It has been 16 years to the day from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Ida. What has happened in 16 years? Here’s what I know.
As I walked into the world-famous Café Du Monde, the staff that I know so well said, “Thank you for your service. Thank you for coming back time and time again. We love your crew. We need your crew.” What a sense of accomplishment, and what a kiddush Hashem.
Reflecting back on the past 16 Years since NCSY and the OU started sending teens on relief missions, there is so much to be proud of. We have sent close to 150 groups, totaling over 2,000 teens and clocking in at over 50,000 volunteer hours.
We have become known across the United States as second responders. I often get the call: “Can we count on you” or “Are you ready to come down? We need your help.”
These 2,000 teens have demonstrated our Jewish values in over 20 locations across the continental United States and Puerto Rico. They have torn down homes in the aftermath of a hurricane, and then come back to build up new homes. Our teens have combated food insecurity by planting trees and vegetable gardens. They have worked on energy conservation programs and handed out toys and stuffed animals to kids who have lost everything. Our teens have brought quality programming to schools and communities that have suffered, culminating in our recent reopening of a school in Puerto Rico.
These teens have sanctified the name of God and improved the image of Jews across the country. On countless occasions I have heard from people in hotels: “Where do you get such quality teens from?” We have interacted with people who never met Jews before and changed their impression forever. Our communities are creating systemic change.
All of these are reasons to celebrate the past 16 years.
Despite all the great work that has been done and is yet to be accomplished, there is one greater accomplishment—the teens themselves. Coming from all walks of life, and all different Jewish backgrounds, they experience the hands on the work of L’Taken Olam BeMalchut Shakai.
These teens have had the best type of experiential learning, growing as Jews and as human beings. On our missions they have studied why it is that we go out specifically as Jews to help across the country, why is it that Israel is a No. 1 country in disaster response, and what it means to be an ambassador of the Jewish people. These teens have also become much better educated voters by seeing and understanding poverty firsthand. Many of our teens have described these missions as the most impactful Jewish experience of their lives! Many of our earliest participants have become advisers and full time staff and now lead missions on their own.
As I sit now in New Orleans planning over 40 missions for the coming year, with over 700 participants with a waitlist from multiple schools and hundreds of students, we look forward to growing the program and reaching 1,000 participants a year. Ultimately, in the future, perhaps at a conference of heads of school and shul presidents the common denominator is they would have all been on one of the NCSY relief missions. That is our goal.
These teens are demonstrating our values and are strengthening their Judaism. With that in mind, I could work for another 16 years.
Rabbi Ethan Katz is the national director of NCSY Relief Missions.