By Alex Hoff
An old man watches a boy at the beach bend over and pick up starfish after starfish and throw them into the sea. The man tells the boy that there are thousands of starfish for miles along the beach and that he will never make a difference.
In response, the boy bends over, picks up another starfish, throws it into the sea and says, “But for this one I am making a difference.”
This parable, told by Rabbi Brian Glusman, acted as the kickoff Sunday, March 6, of the Atlanta session of J-Serve, an international day of Jewish youth service that every year inspires over 10,000 Jewish teens to take part in improving their local communities.
That day, 250 Atlanta Jewish middle-schoolers and high-schoolers met at the Marcus Jewish Community Center to participate in 10 service and advocacy projects.
One project that left its participants with a true sense of fulfillment was “Am Yisrael Chai! Remember and Respond: Holocaust Awareness and Refugees.”
The program kicked off with the students watching a video produced by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s “not enough to curse the darkness of the past. Above all, we have to illuminate the future,” Holocaust survivor Estelle Laughlin says in the video.
That’s the core message of sponsoring partner Am Yisrael Chai, which focuses on Holocaust education and genocide prevention.
“We need to remember the past and then apply those lessons to today’s world by standing up to support those who face genocide or other humanitarian crises,” said Andrea Videlefsky, who leads Am Yisrael Chai.
After the video, the teens packed 50 knapsacks with school supplies and toothbrushes and delivered them to a community of refugees in Clarkston, where the youths heard the story of a Sudanese refugee, Philemon Juac Gor.
Gor told of his experience as one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan. During the second Sudanese civil war from 1983 to 2005, 20,000 ethnically Neur and Dinka boys were orphaned and displaced. On their journey to refuge, nearly half of the Lost Boys died of starvation, dehydration and diseases such as malaria or were killed by wild animals or enemy soldiers.
In 2001, Gor and 3,800 other Lost Boys were authorized to move to the United States as refugees.
He told the students that people still are killing each other in South Sudan, where “school is held under a tree even now,” and that genocide is happening around the world.
“It was really nice to hear about his individual experience and how we take so many things for granted,” said Katie Freedman, a junior at Walton High School.
Other students learned that they have the ability to change the world. Aden Levine, an eighth-grader at Atlanta Jewish Academy, said, “It’s inspiring to hear everyone’s stories and know that we can make a difference.”
Gor, meanwhile, was touched by the generosity of the students. “It makes me so really happy. Sometimes it (seeing the volunteers) makes me want to cry. … I encourage you to keep doing these things.”
Continuing public service, Videlefsky said, should not be underemphasized. She told the students: “You’re going to go to get a great education … to become great leaders and things like that. If you can always do it through the prism of wanting to help other people and make this world a better place, this is where it starts. With one small action, one person can make a big difference.”