Nearly 40 Jewish students from New York City, Jerusalem, and Budapest fused service learning and cultural exchange at a gathering of the Social Action Exchange in Budapest, Hungary from May 24-30. The Social Action Exchange is an initiative of Hillel’s Bronfman Center at New York University (NYU).
Participants of Social Action Exchange in Budapest.
Since 2005, the program focused on connecting Jewish students from NYU and Hebrew University through a shared curriculum on social justice. In 2009 however, additional funding was granted by the UJA Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) to add a third community, and in 2010, the Hungarian group Marom joined the Hillel at NYU and Mimizrach Shemesh in Israel as a co-organizer of the Exchange.
“The Marom students have added an entirely new layer to the conversation,” said NYU Hillel Director David Rittberg. “Hungary’s dynamic past — the Shoah and Communism — has led to a present where definitions of Jewish identity and Tikun Olam are complex. It has been incredible for participants from all three communities to explore and compare these complexities.”
As part of the Exchange, the each delegation follows a year-long curriculum in their respective home community that incorporates sessions with professionals who work in the fields of social justice, Jewish text study, and academic reading.
The delegations then come together twice a year for week-long immersive experiences, such as the May gathering in Budapest, which focus on service and local social justice issues. These face-to-face immersive experiences give students a window into the Jewish identity of their peers from around the world and also into their own.
“Comparing my experience as an American Jew to the group from Budapest has allowed me to see how much I take for granted,” said NYU student participant Sara Ackerman. “As I learn about the anti-Semitism that is prevalent in Hungary today, I really appreciate how open I can be with my own Jewish identity.”
Participants from the Hungarian cohort were also struck by differences around the issue of open observance. “Being with the Americans and Israelis, who are so proud and unafraid to express their Judaism, made me consider my own thoughts about being Jewish,” said Budapest participant Eszter Haris. “This program started as one focused on community service, but has become something much more. I now feel part of something larger.”
Rittberg echoes the power of the Social Action Exchange to build a global community. “This program unites three very different communities through a common goal. The students see that Jews around the world can have a shared set of traditions and a shared language of Tikun Olam, and yet have so much to learn from each other. This is the power of global Jewish peoplehood.”