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‘Tikkun Olam’ experience for North Shore teens in Houston

Journal Staff

Arden Hyte and Jacob Bornstein of Marblehead work with a volunteer to help rebuild a home in Houston.

MARCH 8, 2018 – While many of her friends were sleeping in or away on relaxing vacations during the February school break, Natasha Tsaryuk of Swampscott woke up at 6:45 a.m. in Houston. She went downstairs for a quick breakfast, packed herself lunch, and then boarded a van to go to work. It was about to be another long day in one of the most remarkable experiences of her life.

Tsaryuk joined 36 other teens from the North Shore to help rebuild homes in Houston that were ravaged by Hurricane Harvey last August. For a life-changing week, the teens and eight chaperones worked eight-hour days to rebuild three homes in a particularly hard-hit neighborhood. 

The trip was the result of collaboration between 1Mitzvah, a philanthropic organization run by Nate Dalton, and Chabad of the North Shore. 1Mitzvah and the Chabad “Jew Crew” had previously run similar trips to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Savannah, Ga. This was their second large-scale teen service trip to Houston.

“The trip was my first time learning how to operate power tools like a chop saw, jig saw, and a nail gun,” Tsaryuk recalled. “But we never gave up.”

The group had a formidable job: making destroyed homes livable for their displaced owners. Separate groups were assigned to three houses, and each day they hoped to accomplish a specific task: some groups ripped up and replaced floors, others painted walls, others replaced roofs.

“We did everything you could do to the inside of a house,” said Shmaya Friedman, an associate rabbi from Chabad who chaperoned the trip.

Swampscott’s Thea Levine and Yelena Jeffries work with a local volunteer in Houston to help rebuild a house damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

Despite various issues with paint, power tools, and sheet rock, the group persevered, and met all of their service benchmarks. Reed Brockman, a Marblehead civil engineer who also chaperoned the trip and has supervised many building projects, was impressed with the group’s work ethic.

“It felt more like a young work crew,” he said. “It ran like a smooth machine. They were very mature, and there to work.”

The hard work paid off when everyone got to personally meet the families whose houses they repaired. Hearing their stories was the most impactful moment of the trip.

One homeowner was the mother of four foster children. Because her home was uninhabitable, rules mandated that her children be sent to other foster homes. Because of the work the crew did on her home, she was only two weeks away from being able to move back in and reconnect with her children. As she spoke to the group, Rabbi Friedman noted, she had tears in her eyes.

“The trip was a humbling experience that made me think more about how lucky we are to have roofs above our heads – clothes, food, water, and stability in general,” said Tsaryuk. “And knowing you’re making a difference in someone’s life and knowing you’re giving back to the world is one of the best feelings.”

For crew member Haley LaKind, also of Swampscott, meeting the people affected helped remind her how much we all have in common. “We live such different lifestyles, yet we’re all humans. Meeting with each individual family made the experience so special because it allowed to really put a meaning to the work that we’re doing,” she said.

“You don’t necessarily see the effect of the goodness you do,” noted Rabbi Friedman, “but when you’re on the ground and people are telling you that without you, it would be a lot more time until they could move back into their homes, it’s very humbling and inspiring.”

The chaperones organized feedback sessions to give the teens an opportunity to debrief on what they’d experienced. Close to 10 teens – one quarter of the group – said the trip had inspired them to pursue careers in social services.

“We wanted to focus on the Jewish ethos of being there for others and the way that you end up receiving more than you give in the process,” said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore. “One of the themes we discussed again and again was that you can never take away from a person what they’ve given away.”

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