Several Care-A-Van participants take a quick break while doing cleanup on a Habitat for Humanity property in Durango, Colorado.

For the 17th year running, a group of Jewish high school students are traveling across the western U.S. volunteering at soup kitchens, helping build houses for needy families and performing other mitzvahs. They are travelling as part of the Hebrew High Summer Care-A-Van, a project of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

The program offers teens more than two weeks of Jewish education, community service, socialization, spirituality and travel. In addition to the mitzvah projects, the teens also enjoy recreational activities such as white-water rafting on the Animas River, celebrating July 4 in Albuquerque and a planned visit to Mount Rushmore in the coming days.

“Hopefully, they find something that speaks to them, something that they would want to carry on outside a Care-A-Van and continue to be involved with tikkun olam activities, in making the world a better place,” said Myra Shindler, executive director of the BJE and Hebrew High principal. “It feeds their soul as well. We have a lot of learning sessions along the trip that bring in Jewish sources.”

For a number of the 23 teens participating this session, the program has become something of a summer ritual, with many returning three or four times. Also, with the introduction of the Hebrew High Winter Care-A-Van program two years ago, the fun, socialization and community service continue for five days during the winter school vacation.

Last year’s Winter Care-A-Van travelled to Houston to help with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, while the year before they travelled to California, where they gave food to the homeless and visited with elderly members of the Jewish community.

“I love the sense of community it brings,” said Leah Millman, a Gilbert High School junior on her fifth Care-A-Van trip. “I love how Jews from all over Arizona, teenagers, come together and help others.”

This summer’s Care-A-Van community service, which is still under way, kicked off by feeding hungry folks around the Valley, starting with working at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Arizona in the morning and the Ezras Cholim of Phoenix food bank in the afternoon, both of which provide food and other supplies to needy populations.

“Ezras Cholim was my favorite,” said Millman. “It was cool to see how the Jewish community is giving back. A lot of times we don’t necessarily work with Jewish organizations, so it’s cool to see that we’re doing our part.”

On July 4, they attended the city of Albuquerque’s Independence Day celebration, where they distributed water to thirsty celebrants. The next day, they set out north, crossing into Colorado, where they enjoyed a river rafting expedition.

After that diversion, it was right back to work. The bus brought them to Durango, Colorado, where they put in a full day with Habitat for Humanity. Not only do they help with projects, they also learn how and why such programs exist, listening to the stories of those they help and seeing the direct result of their efforts.

“We’re building a house in a lower-income neighborhood so that people that might not be able to afford a house or pay for a mortgage can have a house built and have financial help to live and own a home,” said Ethan Weisman, a Chaparral High School senior on his third Care-A-Van trip. “I love to see the impact that a large group of teens my age can have when we’re all focusing on one task. Right now, we’re at Habitat for Humanity. Just in the time being here, I’ve seen so much work get done. Gravel gets raked. Holes get dug. Pavers get moved, stuff like that. I’ve seen the large impact that we can all make as a team.”

Sweaty and smiling, the group set out for a camp in Colorado, where they relaxed and celebrated their first Shabbat.

“One thing that has left an impression on me that is not necessarily just the community service aspect but also the Judaic aspect,” Weisman said. “At home, I might not be able go to Shabbat services every week, but on Care-A-Van, we’re in these beautiful nature scenes having Shabbat services outdoors and I really feel more connected to my religion than I ever have before.”

Early Sunday morning, they donned hiking boots and lathered on sunscreen in preparation for a day of constructing hiking paths with the Rocky Mountain Trail Institute.

The next day, they proceeded to Denver, where they helped with the Food Bank of the Rockies in the morning and spent the afternoon with Keep Denver Beautiful, which works to collect and properly dispose of trash and recyclables to enhance the visual appearance of the mountain metropolis.

From there, they will set out for Mount Rushmore and the Badlands of South Dakota and then move on to Salt Lake City. While there, they will volunteer with Globus Relief, a nonprofit that collects, packages and distributes surplus medical supplies to developing countries.

Next, they will visit an amusement park before settling down for their last Shabbat on the road, which they will spend below the craggy Wasatch Mountains in Park City, Utah. Before returning home, they will stop in Las Vegas, where they will work with Opportunity Village, which provides vocational training and employment opportunities for disabled populations.

Though good works and fostering a deeper connection with Judaism and nature are crucial aspects of the program, perhaps the most enduring impacts are the friendships and relationships forged along the way.

“I’ve met some of my best friends on Care-A-Van,” Weisman said. “I see them outside of Care-A-Van and they’ve introduced me to new things. The experiences with the other teens for two weeks have really changed my life.” JN

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