Toronto Hillel Social Action Director Devora Schwartz-Waxman in Uganda on a tzedek project.
By Devora Schwartz-Waxman
Over the past four years, as the director of Tzedek Hillel programs at Hillel of Greater Toronto, I have travelled with students to places all over the world. We’ve been to Central America, the former Soviet Union, the United States and Israel. While I never imagined that this job would take me to any of these places, I certainly never imagined that it would take me and my students to Africa.
That changed a year ago when we decided to take students on an extended Tzedek Hillel trip as part of our ever expanding Tzedek program. In partnership with American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and the Israel Program Centre (IPC) in Toronto, I travelled to Uganda and Israel with a group of 10 Toronto students for a four-week volunteer mission.
AJWS has been working with a non-profit organization, the Ugandan Orphans Rural Development Project (UORDP), for the past few years. UORDP works to sustain children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in the homes of the relatives who have adopted them. Our project was to build a new school house, on an existing school property, in order to allow the school to grow. We were hosted in the home of he director of UORDP and were warmly welcomed by the entire community. It was a rare opportunity to live in the community and learn to adapt to their lifestyle of no electricity or running water.
We were the first delegation to be sent to this host site and it afforded us an exceptionally authentic experience. Most people in the community had never met Jews. Many had never met white people either. Above and beyond the building project, the experience provided both sides with a unique opportunity for cross-cultural exchange.
One Friday evening, members of the community attended our Kabbalat Shabbat services and two days later we attended their church services. Our presence in the community was so rare that regardless of where we were going or what we were doing, dozens of children would follow us at a distance to see what the muzungus (white people) were up to. My most vivid memory was as we were about to begin painting a mural on the school house. I turned around to see the entire village, including many of their farms animals, coming to see what we were doing with the supplies we had purchased in town. There must have been 50 people, chickens, dogs and cows present!
Our experiences in Israel were equally unique to those in Uganda. We were volunteering in Kiryat Moshe, a predominantly Ethiopian community, just outside of Rochovot. This component of the trip was organized through the IPC in Toronto. Students were housed by residents of Rochovot, mainly of Yemenite descent. The community was warm and hospitable and curious about life in Canada.
Our group worked on two projects in Kiryat Moshe. We refurbished a dilapidated building donated to the community by the municipality. It was to be used for events and meeting and volunteering at an after-school program for 11 to 13 year-old youths.
Both projects provided the Toronto students with insight into the issues facing many Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. Now that they are home, the students have already begun working on plans to stay connected and involved in these communities.
And our host communities, in both Uganda and Israel, served as tremendous examples of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests.
Devora Schwartz-Waxman is the Tzedek Hillel/Social Action director at the Hillel of Greater Toronto.