A trip consists of places you go, people you meet and views you see. An experience, on the other hand, is more than a date, time, and event; it evokes emotions that make you think. It creates a memory, inspires you and helps you grow. At the end of February, NCSY took 20 girls from Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, NJ, and nine girls from local public schools to New Orleans in the hope that together they would build an experience. I cannot speak for all 29 of us, but I can speak for myself and can confirm that this was more than just a trip; it changed me. NCSY is the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Ethan Katz, director of New Jersey NCSY and veteran leader of many disaster relief trips, explained from the beginning what this mission to New Orleans was all about. After arriving, we would spend five days doing community service and building leadership skills. Our goal was to represent Jewish teenagers and show that we want to help whomever is in need, regardless of race, religion, political views, and other characteristics that may separate us. We would then return home as leaders, with new friendships and feeling content about how we spent our time. That is what we were told would occur. Although I understood these words on a theoretical level, I only truly internalized Rabbi Katz’s words after living them for myself.
Hurricane Katrina struck nearly nine years ago, washing away the people and homes of New Orleans in its path. Being only seven years old at the time, all I knew is that there was a large hurricane in which many people were hurt or died. It was therefore difficult to understand what I would gain from this mission to New Orleans when I did not fully comprehend what went on there nine years ago. It only after going to the city, meeting the people, and seeing the sights destroyed that I truly understood the damage done by the water. How can a natural disaster that seemed to be far in the past still haunt our present? How can the damages not yet be repaired after years of thousands of people working to chip away at debris? I saw houses that appeared as though they had not been touched since the hurricane. Although the physical destruction was alarming, what shocked me even more were the values brought out among the people of New Orleans. Even when all seemed lost, there were those who were ready to push beyond the wreckage and move on to a new day. They left the past in the past and focused on improving the future. Over Shabbat, Jackie Pressner Gothard, former president of Orthodox Union member synagogue Congregation Beth Israel and a New Orleans resident, shared her story with us. Jackie was the first woman president of Congregation Beth Israel and was in office during Hurricane Katrina. During the hurricane, the shul flooded with nearly 10 feet of water, destroying the building and all its contents, including seven Torah scrolls. While many congregants left town and did not return, Jackie powered through. With passion, hard work, and help from other Jews both locally and nationally, Jackie helped build a new synagogue, holding a warm positive attitude that never ceased during the process. (The OU was among those who sent help.) From Jackie, I learned a new idea about leadership. A leader identifies the issues that lie before him or her, but does not dwell on the past. They picture tomorrow and then sketch that image into reality. Hearing and reading the stories that happen is not enough to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders. You need to do something, you need to take action. Meeting Jackie sparked something in me that day. Maybe it was confidence, or just being more aware; whatever it was, I know I want to make a difference because there is no one telling me that I can’t. I may prevent myself from success, but there are always others supporting me and rooting for me. I can knock down the walls that I may have formed, keeping me from achieving my goals. As Theodore Herzl once said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Throughout Jewish history, Jews have been exiled, forced to convert, and killed; yet somehow, they have always persevered and survived. I guess we Jews do not let anyone or anything get in our path, not even a Category Five hurricane. To capture the entire trip and all the lessons I have learned in a few pages — that is a struggle. Here is one moment though; one thought about a trip that was in actuality an experience. I may have changed physically, gotten a little sunburned, but my heart, my confidence in my abilities to succeed, that was the true transformation. Everyone is capable of greatness. All we need is a little spark that we can kindle into a flame, lighting a candle to a brighter future. The Mission, that was my spark.