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When asked who will help alleviate hunger, local teens say Hineni
October 10th, 2003
For Rebecca Katz, one of the defining moments of her summer was staying in a homeless shelter in Atlanta and, with the help of 29 other teenagers, painting the building.
When we were finished, it was absolutely gorgeous. It shone because it was so clean and inviting, said the 16-year-old Nicolet High School junior.
Katz was one of 30 teenagers to participate in Hineni, a four-week social action program through Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, the Reform movements Midwest overnight camp in Oconomowoc with winter offices in Northbrook, Ill.
The program, whose name means Here I am in Hebrew, brought Katz and other participants to 14 Midwestern and Southern cities and camps with a message of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and a focus on hunger.
And that was a welcome focus, explained Mari Katz, Rebeccas mother. I feel very strongly that tikkun olam is a really important part of being Jewish. Teens are usually very passionate, so this is a good time to teach them how to be involved and to make a difference.
But the decision to participate in the program came from Rebecca, who has been the social action vice-president of SHFTY, Congregation Shaloms chapter of the National Federation of Temple Youth, and is now active on the regional level. Im really interested in social action, so that was a main focus of why I wanted to go, she said.
The teens, who came primarily from the Midwest, spent one week at OSRUI learning about hunger with camp staff and representatives from Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Chicagos Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.
They also rehearsed a short dramatic presentation about hunger written by a rabbinical student from Los Angeles. That skit became their prime teaching tool for the three weeks they spent traveling by bus from camp to camp, from food bank to pantry. In all, the teens completed 31 service hours.
During their visits to camps, the group performed the skit and then talked about the challenge of hunger and how to help alleviate it.
We taught but we were also learning along the way. We learned things from them that we took home and took to heart, said Josh Blumberg, 17, who also participated in the program.
Katz agreed. While it became repetitive, it really cemented the facts in our mind. It also, she said, taught the teens valuable leadership and teaching skills.
Hineni was created this year as an alternative to OSRUIs summer program in Israel, which has been canceled for three years because of insufficient registration, explained OSRUI director Jerry Kaye.
[K]ids that would typically be going to Israel were not going. So we were looking for a meaningful experience they could participate in. This program combined travel, social action and peer relationships, all of which are things that teens really enjoy and appreciate, said Kaye from his Northbrook office.
That really spoke to Blumberg, a student at Nicolet and Kradwell schools, who described the program as life changing. [L]iving in a homeless shelter and having that much exposure to the problems that are going on in the world is eye-opening. Its horrible. It really makes you want to help out.
I feel so privileged now. I always knew it, but when I got home and started eating my meals in my air conditioned house, I felt guilty for weeks, he said.
Blumberg looks forward to graduating this winter from high school partially because he will have more time to volunteer locally.
Katz also characterized the trip as life changing. Many people spend their entire lives trying to build and fulfill a set of morals and righteous deeds, while 30 of us high school kids did that just in a month, she wrote in an article for her synagogue (Sinai) newsletter.
While I have this overwhelming passion for social action, the biggest impact was sharing this moving life experience with people that I want to be friends with the rest of my life, she said.
Katz said that the program reminded her of her obligation as a Jew. We will always be there for each other, but it is our job and obligation to be there for those in need around the world, she said.
Kaye, who debriefed the teens at OSRUI following the trip, said the group seemed to make a deep impression on the communities that hosted them. Virtually every town they went to sent letters saying what an impressive group of kids they were and what an important program this is, he said.