If you asked community members to name the areas in which NCSY is a national leader, it’s likely that many would comment on the group’s celebrated decades-long work in holding engaging youth activities, or their broad array of summer youth trips to Israel, which sends more teens to Israel annually than any other trip provider.
You might be surprised to learn that in recent years, NCSY has also become one of the most prominent providers in the Jewish community of service missions for teens to areas affected by natural disasters. NCSY’s missions have become so well regarded that, as Rabbi Ethan Katz tells The Jewish Link, they now regularly have to limit the number of people participating in these missions.
Katz is the director of the Relief Missions office of NCSY, established four years ago but built on the relief missions conducted by NCSY over 16 years. The Relief Missions office now runs 45 to 50 missions each year for teens around the country. This office sends teens to affected areas that need assistance in rebuilding, such as Puerto Rico, New Orleans, the Carolinas, Kentucky and others. The Relief Missions office engages 800 to 1,000 teens each year.
Katz said that the relief missions appeal equally to teens in yeshivot and in public schools. Asked to explain the popularly of the missions, he shared that teens are often searching for a sense of purpose in life and on these trips, they feel a strong sense of service and purpose. He often explains to teens that “volunteering is a part of Jewish DNA,” and he marvels at how the teens devote themselves to the work of the relief missions, despite (or perhaps because of) the physical labor involved.
Earlier this week, the Relief Mission office dispatched a new mission to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the 16 participating teens from New Jersey will work with local residents to continue to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria five years ago. The teens will help by rebuilding homes, giving out school supplies and other tasks.
This mission is unique in that it is co-sponsored by both Urban Edge, a New Jersey-based real estate and investment firm, the department of education in Puerto Rico and other partners.
“As a part of our company’s environmental social governance strategy, I was thinking about a way we could marry Urban Edge’s two primary backyards, the New York City metro area and Puerto Rico, together and greatly impact members of both communities simultaneously,” said Etan Bluman, SVP, finance & investor relations for Urban Edge. “Having known Rabbi Ethan Katz for the past 15 years and having observed the incredible work NCSY Relief Missions has done since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, it dawned on me that we could create something very unique and special.”
Urban Edge Properties is a publicly traded (NYSE TICKER: UE) real estate investment trust focused on managing, acquiring, developing and redeveloping retail real estate in and around urban communities. The company owns 76 properties, including Bergen Town Center, located in Bergen County, New Jersey, home to the teens participating in the NCSY relief mission, as well as two major shopping centers in Puerto Rico. Urban Edge is committed to improving the communities it serves, not only through its real estate, but also by leveraging its resources in a manner that addresses their specific needs. As part of its growing ESG initiatives, the company empowers its employees, tenants and partners to take an active role in making a positive impact on society.
In talking to two teens participating on the New Jersey NCSY mission to Puerto Rico, The Jewish Link got a taste of the kind of enthusiasm these missions inspire. Sasha, a senior at Millburn High School, shared: “I had participated in a previous mission with no knowledge of the fun I was getting myself into. I made friendships that have lasted still to this day. I have stepped out of my comfort zone and saw a new perspective in life. A perspective that not everyone has it easy and I was happy to be a part of a journey on helping people along the way. I am lucky to experience another mission going to Puerto Rico. When going on this mission trip to Puerto Rico, I hope to be able to help Puerto Rican families who were impacted by the recent hurricanes. At the same time, I am looking forward to meeting new people and create long-lasting friendships and memories that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Ethan, a 10th grader at Ridgewood High School, stated: “I decided to participate in this activity honestly because I want to help as many people as I can. When the JSU published this mission and said that we’d be helping people in need in Puerto Rico, I signed up as fast as possible. I want to try in my own way to give back to communities that are not as fortunate as mine.
An important thing I want to get out of this activity is the feeling that I made a change in someone’s life by helping to build a residence or handing out school supplies to people that really need them. Another thing I think I will get out of this experience is the realization of how fortunate my family and I am and how lucky we are to be living where we are.”
For more information on NCSY’s relief missions, please see: https://reliefmissions.ncsy.org/.
By Harry Glazer