Heading to a hurricane-ravaged zone probably isn’t most teenagers’ idea of a good time, but for 22 Westchester-based members of J-Teen Leadership, a four-day trip last month to Houston was exactly where they wanted to be.
“The trip definitely met our expectations,” said Ethan Halpern, co-chair of the J-Teen trip, a White Plains High School senior and Temple Israel Center member who will be attending Parsons School of Design in the fall. “Now, more than ever, people just need to give aid to Houston and the whole Texas area.”
The group’s service trip was funded through the UJA-Federation “Time for Good” volunteer initiative, meant to provide tangible, hands-on opportunities to help communities that had been damaged by some of 2017’s most severe storms. Total funding for the “Time for Good” initiative allocated to these disaster-area relief service trips (DARST) is $50,000.
The adult professionals at J-Teen did a reconnaissance trip earlier in the fall, meeting with members of the Jewish community there, touring local synagogues and having discussions with other relief groups to determine the most productive use of the J-Teen volunteers. The organization set up several trips including specific ones designed for family experiences, as well as one meant for the younger members of J-Teen. The trips will take place through April.
The Houston trip was a logical outgrowth of work the J-Teen group has been doing for the past five years.
When the group was formed back in 2005, “it was in response to Hurricane Katrina,” said Jen Sokol, a member of UJA-Federation of New York’s Global Jewish Safety Net Committee, as well as a member of J-Teen Leadership’s Advisory Board. “Their roots are in disaster relief efforts.” Through the years, members of J-Teen have provided direct assistance for Cuba and Haiti, as well as communities in the United States.
J-Teen, Sokol said, provides “Jewish teens with opportunities to perform acts of tikkun olam,” along with “acts of collective responsibility, which mirror UJA’s commitment.”
“We do J-Teen to give back to other areas of the community. Giving back to the community is essentially what Judaism is.”
Another attraction of J-Teen, she added, is that the group is “reaching Jewish teens that might not otherwise engage” in Jewish activities. “This provides an additional dimension that works across affiliated and non-affiliated teens” and provides leadership opportunities, she said.
While they were in Houston, the group visited an Orthodox synagogue that had been destroyed and participated in building projects. Some worked on damaged houses, taking out walls and flooring. They also packed food at a local food bank.
For Jordan Sternthal, one of the trip’s co-chairs, a senior at Blind Brook High School and member at Port Chester’s KTI (Kneses Tifereth Israel) synagogue, meeting residents in Houston was especially moving.
One woman, whose home was one of those that the group worked on, “was so sweet and was overjoyed to meet us,” said Jordan. “That was something very touching to me.”
Added Ethan, “What makes J-Teen special is that we’ve learned so much and met kids in other parts of Westchester. We do J-Teen to give back to other areas of the community. Giving back to the community is essentially what Judaism is.”