WASHINGTON (JTA) — More than 600 Jewish teenagers descended upon New Orleans this past December to bring positive change to a city still affected eight years later by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The teens arrived from across North America to participate in the annual international convention for United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Conservative youth movement.
Over the course of five days, they engaged in multiple service projects like repairing homes damaged in the hurricane, cleaning up marshes, playing music at nursing homes and going house-to-house registering people to vote.
For one of the participants, Katie Hamelburg, 18, the gathering was the embodiment of her commitment to tikkun olam, the Jewish commandment to repair the world.
“I felt energized, excited and empowered,” said the Rockville, Md., native of her time in New Orleans. “Without groups like USY volunteering [in the city] wouldn’t be able to flourish. The impact we make as a movement is greater than just as individuals.”
“It’s important for the teens to help, to motivate and educate others,” Hamelburg said. “The impact we make as a movement is greater than just as individuals.”
In turn, she added, the teens “can feel the tangible impact of what they’ve done and take it back home.”
This past year Hamelburg, who served as the international social action vice president for USY, spearheaded “Operation 18,000,” a year-long initiative that challenged teens to view donating their time as equal in importance to raising money for the causes they care about.
An online database was established for the teens to record hours spent volunteering as well as where they volunteered and what they did.
The goal of collectively contributing 18,000 hours was surpassed, with the teens volunteering a collective 32, 686 hours, said Hamelburg, who is now a freshman at the University of Maryland, where she is majoring in Jewish studies. “We committed to working towards social justice individually and as a movement, and both exposed the impact of our work, inspired teens to play a role in this work, honored this work, and continued our efforts to repair the world.”
JTA caught up with Hamelburg who spoke about who inspires her, why she enjoys her favorite Jewish holiday and her favorite iPhone app.
Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you’ve had so far?
As a teen, USY taught me to be in a meaningful, spiritual Jewish community. I was able to learn, sing, question and be a Jewish teenager. It taught me what I can be as a Jew.
If you could have lunch or coffee with anyone and tell him or her about the USY service projects, who would it be?
Abraham Joshua Heschel. I think he’s very inspiring and a change maker. I’d learn a lot from a coffee date with him.
What do you think you want to be doing when “you grow up” or what would you like to be doing professionally in perhaps five or 10 years?
I hope to be involved in informal Jewish education; youth groups, summer programs, camp. Some type of philanthropy work.
What is your favorite Jewish holiday?
Passover. It’s a great combination of both religious [customs] as well as being interesting and fun to participate. My entire family comes from all over the country. It’s 30 people and so much more than reciting the prayers. It’s a communal celebration!
What kind of things do you do for fun?
I’m in an Israeli dance troupe. I’m also big into music. I play the piano and guitar. And I go with my roommate for smoothies, any type.
Do you have a favorite iPhone app?
WhatsApp Messenger so I can text my friends in Israel and a smoothie app for whenever I go to Smoothie King.
The Teen Heroes column is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which is dedicated to celebrating and supporting teens repairing the world. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit http://dillerteenawards.org. Please tell us about teens who deserve attention by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.