‘We don’t really do vacations,” joked Pam Wexler, a Westchester mom of two. “I turn them all into service.” The shared experiences helping others are “much more powerful and meaningful and life-changing than a quote-unquote vacation,” she said.
Five years ago, while serving as chair of Westchester’s women’s campaign for the UJA-Federation of New York, Wexler organized a mission to Cuba. After a second trip to Cuba (this time with her husband) three years ago, Wexler vowed that the next time, she’d bring along her kids.
This past Memorial Day weekend, she and her daughter Michelle, a recent graduate of Scarsdale High School, participated in a J-Teen Leadership service trip to Cuba for teens and their parents. Only this time, Michelle and her peers (with the help of their volunteer adviser, Tracey Bilski) were in charge.
In the weeks leading up to the humanitarian trip, the teens collected more than 2,500 pounds of clothing, medicine and Judaica to distribute among the approximately 800 Jews living in Havana. They also raised $6,000 to distribute among the needy. Once they landed in Cuba, the teens sorted the supplies and divvied them up among the three synagogues in Havana: Adath Israel, the Sephardic Center and Bet Shalom (known as the Patronato), which functions as a community center.
While other synagogues and federations offer service trips geared toward families, J-Teen is one of the only organizers of international humanitarian trips specifically for Jewish teens and their parents. J-Teen, a community service program based in Westchester, reinforces its humanitarian missions with monthly service projects and activities — all organized by the teens. The program was launched in 2006 and was bolstered by a $75,000 grant from The Neshamot Fund, a women’s giving circle affiliated with the UJA-Federation, in 2008 as well as funding from The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation. The federation recently awarded J-Teen Leadership with a $100,000 grant. “Through this incredible program, the next generation of leaders is not only inspired to share our commitment to social action — they’re actually doing it,” said Mark Medin, UJA-Federation’s senior vice president for financial resource development.
J-Teen’s parent-teen service trips stand out from other similar service initiatives for teens, most notably because they attract people at an age when, desperate to establish their independence, they typically prefer peer trips to traveling with parents. The trips not only inculcate the Jewish value of service but also help to strengthen the teen-parent bonds. “The trip was a catalyst for parent-child discussions about the underpinnings of our core values,” said Bilski.
The fact that the teens’ cell phones didn’t work in Cuba helped to encourage conversation. “You don’t have distractions of millions of electronics, Facebook and iPods that teens are especially attached to,” said Tara Slone-Goldstein, who participated in the trip with her son, Josh. “You take all that away and then put them and us in this surreal visual environment; it raises everything to another level.”
Having a parent’s perspective at times was helpful, said Josh Goldstein. “For me, my mom pointed out things I might not have otherwise realized, how different things are in Cuba and how lucky we are.”
Will Ressler, a ninth grader at Scarsdale High School, said that traveling with his dad made the trip more enjoyable. “My dad is a funny guy, and he really hit it off with many of the friends I had made on the trip,” he said. “It was also cool to hear my father provide me with his view regarding political aspects of Cuba.”
For the adults, the trip was a powerful reminder of just how capable their kids are. “We adults observed the teens accomplishing so much,” remarked Slone-Goldstein. “The teens exhibited tremendous maturity in every aspect of the trip. We adults watched the teens ‘make it happen.’”
The J-Teen humanitarian mission is a potential model for instilling a sense of Jewish communal responsibility and peoplehood, particularly in the aftermath of a recent Repair the World study find that only 27 percent of Jewish millennials consider their volunteer activities to be rooted in Jewish values. It also found that parental involvement in volunteering was a strong predictor of how regularly an adult child will volunteer, and that those who begin volunteering while they are teenagers are more likely to continue doing so as adults.
“The trip changed the way I think,” Goldstein told The Jewish Week. “I never really thought that Judaism would enable me to connect with someone.” (His ability to speak Spanish helped, too). “Because I traveled with a Jewish group, there was a strong bond with the Cuban Jewish community on the common basis of being Jewish.”
Many of the teenagers who participated in the trip spoke about Jewish responsibilities and duties, language that doesn’t resonate with the average Jewish young adult.
“What was most striking about this trip is the strong connection to the sense of Jewish collective responsibility that the teens felt, internalized and articulated,” said Bilski.
Douglas Saper, a student at Greenwich High School in Connecticut, said that the highlight of the trip was handing out prizes at a Shavuot carnival for 40 Cuban children who attend the Hebrew school at the Patronato in Havana.
Saper loved watching the reactions of the kids as he handed them the stuffed animals, dolls and Silly Bandz the teens had brought. Toward the end of the carnival, one little boy rushed over to him and gave him a big bear hug.
“I have had many hugs in my life, but this one was the most meaningful,” Saper said.
The carnival that the teens hosted reminded Ed Finkelstein of the many Purim carnivals his temple has hosted over the years, which his three children enjoyed.
“I know I have a terrific kid,” he said of his daughter, Brett. “But seeing all of our kids put on the carnival at temple was very special.”
The trip to Cuba was the fourth J-Teen service trip that Michelle Wexler and her mom, Pam, have been on together.
“Since I was tiny, I’ve watched both of my parents volunteering their time — taking me to mitzvah day, talking about the latest volunteer project they were working on,” said Michelle. “It was only natural that I got into [volunteering] myself.”
“We know that when teens take the lead, miracles happen,” said Pam Wexler. “I have watched my own daughter as well as others who are involved with J-Teen Leadership develop their leadership skills and find their voices, their passions, and chart their own journeys to heal the world.”
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