Learning Tzedek in Nicaragua
August 23, 2006Comments (0)
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Hillel professionals, in Nicaragua, as part of the Everett Family Tzedek Initiative.
They ate rice and beans three times a day, slept on the floor of a local preschool and solved a Shabbas-light dilemma with a lack of electricity, but for the 12 Hillel professionals who journeyed to Nicaragua this August, as part of the Everett Family Tzedek Initiative, tzedek itself has new meaning.
“We were the students. We had no electricity, no e-mail, and no cell phones, so it was easier to learn and to reflect,” says Matt Lehrman, program director at the Hillel of the University of Kansas.
The Everett Family Tzedek Initiative provides a package of training and grants to 15-20 Hillels each year to strengthen their social justice work. Hillel professionals receive intensive training in the Jewish approach to social justice and are sent to a needy community to put their classroom training into practice. Upon returning to campus they will help students to design their own social justice program.
The first 12 Hillel professionals to participate in the pilot program spent a week in El Horno, Nicaragua with the American Jewish World Service. They picked crops, dug two-foot deep holes for a fence, and built picnic benches for the community center.
“We worked alongside local volunteers who also wanted to improve the usability of the local community center,” explains Robin Weber, assistant director of Jewish student life at the Texas Hillel Foundation. “We even saw for ourselves the difference we made to the center when they used the picnic benches during a community meeting about hurricane preparation.”
Much of the time was also spent interacting with residents of this remote agricultural village. On Shabbat the participants hiked through a swampy path to play a game of baseball with their hosts.
“The baseball diamond was in a bean field and they used cardboard boxes for bases, but it was one of the best experiences of the trip,” says Mike Levinstein, assistant director of Kent State Hillel. “If visiting the sick is a mitzvah, then so was visiting the people of this village. We let them know that they aren’t forgotten and that we care.”
But daily discussions after lunch and dinner, about poverty and Jewish ethical responsibility, were another key component of this professional development experience.
“The principles of tzedek, mishpat, tzedaka and chesed (justice, law, charity and love and kindness) are at the heart of the curriculum that was developed for the Everett Family Tzedek Initiative,” says Michelle Lackie, director of Weinberg Tzedek Hillel.
Prior to leaving for Nicaragua the participants met for two days of orientation at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland. They prepared themselves for the trip by reading several articles about the history of Nicaragua, service learning, the ethics of responsibility and American values.
"There is a Jewish way to do social justice," says Geoffrey Menkowitz, associate director of the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning and coordinator for the Everett Family Tzedek Initiative. “By training our staff and developing this innovative curriculum, Hillel is at the cutting-edge of Jewish service-learning. We are promoting social justice experiences for students which are distinctively Jewish."
"Pairing Jewish learning with the social justice deed, I believe is the power of the Everett Tzedek Initiative,” says Geoffrey Brown, director of the College of William and Mary Hillel.
“The articles about American values and the eight degrees of tzedaka will be very useful for instigating discussions with our students,” says Lehrman.
Now that the professionals have returned to campus, their experience in Nicaragua will help them continue to implement the student ethical leadership programs each is developing for their campuses.
“I have a lot of anecdotes and a wealth of resources to share with students now,” says Levinstein.
For Kim Silverstein, assistant director of student affairs at the University of Southern California Hillel, her tzedek experience will also serve as an ice breaker when engaging new students.
“The students started returning to campus while I was in Nicaragua, this trip is a jumping off point for the ‘what did you do this summer?’ conversation,” she says.
“We are extremely excited to see how these professionals use their service learning experience in Nicaragua, both from the personal and the tzedek side, to inform the work they do with students on campus,” says Lackie.
Learn more about Tzedek >>