Next month, a group of teenagers from around the Valley will be in Houston from Dec. 24-29 to help with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts as part of the Bureau of Jewish Education’s (BJE) second Hebrew High Winter Care-A-Van.
“The Winter Care-A-Van was started last year,” said Myra Shindler, executive director of the BJE and Hebrew High principal. “We went to Los Angeles for five days over winter break, kind of an alternative winter break, rather than staying at home watching TV and going to the malls.
“We served Christmas dinner at a homeless mission,” she added. “We volunteered at food banks.”
Hebrew High is the only program in the Valley for Jewish teens of all different affiliations to meet and interact regularly through educational and social activities.
The Care-A-Van program has run over summer breaks for the past 16 years, with students performing community service projects as they travel throughout the country. The winter break students visit a single location for five days.
Shindler recalled last winter’s visit to a nursing home in Los Angeles as being a particularly powerful experience for the students.
Pairs of students sat and talked with residents before the meal. One student, 15-year-old Madelon Maschmeier, remembers bonding with a retired actor.
“When we finally got to sit down with our person, Abe, he was very sweet,” Maschmeier said. “He said he was on an episode of ‘Friends’ and used to do a lot of TV work and won a few awards. It was very interesting to go to a place like that and see somebody who has this full past. We kind of bonded with him over being Jewish.”
This year, participants going to Houston will again serve meals at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day, in addition to other volunteer projects. Due to the dynamic state of the relief effort, Shindler said they won’t know some of their exact assignments until meeting with leaders of the Jewish community in Houston. She said they will likely help with cleaning up residences and other buildings, possibly even a damaged synagogue.
Shindler said that in 2006, as part of a summer Hebrew High Care-A-Van, the program helped with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
“One of the projects that they had us doing was gutting homes that had been destroyed,” Shindler said. “Say the first floor had been flooded, what happens is you go in and take off all the drywall and get it down to the base boards so the home can be rebuilt.”
The program isn’t all hard work, though. Shindler said they always mix in recreational and educational activities to give the participants a taste of where they visit. Last year’s participants went to the beach, decorated a float for the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena and went on a shopping trip.
While shopping, they encountered a California Chabad youth group singing Chanukah songs and lighting candles. The teens eagerly joined in on a bit of unplanned Chanukah fun.
Shindler described one educational program designed to show the challenges of living and eating on a limited budget.
“They had to go into a grocery store and shop for a week’s worth of food on $3,” Shindler said. “They start to realize that choices have to be made and what they can really eat when they don’t have any money. You bring in Jewish values and Jewish texts and it becomes very meaningful and they really learn a lot.” JN