(Washington, D.C. - March 24, 2004) - Utica, Miss., an impoverished town with 930 residents is not your typical destination for a college spring break trip.
But this spring, 25 college students from Hillels across the United States traveled to this rural town in the Mississippi delta from March 14 to 21 to help residents take advantage of new economic opportunities. They are just one group in a larger wave of Jewish campus activists that is engaging in social justice activities in needy communities in the United States, South America and the former Soviet Union.
"I grew up hearing the stories of Jewish activism during the Civil Rights era. Going on this trip has allowed me to follow in those footsteps and make a difference," said Steven Kessler, a sophomore at Bradley University in Illinois.
Hillel college students are also traveling to Nicaragua, Honduras, Uruguay and Argentina to serve in disadvantaged communities and volunteer in homeless shelters, soup kitchens and hospitals. Other students will spend their spring breaks in the cities and villages of Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova as part of the Pesach Project which provides food and companionship for 25,000 Jews living in needy communities during the Passover holiday. More than 675 students will participate in these alternative spring break trips.
In Mississippi, participants spent seven days in Utica and split into three tracks: transforming an abandoned factory into a social service agency; creating a database of residents' job skills; and performing environmental clean-up projects. At the end of each day, the group reflected on their experiences, absorbing what they learned from the residents and from one another. The group also participated in field trips at night, and visited The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.
"This marks an important step for how our students see their role in the world," said Michelle Lackie, director of Weinberg Tzedek Hillel. "We are empowering them to make a difference by going farther than simply their backyards. They are traveling across the country and across the world to participate in meaningful community service activities. They are taking a journey to make change, both spiritually and physically."
The trips are sponsored by Hillel in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism, spark: Partnership for Service, American Jewish World Service, and The Jewish Distribution Committee.
The largest Jewish campus organization in the world, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is committed to creatively empowering and engaging Jewish students through its network of over 500 campus Foundations, program centers and affiliates. Its long-standing dedication to building Jewish identity, while nurturing intellectual and spiritual growth in a pluralistic community, positions Hillel as a leader in building a stronger Jewish people and stronger Jewish future.