For the past eight years (since Alternative Winter Break’s inaugural trip to Los Angeles in 2007), I have been lucky enough to spend my winter break with hundreds of amazing Jewish teens and staff members giving back to communities around the country.  As the Assistant Director of Tel Yehudah, Young Judaea’s teen summer program in New York, attending Alternative Winter Break (AWB) is not a requirement of my job.  I could stay in New York and continue to work on preparing camp for another amazing summer in Barryville. It would probably be more ‘productive’.

So, why do it? Well, AWB is a personal passion project.  It is a program that I believe truly transforms the teens that participate each year with lasting effect.  Students have myriad vacation opportunities available during their winter break, so those who opt to forgo more traditional, ‘fun’ endeavors to instead participate in a week of immersive, hands-on service are extraordinary. I am continuously impressed by the caliber of our participants, their ability to get their hands dirty, take serious the work they are tasked with each day, and think critically about the root causes affecting the communities in which they are volunteering.

There is a clear connection between the Jewish leadership and activist values we instill in our teens at camp each summer and the concentrated, transformative experience AWB offers.  Our teens who attend AWB are often the same teens that shine at camp.  They are the teens who see a problem in the world around them and strive to fix it. They engage with their peers and motivate them to take action.  They are the teens that don’t just talk the talk, but are the ones who actually walk the walk.

It is cool to watch from the sidelines, to be here in person, to hear the conversations, to witness the hard work and see these teens come together in such a short time and create real bonds with one another.  They are sharing these interesting, intense experiences on the ground, diving into the community and finding themselves face-to-face with issues they haven’t necessarily confronted in their lives at home. They don’t always know what to expect, but they are always up for the challenge.  We are only two days into our week in New Orleans and I’ve already had countless moments of sheer bliss and inspiration by osmosis, by just being around these teens.  And, did I mention we’re also having a ton of fun, too?

So, thanks for sharing your teens with us and with me this week.  I know they will come back to you at the end of the week totally exhausted, but inspired.  And, as for me, I will leave New Orleans and AWB with a happy and nourished soul.

~ Jamie Maxner, Assistant Director, Camp Tel Yehudah

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