Most college students spend their winter breaks watching TV and lounging around the house. However, this was not the case for a group of students from UMASS and the other 5-Colleges of the Pioneer Valley. These students decided that watching TV is not quite as important as helping to feed the hungry of Boston during this harsh winter season. Instead of sleeping until 1 PM everyday, these thirteen students, along with Devon Fitzig, the UMASS Hillel program director, agreed to spend three days in Boston on a community service retreat organized by the Tzedek Hillel social justice initiative of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and sponsored by the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts.
Each of the three days and two nights of the retreat were jam packed with activities. The participants stayed overnight at Hostelling International, near the Hynes Convention Center at the heart of Boston. Beginning at 9 AM, the participants volunteered at different sites each day. These sites included the Boston Living Center, a center for people who suffer from the AIDS/HIV virus, Rosie's Place, a shelter for battered and homeless women, and the Boston Food Bank, which organizes and distributes mostly non-perishable food.
The rewards of the time spent at these sites were overwhelming. One participant explained, "Volunteering at the Boston Living Center was a wonderful experience. It was nice to know that a place with so many resources exists to help those in need." UMASS senior Rachel Slate spoke fondly of her experiences at Rosie's Place, and stated, "It was great to know that a little volunteering can make a big difference."
In fact, the volunteer work that these students did make a huge difference. At the Boston Food Bank, each participant sorted an astounding average of 282 pounds of food, and made 217 meals possible over the 3 hours spent sorting and organizing various foods in a warehouse. At Rosie's Place, about a hundred women were fed nutritious meals, and were provided with basic feminine luxuries, such as soap and perfume. Lastly, at the Boston Living Center, members were provided with home-cooked meals, a variety of drinks, gourmet deserts, and even a complimentary coat-check!
The participants of the retreat gave up their free time to perform mitzvot: However, they did not go home without first learning why it is important to do these mitzvot, and how they can continue to fight for "tzedek," or justice, in the future. The group visited the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, and spoke with the director of social justice programs, Nahma Nadich, who asserted, "If your brother is in need, strengthen his hand, and promote self sufficiency, so that your help is no longer needed."
Nadich also spoke to the participants about Jewish values of helping strangers, since after all, "We were all strangers in Egypt." This speech was followed by an interactive text study that continued the theme of "helping strangers." UMASS Freshman Alicia Drucker reflected that this activity "really brought into perspective why we were doing this [community service]."
The participants also had the incredible opportunity of meeting with Leonard Fein, the founder of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which promotes the donation of 10% of food at Jewish catered events to feed the hungry. In the library of his studio apartment in Boston, as the participants ate baba ganoush with pita and drank hot apple cider, all eyes were wide open and filled with inspiration and admiration as Fein spoke about his experiences and shared his beliefs. He talked about everything from Israeli politics, to the coming of the Messiah. Fein emphasized the importance of continuing to do community service, since "there is always more to be done." Slate explained, "Leonard Fein is a person who dreams big and makes things happen to benefit many. I enjoyed meeting him and hearing his perspectives on various topics. He is very knowledgeable and I enjoyed learning about his experiences and accomplishments."
At the end of the community service retreat, the participants were given time to reflect on their experiences with each other individually and then together as a group. They talked about what their experiences meant to them, and how they may do things differently in the future as a result. As Fitzig explained, "It was important to create a group building experience where students could get excited about helping others and bring that enthusiasm back to campus." In conclusion, their experiences were overall very positive, and each participant felt that the retreat was very fulfilling, and was worth the effort and lack of sleep.