Ilana Naim has lived in New York City her whole life, but in the last week she’s seen a side of the city she’d never experienced before.

JustCity social justice teen volunteers Hurricane Sandy
Teens from JustCity took part in the volunteer effort to help families affected by Hurricane Sandy repair their homes. Photo courtesy of JTS.

Together with 17 other rising high school juniors and seniors from around the country, she’s helped a family in the Rockaways affected by Hurricane Sandy repair their home, visited an urban farm in Brooklyn, and met with politicians and activists, all as part of the JustCity Leadership Institute, a new program being run by the Jewish Theological Seminary and supported by UJA-Federation of New York. The program teaches Jewish teens about social justice through leadership training and hands-on volunteering.

Meeting and helping the family whose home had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy was particularly meaningful for Naim. “It gave me the encouragement that I can do this, and I’m not too young,” she says. “Even if I can’t change the world right now, there are certain steps I can take. I found that so amazing.”

“This is an opportunity to help shape how the next generation of Jewish leaders develops what they think is important, and what Jewish tradition has to say to them,” says Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, one of the course instructors at JustCity and the director of alumni and community engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. “It’s a program that will make a difference.”

One of the exercises Ruskay did with the teens is called a “root cause tree,” which involved the students examining a particular social problem and asking questions about the structural issues in society at the root of it. In this case, students drew on the in-depth New York Times story about a child named Dasani who was living in a homeless shelter with her family.

Our Responsibility to Make the World Better

JustCity social justice teen volunteers Hurricane SandyThroughout the intensive 12-day program, which runs through July 11th, the teens work with PresenTense, an organization that catalyzes young Jews to become innovators in their communities, to create projects dealing with issues that they care about. “We have a huge range of projects,” explains Laura Landau, JustCity’s program leader. “From combating rape culture on college campuses to increasing Holocaust education. The hope is for them to go out into their home communities and begin to put these plans into action.”

The teens are also learning about social action through the lens of Jewish tradition. They’re “looking at what Jewish texts have to say about our responsibility to make the world a better place, and who we are responsible to, and how we go about doing that,” says Aliyah Vinikoor, JustCity’s program director.

Naim, who is hoping to start a reading group for underprivileged children at a library near her home, says that another aspect of the program she enjoyed was the diversity of the participants.

“I think what’s also really great about this program is that there are people from all over America, so everybody has a different story,” Naim points out. “I come from an Orthodox background and it’s so interesting to learn from people who are from Reform and Conservative backgrounds. Everybody has really amazing perspectives on different things.”