By Jeffrey Korbman
So there I was, on the floor, crouched over a door hinge. It was dark. The only light I had was from my iPhone, which was propped up on a towel from the linen closet. It smelled. But I was determined to get the hinge off, which would allow me to get the door off, which would allow me to complete the task at hand.
The giggling in the background didn’t help, as a decent screwdriver might, but it didn’t bother me either. I was in a house, somewhere outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on an NCSY Relief Mission with 15 Jewish teens, from both a public high school and a yeshiva day school. Our job that day was to repair a home devastated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. And my particular job was to remove the doors. Yup, they were painted in, jammed closed, and mildewed.
NCSY started bringing Jewish teens on Relief Missions several years ago. To date, under the guidance of Rabbi Ethan Katz, NCSY has conducted 103 ‘chesed’ missions, bringing roughly 1,500 teens to natural disaster-rampaged places, including Houston, New Orleans and San Juan.
It’s worth pointing out that there is no Wi-Fi in many places we worked. By extension, the idea of bringing a teen to do physical labor, all day, with no internet access seemed ludicrous. As a parent, I could not fathom how this would work for more than six minutes at a time, let alone all day – day after day. I was wrong.
About four hours into the job, a heated argument broke out. And if I didn’t see it, if I didn’t hear it, I would not have believe it. But I did.
To get his tiling done, Josh took a mop to clean off the bathroom floor. Unto itself that would be laudable. The problem. It was Kaylie’s job to mop up the grout post-tiling, and Kaylie didn’t appreciate Josh’s mop efforts. “You call that cleaning?” she shrieked. Amazing what changes in life, and what does not!
Also amazing has been the lesson for NCSY. With 63 years of a tried and true record of teen engagement, NCSY is blessed to continue to expand the number of the teens it reaches, and the support we secure – close to 30,000 engaged teens annually across North America. Still, the area of experiential learning is an effective medium through which to demonstrate Jewish value to the larger world, one where we are only scratching the surface.
Our core mission remains to provide innovative Jewish content and experiences for teens. We know that in addition to text, physical opportunities can also reflect Torah values. On my relief trip to San Juan, for example, there were countless experiences of witnessing a Jewish teen from public school interact and befriend another from the yeshiva day school. When cement needed to be mixed, one held the bucket and the other ran the machine, side by side.
More than mixing cement or even mopping was the experience of watching our teens teach Alexander the phrase, “Shabbat Shalom.”
Alexander was our partner from Saint Bernard’s Parish who directed logistics on site. While Alexander works with many volunteer groups through the year, he admitted something candidly to us, as a group, which resonated. As a Tennessee native, he never worked with Jews. In fact, Alexander wasn’t even sure if he had met a Jew. And without prompting or a script to follow, on a rainy Friday afternoon in the middle of a dank, depressed San Juan suburb, 15 Jewish teens taught Alexander the pronunciation and meaning behind “Shabbat Shalom.”
My heart burst with pride.
What I realized crouched over my door hinge – the best response to anti-Semitism and the desecration of God’s name in the broader world, is the sanctification of God’s name. Our teens “first impression” was the embodiment of “Tikkun Olam B’Malchut Shaddai,” “Repairing the World in the name of God’s sovereignty.” The teens gave, they learned, they worked, and they laughed and asked nothing in return. They represented the finest values of what it means to be a Jew in this world.
What more could we want from our teens? Ok, maybe to share a working screwdriver. Just sayin.
Jeffrey Korbman is the NCSY Director of Development and an experienced father, too! To learn more about NCSY’s Relief Missions, contact Rabbi Ethan Katz at firstname.lastname@example.org.