At-risk teens on the front lines

Project Extreme helps to overcome life’s issues

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Outward Bound is an international nonprofit organization founded in 1941 to help promote personal growth and improved social skills through outdoor activities. Project Extreme, a program inspired by Outward Bound and based in Lawrence, provides at-risk teens in the Jewish community and their families with similar opportunities to help them overcome the obstacles they face.

“Our blend of outdoor adventure, with our one-to-one ratio of staff to participants, is unique in the Jewish world,” said Rabbi A.Y. Weinberg, Project Extreme’s executive director. “These types of programs exist in the non-Jewish world. We wanted it in the Jewish world as well … The focus is on being happy, healthy and productive, but spirituality is also something that many kids are looking for.”

Founded in 2001, Project Extreme has added other programs to complement outdoor adventures. Camp Extreme is a summer adventure program, in which separate groups of boys and girls hike, raft and ride bikes in the Canadian Rockies. There are also weekend and Jewish holiday retreats in upstate New York. “We get them out of the environment that’s been causing them to get in trouble,” Weinberg said. “With limited to no use of cell phones, they can connect with nature. It’s a good time, but there are also sessions around the campfire where we talk about life issues.”

Project Extreme also operates a mentorship program called Project Hope; Miryam’s House, a transitional women’s living center in Brooklyn; and a crisis text line, unveiled in April. Teens can contact a trained volunteer crisis counselor by texting LEV to 741741, 24 hours a day.

The organization’s director of operations, Ayalah Lebowicz, explained that the goal of all these programs is to “help teens through the difficult times. We want them to know we’re there for them and want to help them … We do our best to give them the resources to never give up.”

Camp Extreme’s discussions focus on anger management, coping with failure, creating opportunities, community issues and parent-child communication, according to its website. Before heading out into the wilderness, potential campers must apply and be interviewed.

Weinberg said that nearly 60 percent of applicants are accepted. “Sometimes they’ll need more than what we have to offer,” he said. “But other times they may just need a therapist or a change of schools.”

Project Extreme held its annual scholarship breakfast on May 6 at the Lawrence home of Michael and Michelle Edery. The event was sponsored by the kosher supermarket Seasons. At the fundraiser, Inwood residents Yudi and Faigie Hochheiser, whom the organization described as “longtime friends of Project Extreme,” received the Hakoras Hatov Award for helping Project Extreme accomplish its mission.

Faigie was a counselor at Camp Extreme Girls in the summers of 2001 and 2002. Yudi’s parents took in a participant in the Camp Extreme Boys program, whom the organization referred to only as “Adam” to maintain his privacy. Adam was abused where he previously lived, and was put up for adoption at age 13. Yudi saw firsthand how Project Extreme helped him. Yudi said that Adam called the camp his “favorite thing in the world.”

The Hochheisers’ experiences have moved them to raise funds for and awareness of Project Extreme, “They’re on the front lines,” Yudi said of the organization. “I’m not a doctor or an EMT. I don’t know CPR, but if I can help raise awareness and raise some money, I feel like we’re saving lives.”

Not one to revel in the spotlight, Yudi said that he and his wife were initially embarrassed at the prospect of being honored, but decided to use the opportunity to try to get more of his friends involved in the organization. “If one family finds out about this, then it was a success,” he said. “If someone gave one dollar more than they would have, then it was a success.”

When the campers return from the wilderness, Project Extreme makes sure to maintain relationships with them. Weinberg said he had just returned from a wedding in Israel of a former participant he had known for 15 years. “He was so happy I was there for it,” the rabbi said. “It meant so much to him, and me as well. Seeing his progression, getting married to a really good girl. Wow, all the time and effort was worth it.”

For more information on Project Extreme and its programs, visit ProjectExtreme.org or call (516) 612-3922.