Orthodox Union Relief Mission to Rwanda Supports Over 500 Teen Orphans in Pilot Trip

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14 Jul 2023

First Cohort of College Students and Young Professionals Encourages Youth Striving to Create Better Futures in a Society Traumatized by the Rwandan Genocide

While several of his peers were celebrating the start of summer vacation at exotic beach destinations, 19-year-old Raphael Blumenthal of Dallas, Texas spent a week in June with over 500 teens at a Rwandan orphanage in Colline Nawe, 37 miles from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. The Yeshiva University student majoring in finance and marketing was among six young adults from various U.S. cities who traveled 27 hours to connect with the residents of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) as part of Orthodox Union (OU) Relief Missions’ first trip for college students and graduates.

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village teens and OU Relief Missions participants Raphael Blumenthal and Matan Schwartz

“Spending my vacation time volunteering with underprivileged youth was a choice driven by the profound impact and transformative experiences I sought to gain,” said Blumenthal. “Considering my past experience on an OU Relief Missions trip to New Orleans, coupled with the extraordinary leadership of OU Relief Missions Director Rabbi Ethan Katz, I knew that this trip was going to be an unforgettable one. I wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of my slightly more distant brothers, who are also G-d’s children.”

Like Blumenthal, 21-year-old Sydney Beberman of Highland Park, New Jersey, viewed the mission as a chance to support underprivileged youth not much younger than herself. 

Only 29 years ago, there was a genocide in Rwanda and the world did not show that they cared,” said Beberman, a psychology student at Stern College. “I took this opportunity to show these teens that I care about them, I’m excited to see what their future looks like, and that I value them and everything that they’ve been through.”

L-R: OU Relief Missions participants Sydney Beberman and Tammy Goldner on a safari in Akagera National Park

Since 2005, NCSY, the OU’s international youth movement, has led over 225 chessed and relief missions to more than 20 American and European regions depleted by natural and man-made disasters. As one of the largest Jewish relief mission organizations, NCSY Relief Missions engaged over 1,000 teens annually. Now rebranded as OU Relief Missions, it is expanding to include community, synagogue and retiree missions alongside those for young professionals.

This was the first OU Relief Mission to Rwanda. The goal of the trip was for participants to cultivate meaningful and deep bonds with ASYV youth as a show of encouragement for their efforts, achievements and growth. While the residents were born decades after the genocide, they are all affected by the societal trauma and intergenerational ramifications of the massacre, notes OU Relief Missions Director Rabbi Ethan Katz, who led the trip.

“The purpose of our going was just to be there, to make the teens feel valued and heard, to support them and to show them that we care about them,” he says. “ASYV is all about systematic change and creating a better future for Rwanda, which really taps into our value system as Jews. We feel that it’s important to use our experience as the post-Holocaust generation to help them post-genocide. Five years from now, these teens are not going to remember any of our names. But they will definitely remember how we made them feel.” 

OU Relief Missions participants connect with Rwandan residents at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village

Founded in 2008 by the late Anne Heyman in response to the orphan crisis caused by the 1994 Rwandan genocide, ASYV provides systemic support and security for vulnerable youth ages 14 to 19. Having lost one or both parents, many of the teens stem from abject poverty and homes often devoid of electricity. Grouped according to grade level, about 25 teens live as “families’” in homes managed by a “momma.” ASYV is modeled after Yemin Orde, an Israeli youth village established in 1953 to care for orphans of the Holocaust. 

I had the honor of sitting with five mommas and asking them questions about their life, and how they ended up in their current working position,” said Blumental. “It was impossible to tell by their vibrant smiles, but each were victims of the genocide and watched as husbands and children were murdered in their homes. After having lost every conceivable human bond, they made it their life mission to nurture, inspire, and emotionally stabilize groups of children who have gone through similar traumas.” 

The participants — each of whom paid $1,000 plus airfare — slept at the village and engaged with residents over seven days at various art, music and sports activities. They also interacted with youth at mealtimes, cheered them on at a village-wide talent show, and participated in “family time” alongside the teens, who meet nightly with their mommas to share highs and lows of their day.

For both Blumenthal and Beberman, bonding with the youth during family time was especially memorable.

A group of 10th grade girls invited us into their home, introduced themselves, asked us questions and played a game with us that involved singing, dancing and lots of laughing,” she reflected. “It was so fun to be able to join the teens at a time that they clearly loved, and their warm welcome meant so much to me.”

For his part, Blumenthal says he had a profound conversation with a family of 22 boys, who shared their remarkable stories of resilience and gratitude. 

“We connected on various topics, fostering a meaningful bond through shared experiences and laughter. We deepened our connection through music, runs, and endless conversations in the days that followed.”

The mission included a strong educational component, with visits to The Kigali Genocide Memorial, which also devotes space to the Holocaust; the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, which empowers women by teaching them trades; and the Hotel des Mille Collines, where over 1000 Rwandans sought refuge during the massacre, and which inspired the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda.” The group also went on a guided safari in Akagera National Park and Rabbi Katz led shiurim and sessions on such topics as the similarity between halacha and Rwanda’s cultural norms.

With their request to kasher the guest house kitchen, daily davening, Shabbos meals catered by Chabad Lubavitch of Rwanda, and the men’s kippot, participants also made a significant impact on the villagers, who are strong supporters of Israel and the Jewish people. 

“The kids have a strong connection to Israel, Jewish history and Jewish culture,” said Rabbi Katz. “They know that Jews come and help them. Every graduating class designs a huge poster featuring their personal heroes, which is displayed at the sports field. Each poster features about 15 heroes, including people like Chana Senesh, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The fact that these names are displayed there is a huge Kiddush Hashem.”

For all that they gave to the ASYV youth, Blumenthal and Beberman came away from the experience with even more: a broader perspective on life’s priorities, personal growth, heightened empathy, and insights into a society’s determination to rebuild and to not be defined by its horrific past. 

The greatest lesson I walked away with is how to properly treat people and the power of staying resilient,” said Beberman. “The culture in Rwanda is to greet everyone with a big smile on handshake, regardless of whether you know them or not, and they treat everyone with the utmost respect. I think this is a lesson that should be carried out throughout the world. It was also so inspirational to see how resilient these teens are, knowing what they have gone through. Yet they have such high ambitions and are taking advantage of all the amazing things ASYV has to offer.”

For Blumenthal, the mission was similarly life-changing.

“I discovered that happiness in Rwanda stems from the richness of community, gratitude for life’s simplest joys, and a collective resilience forged by overcoming adversity. Rwandans’ unwavering spirit and ability to find contentment in the midst of limited material possessions inspired me to reevaluate my own values and priorities. My time in Rwanda became a constant reminder of the resilience, humility, and happiness that can be found even in the face of adversity. It taught me that true fulfillment lies not in material possessions but in meaningful connections, a grateful heart, and a commitment to making a positive difference in the world.”