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Synagogue members spend Christmas break helping others

While a lot of teens are kicking back and playing video games for their winter vacation, Joey Fisher and Danny Goodman are busy learning life lessons.

“One day can change someone’s life,” Danny said. “And can teach me a lot about myself. Yesterday we painted the master bedroom of a house and the lady who lived there was so happy. We helped her and made her life better and made our lives better.”

The two 15-year-olds are part of a group of 40 volunteers from Beth Ernet Synagogue in Chicago. The congregation members flew into New Orleans on Christmas Eve and drove to Pascagoula. They will depart on New Year’s Eve having spent their time gutting homes, painting walls, hanging drywall and restoring the Moss Point Riverfront Community Center.

“This center was used for food distribution, storage and housing the homeless since the storm,” said June Tippit, an organizer with Volunteers of America. “Just anything but a community center and they are taking these rooms and putting things back together. They’re doing this for the community members.”

Joey and Danny, who worked in the Community Center on Wednesday, are the youngest of the 13 youths who have volunteered along with their parents. Both said they couldn’t think of a better way to spend their break from school.

“We could be skiing,” Joey said. “But, that’s just indulging ourselves. This is more rewarding.”

Most of the youth members attend public school or college and receive the traditional Christmas vacation, but because it’s a Christian holiday, they thought they could spend their time off wisely and help with the recovery effort in Pascagoula and Moss Point.

Elliot Leffler organized the trip and said the youth members are constantly amazing him.

“We came down with just the youth in April,” Leffler said. “They were just impressive and these kids are equally impressive. Ready to dig in anywhere necessary and do what needs to be done.”

Leffler said Jackson County has changed little since his last trip to the coast.

“I see less debris and more construction,” Leffler said. “But there’s so much more that needs to be done.”

He said part of the group spent Wednesday repairing the home of Pearl Frazier of Moss Point home, which saddened him.

“She (Frazier) said the floor had not been replaced yet,” Leffler said. “Here it is 15 months later and something as basic as a floor that was completely under water has yet to be done. There’s probably mold growing and it really dispirited me.”

Leffler said Hurricane Katrina was shocking for the nation, but what’s more shocking is the lack of an organized effort to help the people who need it the most.

Dan Yamshon agreed.

“This storm will make the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer,” Yamshon said. “More groups like ours are needed and because you don’t get the media coverage New Orleans does I’m afraid you will be forgotten.”

The group plans to return this summer and Leffler said he hopes to bring even more participants.

Rabbi Andrea London traveled with the youth group in April and now again with the intergenerational group.

“This is a family time for us,” London said. “These kids and their parents are spending time together helping others. I think sometimes we spend too much time with our own generation and this will add value to their relationships.”

Danny agreed.

“I’m getting to spend a lot of time with my dad,” Danny said. “When we head home it’ll be time for my sister’s 13th birthday and it’s bat mitzvah. I know we’ll have lots of stories to tell.”