April 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

SAR HS Students Lend a Hand, and a Heart, in NOLA

Just before the February mid-winter break, 16 SAR students took a break from their regular class schedule to participate in a chesed trip to New Orleans. The mission was part of an initiative organized by NCSY, designed to empower teens to make an impact and give them the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than themselves.

Upon arrival in New Orleans, our group visited the levee to see the area that Hurricane Katrina destroyed. They discussed the fact that after 15 years, no initiative was taken by the government to create a better levee or help rebuild what was lost. After the visit, they drove to the Lower Ninth Ward and visited the only supermarket in the neighborhood where they met the owner, Burnell, and were given a tour of the store. He told them about how he dreamed of and created the supermarket to help people in the neighborhood. SAR students then hosted a BBQ for local residents who passed by and played tag and soccer with some of the little children.

“Visiting Burnell’s grocery store was really meaningful to me,” says senior Erin Shteingart from Riverdale. “Meeting the local community and learning about their stories was an amazing experience. Getting to hear from people who lost everything taught me how important chesed is for the people in a community. This small act such as serving people a hotdog and fresh lemonade can make their day. I had the most meaningful trip and I cannot wait to continue my mission in doing chesed.”

Afterwards, the students went to the Jewish cemetery and learned about how the Jewish people overcame the struggles of Hurricane Katrina and rebuilt the Jewish community. The evening ended with a kosher Cajun dinner and a jazz concert at Preservation Hall.

The next morning, the group woke up early to head to the Nechama Response to Disaster Center. They arrived at a house that was damaged by the hurricane and needed to be torn down. It was owned by a family who had lived on the land for 200 years. “When we walked into the house, we saw everything from clothing to bedding, all utterly destroyed, leaving fragments of the home that once stood,” says junior Boaz Shames of Manhattan. “Like many other buildings in the neighborhood, it had been a casualty of Hurricane Ida.” They spent the day working alongside the Nechama organization and the Orthodox Christian Response to Disaster Center to deconstruct the house in order to rebuild it. By the end of the day, nothing was left but the wooden foundation of the house and the students felt a sense of accomplishment for the work that they did and the privilege of meeting amazing people that they might otherwise not have had a chance to meet.

“The tearing down of the house that was destroyed in Hurricane Ida from start to finish was especially meaningful for all of us,” said Zehava Seidman, SAR High School’s director of Chesed. “It was really moving to meet the owners of the home and speak to them about what they lost, then help them begin to repair and start over.”

The next day began at Wetlands Restoration, an organization that plants trees to replace the ones that were destroyed during the hurricanes. The students dug holes and placed the trees into the ground. They worked with passionate people who taught them about the system and other ways they are working to prevent another flood. In the afternoon, they headed to the French quarter, ate delicious beignets at the famous Cafe du Monte, and saw many street performers and amazing art.

On Shabbat, the students davened kabbalat Shabbat and ate their Shabbat dinner around a zemirot-filled table at the Anshei Sfard shul. The ruach continued on Shabbat morning, as they davened with members of the shul, then enjoyed kiddush and lunch together. Over the course of a relaxing afternoon with friends, seudat shlishit, Maariv, a slow shira and Havdala, the students shared stories and experiences from their trip. To commemorate their last night in NOLA, there was bowling, dancing and a closing ceremony at the Agam.

“I was extremely proud of the students and how they bonded together and shared similar beliefs about their role in the world around them,” said Seidman. “I know the experience will shape their role in doing chesed for years to come.”

Chesed missions like this one have become an integral part of experiential learning at SAR. In addition to highly effective leadership training, teens learn to comfort those suffering from disasters not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. They gain the confidence and drive to take leadership roles in their own communities and around the world.

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