St. Louis Jewish teens volunteer in New Orleans on an NCSY relief mission


Bella Soyfer, Sophomore, Ladue Horton Watkins H.S.

On Thursday, Jan. 12 at 6:30 p.m., a plane carrying advisors and teens from St. Louis, Kansas City and Memphis departed from St. Louis for a weekend of volunteering and exploring New Orleans as part of the 2023 National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) relief mission. 

NCSY relief missions have been running since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, creating a disaster for many residents, especially the homeless population. As of 2020, there were 1,314 homeless people in New Orleans, according to the website. Previously, homelessness rates in New Orleans had decreased by 90% but climbed back up due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

NCSY has now run more than 180 missions to over 20 different locations struck by disaster throughout the United States and across the Atlantic. On its website, NCSY states its mission: 

“Through these relief missions, teens gain a new perspective, connect to the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and experience a newfound desire to help those in need by being taken out of their comfort zone and placed on the front lines in the aftermath of natural disasters.” 

Harper Witbrod, a Kansas City teen who went on the relief mission, described his experience helping the homeless in New Orleans.

“As soon as we got there, we went to a little underpass where there was a high population of homeless people and handed out coffee, socks and flashlights to them. They were all super thankful,” Witbrod said. 

Witbrod also detailed the difference in the homeless community of New Orleans compared to Kansas City, where there are currently 1,733 homeless individuals, according to Project Homeless Connect.

“New Orleans is a lot different than Kansas City in that the homeless population is really nice and grateful for the help they get rather than Kansas City, where they [can be indifferent],” Witbrod said. 

In addition to helping the homeless, teens on the relief mission worked on other projects to assist New Orleans residents such as building fences around community gardens and helping with weeding and planting at a locally owned farm. Witbrod explained why all kinds of volunteering opportunities are important for young people. 

“It helps them see the kind of work that it can do and can lead them on future career paths. I think it’s extremely important,” Witbrod said. 

Sam Zitin is an NCSY advisor who also attended the 2023 New Orleans trip. He is a strong advocate for the merits of relief missions and volunteer work.

“I think volunteering is essential for everyone… especially during developmental years to come to appreciate how much the world needs helpers and how much good we can all do by being helpers,” Zitin said. 

Zitin has been working with NCSY and Jewish Student Union (JSU) for 13 years and has connected with many Jewish teens through his work. Zitin regularly talks with teens about a multitude of Jewish topics.

“The amount and quality of time that you can have with teens on a trip like this allows you to build relationships and access topics and ideas that you frequently just don’t have time to at an after-school club,” Zitin said.

As well as volunteering and helping the homeless, the teens also got to dive into New Orleans and its culture. The group explored the historic French Quarter, toured monuments and took a horse-and-buggy ride through the streets of the city. 

“I’m a French speaker myself, so it was really fun talking with people,” Witbrod said. 

Throughout the 2023 NCSY relief mission to New Orleans, Jewish teens forged lasting friendships and connections to Torah.

“We went from being 25 staff and kids from all over the place to feeling very much like a family [very quickly],” Zitin said.