Tzedakah,Tefillah and Teens: Digging Deeper on the Teen Service Trip

By Heila Precel and Josh Adamson | Issue Date: Fall 2014

On the surface, teens and prayer do not seem like natural partners. If you were able to witness the 23 teens on BJ’s February service learning trip to the Dominican Republic, however, your mind may have changed. As part of the trip, our teens considered tefillah in phenomenal and unique ways, evaluating how prayer may be incorporated into their daily lives. Two of our teens have written about their experiences below.
—Ivy Schreiber, Director of Education for Youth and Family

Heila’s Story

Heila Precel and a girl from the Dominican Republic village visited by BJ teensThe first time I ever really connected to prayer was on a sticky day in the Dominican Republic (DR). We were sitting in a circle on rickety chairs, alternating between traditional and very non-traditional tefillot. Instead of following the liturgy, we were encouraged to focus on a single tefillah and make it personally relevant. Instead of listening to others chant around us, we filled the air with our own voices. And most importantly, each of us took turns coming up with a kavanah to share with the group. Prayer in the DR was passionate, it was moving, and it was about accepting a level of intimacy with the people around you that let you drown yourself in the moment.

But while prayer in the DR encapsulated what I loved most about the trip, it also brought out my biggest struggle. At its core, the time we spent in the Dominican Republic was volunteer tourism. We, a group of American teens, wanted to do something good on our February break. So we flew to another country, made a difference, and then went right back to our ordinary lives. I don’t mean to belittle the work that we did there—it was hard work, and we accomplished a lot. But at the end of the day, we were sweaty teens unused to physical labor that helped out at a community center for a week. I spent a lot of time feeling disrespectful because my experience of the trip revolved around self- reflection. I felt like I was ignoring the fact that the people we tried to help couldn’t just hop on a plane to get away from their real lives and struggles. Although I was deeply moved by prayer on the Dominican Republic trip, for this reason, I’m not sure I want to let myself be moved by it. I wish I could say that by the end of the trip I came to a life-changing conclusion—one that let me reconcile those two parts—but I didn’t. I have accepted that such a conclusion can never truly be reached.

Yet, the work still needs to be done. So even though fighting between feelings of shame and fulfillment was difficult and uncomfortable, I wouldn’t take back any of my experiences in the Dominican Republic. Instead, I hope I can learn to strike a better balance by using the hesed and prayer that I learned during my weeklong stay.

Josh’s Story

I’ve always loved to sing niggunim, the songs that always start BJ services. They usually have repetitive sounds and don’t have actual words. If you don’t know what niggunim are, then they must sound terrible from this description, but trust me—they are great. During the international trip, I would always start one up, on the bus, at work, or at dinner. Sometimes people would join me, butAt the entrance to Cuevas de Maravillas during an afternoon of sightseeing. Left to to right: Eli Dubois, Ben Korman, Mica Bahn, Amelia Geser, Ethan Geismar, Rachel Fischer, Cassandra Kopans Johnson, Heila Precel, Maddie Bender, Sam Harris and Josh Adamson. it would never be the whole group.

On service learning trips, Shabbat is a day of rest, reflection and prayer. No work is done; instead, we all think. Shabbat starts with the Friday night service. The week we spent in the Dominican Republic was the most intense week of my life. We worked in the hot sun for hours, lived without 24/7 water or electricity, and saw poverty. By the time of the service, we were done with work for the trip, and only Shabbat lay ahead of us. At the end of the service, Rabbi Marcelo started a niggun. It started off slow, but then gained strength until everyone was singing. But that wasn’t enough; there was still more energy that could be put into the niggun. So I stood up. And then Marcelo stood up, and then David Lieberman stood up, and then everybody stood up. People were clapping, smiling and singing. Then, Marcelo started to do a circle dance with little kicks. Soon we were all dancing. It was the most powerful moment of the entire trip for me, and one I will remember for the rest of my life.

Heila Precel has been attending services at BJ for as long as she can remember, and became a bat mitzvah at BJ in December 2008. She is a senior at the A.J. Heschel School, and is passionate about both science and visual arts.
Josh Adamson is a junior at Columbia Prep. He became a bar mitzvah at BJ in 2011, and has been part of the teen community ever since. He plays baseball and likes history