Spending a week in sunny South America would sound appealing to many college students looking to get away from the cold and books during their spring break. But for many Jewish students who traveled there this month, the promise of beautiful beaches and all-night parties wasn't what motivated them to fly south. Rather, it was the desire to help local residents strengthen their communities that inspired students from more than 20 campuses to join their Hillels for alternative breaks abroad.
From Brazil to Argentina, Uruguay to El Salvador, students made an immediate impact on their adopted communities by tilling fields, planting trees, painting community centers and teaching youngsters about proper dental hygiene, among many things. Many Hillels partnered with the American Jewish World Service, an international non-profit organization working to alleviate hunger, disease and poverty, to help with the projects it funds.
"When you go to work with an organization that's supported by AJWS, you know it's not going to be such a Band-Aid job. There's a significant before, and a significant after, and you're just a part of that," said Jamie Schiffman, the assistant director for new initiatives at Rutgers Hillel, who accompanied a group of students from Rutgers and George Washington universities to El Salvador.
The Rutgers-GW group spent their week working with La Coordinadora de Bajo Lempa, a regionally-based organization that aims to strengthen small communities that suffered during El Salvador's long civil war. Students focused on a new task each day – laying cement for a building foundation and preparing fields for new crops, for example – and ate all of their meals with local families, which allowed them to learn more about the village's history and how residents are working to sustain it. They used their afternoons to reflect on their experiences through Jewish text study and discussions on globalization, fair trade and grassroots sustainable development.
"With our having such a rich tradition of doing goods deeds, and having had hardships as a people in the past, we came to a consensus that there's a Jewish responsibility to help anywhere in the world," said Dan Fleisch, a senior at Rutgers.
"It was more educational than I thought it would be," added Stephanie Burton, a George Washington University senior. "Thinking about in one week the topics we covered and the extent to which we covered them is really cool."
The participants also visited San Salvador one day, where they could see the stark differences between the city and the village in which they had worked, and paid a special visit to the Israeli ambassador to El Salvador.
Rio de Janeiro was the destination for a group of students from San Diego State University for the second year in a row, where they worked closely with Hillel Rio to help the residents of Chacara Do Seu, a local slum that it has adopted. The American and Brazilian students partnered to provide children with lessons in dental hygiene, sponsor a mini-marathon to raise money for food and take the kids on a tour of the historic Copacabana Fort – an impossibility for most of the youngsters, who lack the money and transportation to make the trip on their own. Many of the same children joined the Hillel group for all of the activities, making the work especially meaningful.
"If one were to go to a favella [slum] and see that the only thing that makes the children happy is seeing another person's smile, then one can truly start to find appreciation in their own lives," said Andrew Hoffman, an SDSU student who made his second trip to Rio on a Hillel alternative break.
The time the group spent with the local Jewish community was also a very powerful experience. Students visited a local Jewish senior center one day and celebrated Shabbat at a Rio synagogue, where they appreciated the global scope of the Jewish people.
"I have never realized how incredibly special it is to be Jewish until I was completely overwhelmed with Shabbat services," SDSU student Rebecca Steinberger said. "It was here that all the pieces of the puzzle came together. It was here that I finally realized that I was in another country with Hillel and that I am always Jewish first."
"They expected to get a lot out of the trip, but what they experienced was more than what they imagined. Now a whole new world has opened up to them about Jewish community," said Seth Rosenzweig, the program director at Hillel of San Diego at SDSU, who is trying to arrange a trip for the Rio students to come to San Diego this summer.
And for those students looking to combine community service with more of a traditional spring break, the Hillels at the University of Central Florida, University of Florida, and University of South Florida teamed up to sponsor an alternative-break cruise to the Bahamas. Participants embarked on a four-day cruise to Freeport and Nassau, where they volunteered at a nature center, visited a Jewish cemetery, met with local Jewish business owners and read megillah (Purim scroll) for the small Jewish community.
"I really enjoyed getting a real spring break experience, while interacting with Jewish students from around the state and doing some good in the process," said Lauren Proctor, vice president of Hillel at UCF. "This is what Hillel's all about."
Alternative breaks aren't limited to warmer climes – students from area campuses in Chicago and Baltimore instead traveled east for a week in Kiev and Odessa, Ukraine, respectively. Not only did the trips give students a chance to help and learn about the local Jewish communities, but for the Chicago students, it allowed them to learn more about the culture of many of their classmates who immigrated from the former Soviet Union.
"Many of our students are Ashkenazi, so the trip allows them to connect with their roots, and also sensitize them to the culture of their Russian-speaking peers," said Michelle Levine, the director of Hillels Around Chicago: Multi-Campus Center. "They had an incredible time."