Alternative Breaks Give Students Chance to Spring into Service



January 24, 2018

Ah, spring break. A coveted chance to sleep in without missing a class or maybe go somewhere warm and relax. 

Or, in some cases, it’s a week to volunteer. 

Hillels at many campuses offer alternative spring break trips that focus on a particular service activity that directly impacts communities participants may not have encountered before. Here are a few students’ experiences.

Virginia Tech University

For more than six years, Hillel at Virginia Tech has had a partnership with the  nonprofit Rebuilding Together, which works to improve the homes and lives of low-income homeowners. In New  Orleans, they work in neighborhoods  affected by Hurricane Katrina that still  haven’t been renovated. 

Niki Selz went on her first alternative break to New Orleans as a freshman, when she was a Hillel Ask Big Questions Fellow. 

Selz went on another alternative break as a senior, this time as a trip co-leader. They worked on fixing an elderly woman’s house that was still covered in leadbased paint. 

“Service is kind of the piece of Judaism that I am most drawn to,” said Selz. “Service trips in particular give students  a really interesting opportunity to learn about another culture, another way of life.” 

She led reflection sessions each night and discussed bigger topics that came from the work they did, such as looking at privilege and the creation of “need.”

Pennsylvania State University

Penn Staters went to either New Orleans or Roatán, Honduras during the 2017 spring break. 

Becca Lerman served as the student trip leader to Roatán last year after helping form the program two years ago. 

They volunteered in La Colonia, an area “thriving with love, culture and people but in need of many necessities such as homes, electricity, running water,” Lerman said. Their first year, they built a house for a family that lost their own to heavy rains.

They built steps to “physically allow the people of La Colonia to leave and return to their homes situated in the hills.” 

Along with the physical labor, they formed relationships with the residents and fit in time to go snorkeling. 

“Service allows me to connect to my Jewish identity in a way that I feel is empowering,” said Lerman. “Not only are these experiences important for the communities and people we help, but also for the personal development participants inevitably receive during the trip.”

University of Pennsylvania 

Rising junior Lauren Kahn spent her week off on a new alternative break with Penn Hillel, Penn in Poland: Jewish Encounters with Memory and Renaissance. 

She had done a previous alternative break to Nicaragua, but this particular trip allowed Kahn to connect to her own roots. Her grandmother is from Poland. 

Traveling to sites such as Kraków, Oświęcim and Warsaw, where they visited Auschwitz/Birkenau, the students also explored places dedicated to Jewish life beyond the Holocaust and met with leaders in the Jewish community. 

“I thought this trip would be an interesting and different take than many other Poland trips,” she noted. “Instead of exclusively focusing on the period of the Holocaust … it really focused on the history of Jews in Poland/Eastern Europe as a journey.” 

Both trips were eye-opening. 

“It was a great way to meet other students that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten so close with,” she said. “It’s a good balance of travel, fun and learning that is hard to get in just one week on your own, especially in places where you might not necessarily travel to on your own.”