Jewish Students Return from Alternative-Break Programs with Sore Muscles, Full Hearts
March 28, 2005Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friend By Aviva Perlman
For many college-aged students, spring break means sun, the beach, parties and living carefree for an entire week. For other students, spring break is a chance to give back to communities less fortunate than their own.
Throughout the month of March, Hillel delegations from schools across the United States participated in alternative-break programs, doing social-justice work throughout North and South America and the former Soviet Union.
This year marked the first time Hillel at the Claremont Colleges participated in an alternative-break program. Four students representing all but one of the Claremont Colleges spent their break in El Salvador working on several agricultural projects for struggling farmers.
"There's a whole world outside of the U.S., where people live very differently than we do here," said Betsy Marder, a senior at Pitzer College. "We have access to a wealth of resources, and I believe we have an obligation to use them to help those who need it."
The trip to El Salvador was arranged with Yale Hillel through the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease around the world based on Jewish principles of social justice.
"We felt strongly about working with AJWS and doing the trip in a Jewish context," Marder said.
Rutgers Hillel worked with AJWS for the third time this year and became the organization's first delegation to Guatemala. Eleven students worked with the community of Rabinal to help build a chicken coop for a local school. The revenue the school will receive from selling the eggs will help support the school's programming.
"A lot of Mayan indigenous people don't go to school beyond sixth or seventh grade," Rutgers Hillel JCSC Fellow Karen Perolman said. "The school we worked with is trying to help their students stay in school longer and possibly go to college."
The work proved challenging for the Rutgers students, but it only made them prouder of their accomplishments.
"The project was a lot more physically demanding than we thought," Perolman said. "We were digging into rock, but we got to pour concrete and work with metal. We all felt like we were mini-contractors for the week."
Further south, 15 students from Duke University returned to Uruguay for their third alternative-break program in the country. They worked with students from New York University to build a community center for the residents of El Tobogan, a disadvantaged village near the capital city of Montevideo.
"Duke has established a pretty strong connection with Uruguay. The students have developed strong connections to the community," said Courtney Wisotsky, the program coordinator at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke. "As the bus pulled out on our last day of the trip, the whole community was standing outside the center waving goodbye. It showed how much we meant to them and how much we brought to their community."
Though international trips are popular, many Hillels chose to remain in the United States and concentrate on domestic projects. The Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University sent eight students to West Virginia to work with Habitat for Humanity to build a house.
"We chose West Virginia for a number of reasons," said Sarah Bassin, the JCSC fellow at the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton. "We wanted to go south to a place that was with a seven- or eight-hour driving radius, and West Virginia University is in a college town that has a small but thriving Jewish community. We wanted an opportunity to explore a different Jewish experience."
Though the Princeton students originally hoped to go on an international trip, Bassin said, staying in the United States proved advantageous in the end.
"We were able to keep the costs down, have a more intensive service experience and attend to all the religious needs of the traditional students," Bassin said.
In addition to having the opportunity to do social-justice work, alternative-break programs often turned into an educational experience.
"One of the older gentlemen instructing us in Spanish how to build the coop showed me how to bend rhubarb into the square shape that was going to be used for the columns. Miraculously, I understood him," Rutgers sophomore Rachel Sakofs said. "Four boys from the school came to join us and asked me how to do it and I showed them."
"We spent a considerable part of each day engaged in Jewish text study and discussion of issues like globalization, sustainable development, poverty, tzedakah and our responsibility as Jews to people in other parts of the world, to help us process what we were doing [in El Salvador]," Marder said.
Following the alternative-break program, many Hillels find ways to take their work and experiences and bring it back to campus. Students from the Hillel at Claremont Colleges will put together events to raise awareness on issues such as hunger, homelessness, AIDS and the genocide in Darfur, while Rutgers students will present information about their trip at the university's fair and raise money for AJWS. The Duke group also received a Hillel alternative-break follow-up grant to hold an Uruguay Shabbat.
"Students will be able to share their experience with the greater Jewish community at Duke. They'll show pictures, share stories, give background of the situation in Uruguay and why we went," Wisotsky said. "But you don't need to go thousands of miles away to do community service. The trip was a great way for students to come back invigorated and excited to do community service and social action on campus."
"Some students' main connection to Jewish life is based on social justice," Bassin said. "If the only way of identifying with the Center for Jewish Life during their entire four-year [Princeton] career is the alternative-break program, I'd still say that such a student could be considered a success story for us."
Aviva Perlman is a junior at American University and an intern in Hillel's communications department.