New Orleans has profound effect on Jewish
By ANDY LEVY-AJZENKOPF
|BBYO and USY participants in New Orleans. [USY
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
They left unsure of what they’d find; they returned
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,”
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
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
“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
“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
And the parents of participants have noticed a change in
their children as well.
Szereszewski’s mother, Sheri, said she was proud of her
“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
“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.