A Spring Break of Service and Learning
April 05, 2001Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friendSpring break for many students means a sunny destination in Mexico or Florida, hanging out on the beach by day and going to clubs at night. However for students from many Hillels, spring break has become a tzedek opportunity: a chance to give back to the community, explore different cultures and experience the relationship between Judaism and social justice.
Alternative spring breaks this year ranged from traveling to Mexico and El Salvador, to building homes and infrastructure in small communities, to learning about the homeless and hungry right at home.
Alliance and Understanding
As the culmination of a year of dialogue, six Jewish and six African-American students from the University of Pennsylvania flew to the South for spring break to learn about the Civil Rights Movement. While traveling to Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and Atlanta, students learned about Jewish and African-American history, experienced the South and followed the historic Martin Luther King Jr. march from Selma to Montgomery.
The group formed in September 2000, meeting twice a month to open the discussion between the two communities. As part of this program students "got to know each other, formed alliances and challenged one another," explained Penn Hillel Associate Director Rachel Saifer. In addition they discussed issues such as being Jewish versus being Caucasian, the African-American community as a whole, and gaps between the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.
The Sunday-to-Sunday, intense week of travel included visits to the Rosa Parks Museum, walking from Selma to Montgomery, hearing from residents who accompanied King on the walk, and ended with Shabbat in Atlanta.
Adam Lubow, a sophomore economics and international relations major, thought that hearing from participants in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s put the whole week in perspective. "These people had actually been there, been beaten – it really personalized it for me," he said.
The group will continue the dialogue through the end of the school year and accept 12 more members for next year's group. "Half of the experience was learning from the sights, but the other half was learning from each other," reflected Lubow.
Community Empowerment with a Jewish Focus
New York University freshman Adena Kaplan did not want to sit around at home for her first spring break in college. Traveling to South America instead enabled her to choose a major and help a community in need.
Kaplan, along with 19 NYU, 10 Columbia, and four University of Pennsylvania students, traveled to El Salvador on an American Jewish World Service trip to clean up after Hurricane Mitch and the recent earthquakes.
Over the course of spring breaks across the country, Hillel Foundations at UCLA, UC-Santa Barbara, Stanford, and Tufts also traveled to El Salvador on AJWS programs to provide humanitarian aid to different villages in the region.
Living and working with La Coordinagora village families, students built yurt-like houses: either putting up walls, leveling ground or ripping off roofs. During their lunch and dinner breaks, groups discussed the relationship between Judaism and social justice.
"Students were shocked by the conditions and became attached to the families," said NYU Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow Lori Greene. "They are already planning fundraising projects back at school. It was a great combination of bonding and social action with a Jewish connection."
In addition, students spent a day in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, learning about the early 1980s civil war, discussing the legacy of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and visiting U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Rose M. Likins.
Kaplan found that traveling to El Salvador for spring break became her starting point. Inspired by one experience in particular, upon her return Kaplan chose to major in community empowerment, with an emphasis in Jewish studies.
"I was sitting with a little boy drawing with crayons and a coloring book that we had brought for him, and he kept tapping me to look and smiling," she said. "He only needed 20 minutes of my time. I realized that if you take the time to open your eyes for five minutes, that little time can help to change the world."
More than Dawson's Creek
Penn State University Hillel students did more than just visit the set of the popular series "Dawson's Creek" in Wilmington, N.C. during their spring break trip. The eight students also helped North Carolina residents recover from floods.
After a 13-hour van ride, PSU students took part in leadership development, community service and bonding.
The first few days were spent in Greenville, working on a different site each day, from scraping paint off a halfway house, to installing insulation under an elderly woman's house, to finishing dressers in a homeless shelter.
Along with Eastern Carolina University Jewish students, PSU students made Hametaschen for Purim and held a party for the people who had helped them during the week.
"We were doing something good, while having fun," said PSU sophomore Elissa Shapiro. "We were bonding over service."
The students ended the week by celebrating Shabbat at a synagogue in Wilmington, with Havdalah on a beach.
"It was a great time, said PSU Steinhardt JCSC Fellow Paul Kaplan. "Students got an idea for what it is to give back and help a community in need. On the way back, we were already talking about ideas to do in State College [Penn.]. We're going to keep the momentum going."
Just Do It!
Students from the Jewish Students' Union of Toronto spent two days during their reading week for "Just Do It!" a social action learning experience in Toronto. Between lectures from V'Ahavta, the Jewish-Canadian humanitarian organization, discussions after viewing the film "My Man Godfrey," and working in a Native-American homeless shelter, students had the opportunity to see how they could better their community.
After spending an evening downtown in a youth hostel, the four students manned the homeless shelter van, riding around the city from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. handing out food.
JSU Toronto hopes to hold another Just Do It! program this summer. Michelle Lackie, director of the Centre for Jewish Campus Life at the University of Toronto, said of the experience, "A small group can make it happen. The program gave a different face to people on the streets."
The six students who participated in the program will regroup this summer to continue their work with the homeless of Toronto. Student Linor Gerchak felt that the program was an awakening for her. A fifth-year student graduating in May, Gerchak has decided that she wants to find a job where she will be able to help people.
"As a university student, you become totally immersed in school, but this has really motivated me to do something to benefit others," she explained. "I'm always surprised how inspiring something small can be."