced them to look at the world through a different lens.

Upon her return, Friedman was determined to continue with community service and enlisted with Habitat for Humanity to help build homes along Toronto’s lakeshore.

“The first thing I did when I got home was appreciate everything I have,” Szereszewski said. “I just kept telling people I love them.”

“I’ve come back appreciating my life,” Cyngiser added. “[New Orleans] was like an archeological dig... it’s still deserted.”

And the parents of participants have noticed a change in their children as well.

Szereszewski’s mother, Sheri, said she was proud of her daughter.

“I know that, going forward, none of the participants will ever look at the world in the same way,” she said. “They’ll be advocates for change and improvement. As a parent, I couldn’t imagine a better thing.”

The USYers said they are now sometimes frustrated by friends who tend to “blank out” when they recall their experiences from New Orleans, but they understand that the only way to truly “get it” is to do it.

With that in mind, the students hope to impress this newfound maturity and wisdom on their peers as regards the importance of tikkun olam and tzedakah.

“Indifference gets you nowhere. [Stop] standing on the sidelines and be proactive,” Cyngiser said

Friedman echoed that sentiment.

“No matter what it costs you, if you care about it, then do it,” she said.

In closing out the interview, Ivory recalled the new USY mantra.

“Darrell summed it up for me, it don’t cost nuthin’ to be nice,” Ivory said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s so simple, it’s ridiculous, yet we forget about it.”

The students are now working on a presentation combining their photos, videos and diaries from the trip, to be shown at a USY fundraiser with part of the proceeds being funnelled back to New Orleans relief efforts.

USY plans to host another trip to New Orleans next year.