September 22, 2023
September 22, 2023

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A Lesson in Gratitude

Ma’ayanot Students Return From New Orleans Trip Empowered and Inspired

As I’ve shared many times before, some students are best able to access their untapped potential by leaving their comfort zone and traveling far away from anything familiar. Those feelings were confirmed in New Orleans last week, as I had the privilege of once again chaperoning the NCSY/Ma’ayanot Leadership Mission to New Orleans. This year’s mission was the sixth such partnership between Ma’ayanot and New Jersey NCSY and our fourth trip to New Orleans. Each trip is special, and this one was no exception.

“The Mission,” as it is called in school, included 21 Ma’ayanot sophomores and juniors who were joined by seven female public high school students from Bergen County. Ma’ayanot students that participated in the mission include: Shalhevet Abenaim ‘18, Rebecca Borck ‘17, Hannah Buhasira ‘18, Mashi Cohen ‘17, Miri Cohen ‘18, Shoshana Dimbert ‘17, Gabi Dube ‘17, Miriam Hendler ‘17, Rafi Kapitanker ‘18, Dafna Levine ‘18, Rachel Levine ‘18, Rebecca Malech ‘18, Atara Neugroschl ‘18, Meira Prager ‘18, Nava Rosenblatt ‘18, Adina Rosenberg ‘16, Mira Simantov ‘17, Eliana Wagner ‘18, Temima Yellin ‘18, Eliana Zachter ‘17 and Eliana Zelig ‘18. In addition, one of the NCSY chaperones was Ma’ayanot alumna Chani Dubin ‘13.

The aim of the Mission is help students gain leadership experience by creating meaningful opportunities for them to interact with, teach, work with, learn about and dialogue with members of the general and Jewish population in a different community.

A highlight of the trip, and by far the most unique experience our students receive, is when they volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Last week our students traded in their pencils for power tools and they worked side by side with several local volunteers to help build a house. One of the locals arrived at the work site directly after finishing her night shift at a convenience store, and she told us that she did this several times a week. Seeing these women work, and listening to their stories of hardship and faith, tremendously impacted all of us. Had we encountered them in any other setting, I don’t think most of us would have engaged these women in conversation. But there we were, breaking bread with them, affixing plywood in pairs, sweeping the floor and sharing about our lives.

The majority of the NCSYers on the mission were public school students who live literally minutes away from our students. A few of them even live on the same block as students in our school, though I doubt they have ever spoken. But these “strangers” quickly became friends. They shared hotel rooms, sat next to each other on long car rides and cried with one another when we stood in silence at the graves of the more than three thousand sefarim and seven sifrei Torah that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and are buried in the Jewish cemetery. These seven students, like our co-workers on the construction site, reminded us that a stranger is (pardon the cliché) just a friend we haven’t yet met.

Our trip to New Orleans also gave our students an appreciation for what they have in their lives. We toured the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, a depressed and impoverished part of the city that is still not fully rebuilt more than ten years after the storm. On Friday afternoon, after volunteering with Green Light New Orleans—an organization that helps educate homeowners about energy conservation—one of our students called her parents and through her tears thanked them for providing her with such a comfortable upbringing. Such security, she learned after visiting a particularly dilapidated home, was not something all children grow up with. Nothing can compare to the joy I had watching our students take on the role of teacher for the day when we visited the Jewish Community Day School of New Orleans. The Ma’ayanot students brought Judaism to life for children that rarely meet bright and inspired Jewish teenagers.

These experiences, and the numerous others that our students had, are a result of an enormous amount of planning. We are particularly grateful to Rabbi Ethan Katz, Regional Director of NJ NCSY, and his dedicated staff for laying all of the groundwork for this trip and making it all possible. We as a Jewish community should take pride in NCSY and the investment they have made in rebuilding New Orleans post-Katrina. To date, NCSY, under the leadership of Rabbi Katz, is the second largest provider of volunteers to Habitat New Orleans, in the country!

Our students are capable of so much. Sometimes they just have to be reminded how incredible they are. At our closing program, one of the public school students broke into tears when she spoke of how inspired she was by her new Ma’ayanot friends. She confessed that she never realized how fulfilling religious life and Shabbat could be until she met our students.

This trip raised the bar for the Ma’ayanot students. The expectation is that they have returned to Ma’ayanot ready to lead and with renewed vision. We won’t have to wait long: a Ma’ayanot student told me that she already invited a public school student she met on the Mission for Shabbat lunch. And so it begins…

By Rabbi Zev Prince, Ma’ayanot Talmud and Halakha Faculty; Director of Religious Guidance and Torah Programming

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