Christmas a time for tikkun olam

While some teenagers hit the slopes or the beach over their winter break, dozens of high-schoolers from across the continent recalled the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and traveled to Los Angeles to perform volunteer work instead.

From Dec. 22 to 27, more than 60 attendees of Camp Tel Yehudah, a teen leadership summer camp in Barryville, N.Y., run by the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea, visited to help the homeless, the hungry and children in need. Participants came from the United States and Canada. 

“It’s really amazing to see these teens come together in such a short time and create these really intense and long-lasting bonds,” said Jamie Maxner, assistant director of the camp, who started the alternative winter break program in 2007. 

“They’re sharing this interesting and intense experience of volunteering, diving into the community and being face to face with issues they haven’t necessarily confronted in their normal lives. You hear words like ‘life- changing.’ It’s awesome to witness it and be on the sidelines.”

Throughout the week, volunteers visited four sites: the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the Midnight Mission, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). They helped sort through food, served hot meals and assisted staff from the different organizations. 

On Christmas Eve, while half of the group gave out food at the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles, the rest decorated a Santa’s workshop area there, hanging ornaments and wrapping boxes. Thousands of toys were donated by companies for distribution to disadvantaged children on Christmas Day. Each child could pick four gifts and then enjoy a hot holiday meal with his or her family.  

Daniel Gomez, an East Los Angeles resident who has been eating at Midnight Mission for a few months, was planning to pick up a present for his nephew at the toy drive. 

“It helps,” he said, enjoying a hot meal. “It’s exciting. It’s Christmastime and the holidays, and everyone likes to celebrate.”

Ryan Navales, public affairs coordinator at the Midnight Mission, said that what the Young Judaea teens accomplished during the holidays is beneficial to both them and his organization. 

“With kids, you begin to instill in them service and a real sense of purpose when [they do this] work, and that’s a lasting gift for them, as well as for us.”

Josh Papernic, a junior at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, cleared out food that had gone bad at the food bank and served lunch at the Midnight Mission, where he also washed down the tables in the dining hall on Christmas Eve. He said that the concept of tikkun olam inspired him, and that he chose to take part because “I’m trying to help out and have a good time and, hopefully, make someone else’s day.”

Next year, he’d like to volunteer again, especially in a personal setting where he can interact with people. “The experience [has] really been eye-opening, and I’m getting exposed to a part of Los Angeles I wouldn’t normally be exposed to. It’s really humbling,” he said.

Another volunteer was Ben Greenberg, a junior at Palisades Charter High School. He said that, at the L.A. Regional Food Bank, he and his peers sorted food and threw away unacceptable items.

This year’s winter break visit to Los Angeles was the first since the program began. Last year, participants made the trek to Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York to clean up after Hurricane Sandy, and before that, they aided the Navajo Nation. This time around, while students worked in Los Angeles, another group of Young Judaea’s campers visited New Orleans — another site of previous programming — and worked with residents affected by Hurricane Katrina in the Ninth Ward. 

While in Southern California, volunteers stayed at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu and on Christmas, in between different projects, they enjoyed a pizza dinner, a scavenger hunt in Hollywood and a Starline bus tour of the city.

Rebecca Tauber, a student at Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania, said she signed on to the alternative winter break because “it seemed like a really amazing opportunity to do service, especially around the holidays. 

“A lot of people associate it with being a joyous time, but it’s really stressful for impoverished people,” she said. “It’s a great way to give back, especially this time of year.”