Students clean a garden at a Haifa nursery school as part of the Hillel Alternative Break in Israel program.
Inside a nursery school in an underprivileged neighborhood in Haifa, a group of 4-year-olds were singing songs in Hebrew. The children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, this was their first exposure to the language and customs of Israel and the broader Jewish community.
Outside the nursery school, another form of global Jewish education was taking place. College students from North America, South America, Israel and the former Soviet Union were working together to repaint the school building, clean up the garden and replace its rusted fence as part of Hillel's Alternative Break in Israel program.
Josh Evans, one of the few Jewish students at the University of North Dakota, worked in the schoolyard. "Today I had a spectacular time. I have been able to experience our cultural differences, our different countries, our different histories and different approaches to everyday life. This has been so worthwhile. I am bringing back so much that I didn€¢t know about myself. I have explored my ability to interact with other," he said.
Josh was joined in his gardening duties by Marcelo David, a student from Uruguay. "I see my future in Israel. I wanted to see a side of Israel that Taglit-Birthright Israel does not show," Marcelo said. "I don't think it our job to change the world but to change it a little bit. As we say in Spanish, we were able to put in our little grain of sand."
Israeli student Alex Shafran-Pavlotzky, a Haifa native, approved of the group's work. "I do a lot of projects like this in Haifa and it's beautiful to meet people from abroad who share my belief in Israel and Zionism."
Students in the alternative break program contributed their "grains of sand" across Israel in a variety of settings. In Tiberias they renovated the apartments of immigrants. In Merchavya they worked with Ethiopian immigrants. In Beit Shean they did programs with at-risk youth. In Akko they painted the interior of an alementary school and a mural outside.Each day ended with a reflection exercise that enabled the students to understand their service in the context of tzedek, the Jewish concept of social justice.
In Tel Aviv, students helped beautify a temporary shelter for refugees from Africa who escaped conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan and other hotspots on the continent. Ilana Diamond, a student at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote an article for The Jerusalem Post about her experience working in the shelter.
"Argentineans were painting next to Darfurians, and Americans were painting next to Ivorians, laughing as the groups simultaneously pulled out their cameras to take pictures with each other," she wrote.
"It was an unexpected pleasant surprise to have the refugees working with us. It made us equals," Neta Boltzman, a junior at Clark University, told The Jerusalem Post. "To see the reality of the situation -- there is no way you can understand it until you see it."
"We are enormously proud of our alternative break programs around the world," explains Tzedek Hillel Director Michelle Lackie. "By conducting service learning trips in Israel, we are giving students the added dimension of connecting them to Israel, to the scope of Jewish history, and to the breadth of Jewish communities."
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