Alternative Spring Break program gives teens a chance at tikkun olam

Stacy Bernstein

By Stacy Bernstein

On our third day in New Orleans my teen group spent the morning volunteering at the Second Harvest Food Bank.  That afternoon, we walked into a local grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward where the group was greeted by the owner, Burnell.  Over the next hour, Burnell shared with us the story of how he had rebuilt his grocery store and community in the 14 years since Hurricane Katrina.  

“You don’t have to be the best,” Burnell told us, “but you have to do your best.”  

After meeting with Burnell, we gathered to reflect on our experience. Brett Miller, a freshman at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, was deeply moved by the experience. 

“Meeting Burnell reminded me of how grateful I am for all that I have, and I hope to see the day things change around here,” he said.  

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It was incredible watching how one hour in a local grocery store could move the teens and encourage them to reflect on their time volunteering in the New Orleans community. 

Meaningful interactions like the one with Burnell provided additional context to our experience rebuilding homes for teachers in the Bayou St. John neighborhood with Youth Rebuild New Orleans, as well as to our time working at a local food bank.  Along with the Lower Ninth Ward, we had the chance to visit the Whitney Plantation, where we learned about the civil rights movement and saw first-hand the history of slavery in New Orleans.  

Two teens, Lauren Bayne and Miriam Sokora, found themselves in the silent memorial at the end of the tour and quietly said the Mourner’s Kaddish — an experience which connected what they had learned on our tour to their Jewish faith. 

This was only one of the many meaningful moments where teens felt moved by what they were learning and connected it to their Judaism.  It was inspiring to watch teens jump into volunteer work for a community in need and immerse themselves in the educational opportunities provided.  The strong impact of this service learning trip was demonstrated by the way in which I witnessed our teens grow their Jewish identity in only six days. 

The teens’ expressed how their views had shifted from seeing firsthand how the city of New Orleans was essentially failed by the government when hit by the catastrophic storm in 2005.  I watched as these experiences helped teens to understand issues in a more unique way and challenged themselves with how they could better their community and themselves as Jewish individuals.

Of course, we enjoyed many fun sight-seeing opportunities as well.  We had time to shop for Purim costumes in the French Quarter, ate beignets at Café Du Monde and took a tour of Tulane University and Tulane Hillel.

Immersive experiences like this, which combine direct service and Jewish learning, are proven to have a significant impact on the Jewish identity development of teens. The Jewish nonprofit, Repair the World, did a study of alternative break participants and found that 92 percent of them reported positive change related to Jewish identity as a result of their experiences. 

St. Louis’ Reform congregations have partnered to create more of these experiences for teens as part of the Reform Teen Initiative. The initiative works to develop new entry points and strengthen existing opportunities by leveraging the collective resources of the community’s Reform congregations to galvanize the entire Jewish community to more actively engage teens in Jewish life. Central Reform Congregation, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Congregation Temple Israel, Temple Emanuel, and United Hebrew Congregation are all members of the Initiative which is funded in part by a grant from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. 

Staffing this trip allowed me to see how the implemntation of the Reform Teen Initiative and immersive experiences through the program could have an impact on teens in the St. Louis Jewish community.  I’m excited for what the future holds in this position and within the community.

Stacy Bernstein is the Reform Teen Initiative Coordinator and staffed the New Orleans trip in March 2019. More immersive experiences and service learning trips will be offered to teens in the 2019-2020 school year.  Contact Bernstein at [email protected] to receive more information on upcoming trips or check out stljewishteens.org.