High schoolers to help clean up New
By ANDY LEVY-AJZENKOPF
Ryan Bernknopf and Missy
Sometimes the fire of tikkun olam burns so strong, not even
a hurricane can blow it out.
And for 35 Toronto- and Ottawa-area high school students,
aged 14 to 18, and their youth leaders and chaperones, a
hurricane is exactly what they’re about to confront.
From March 11 to 14, members of the Toronto B’nai Brith
Youth Organization (BBYO) and United Synagogue Youth (USY)
will volunteer in the New Orleans area, helping with property
reclamation projects and restoring hope to people affected by
A joint initiative of the USY and BBYO, the volunteer
mission, titled “Rebuild Homes, Rebuild Lives,” will proceed
under the guidance of the Michigan-based, non-profit National
Relief Network (NRN), an organization dedicated to leading and
facilitating student volunteer efforts in American disaster
Ariel Greenbaum-Shinder, 24, regional director of youth
activities for USY, expects that the trip will be emotional
for everyone involved.
To prepare, two orientations for participants and their
parents were held to educate them about the history of
Katrina, to reassure parents that all precautions are being
taken to provide security to the students, and to “hammer
home” that this will not be a fun-and-games trip,
USY staff also created an information handbook for
participants to consult while in the Big Easy.
Its introductory remarks sound a note of caution for those
embarking on this tikkun olam journey.
“The things you will see in the days to come will be
difficult, to say the least. It is no easy task to see a
community that was once alive and thriving, now completely
destroyed, and with little life in it,” the booklet warns.
The USY handbook also lists the following sobering facts
about Katrina’s legacy in the state: the official death toll
in Louisiana is 976; missing persons number 2,500; and the
federally declared disaster area encompasses 90,000 square
According to Greenbaum-Shinder and Missy Korn, 24, program
director for BBYO, everyone is up to the challenge ahead of
They added that both their organizations are eager to meet
with their New Orleans chapters, which are still “getting back
on their feet” after the disaster.
Both Korn and Greenbaum-Shinder believe the Canadians will
come back with a renewed sense of chesed.
“It’ll be a life-changing experience for our kids,” Korn
Ryan Bernknopf, 23, program associate at BBYO, will be on
the trip and seconds Korn’s sentiment.
“I know it’s going to be something for our participants to
remember for years to come,” he told the CJN. “I expect it to
be really empowering. You see all this [coverage] on the news,
but that never really shows the whole thing.”
Scott Harding, NRN’s executive director, can’t overstate
the significance of such trips to the residents of Louisiana.
“It’s incredibly important,” he said. “We want to get the
word out… to all of Louisiana that help is still coming in.”
Harding estimates NRN has devoted close to 95 per cent of
its activities in the region since Katrina and notes there is
still much work to be done.
“One of the areas we are now focusing on is St. Bernard
Parish,” Harding said, referring the Louisiana equivalent to a
county. “The parish lost 26,000 homes. Every single house,
church, synagogue, hotel… you name it, everything went under
water within their county.”
Harding believes it will take another year of work before
his organization has done all it can in Louisiana.
Both the BBYO and USY have been fundraising to help offset
the costs to their travellers – currently $850 (US) for
BBYOers and $600 (US) for USYers.
While USY has done this mainly through its own internal
channels, BBYO found a unique way to help defray the costs for
Bernknopf has scheduled an event for April 14 in which BBYO
members hope to play the world’s longest indoor floor hockey
The current record stands at 24 consecutive hours, held by
a BBYO chapter in Edmonton.
Hopeful record breakers were issued a challenge to sell as
many chocolate bars as they could, with the winners earning a
spot on the floor hockey team.
All funds raised up to Feb. 23 went toward the New Orleans
trip. Funds raised afterward are being directed toward “Shoot
For A Cure,” a charity for spinal cord injuries.
Support from the community for these events “has been just
incredible,” Bernknopf said.
Any late donations received by the BBYO specifically for
the New Orleans trip will be used to further reduce
participants’ costs, Bernknopf added.
For details, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.