By Rochelle Maruch Miller

Save a community, save the world! For a contingent of stellar students, winter break was a time of personal growth, self-discovery, and deepening relationships with Jewish communities in distant venues.

Affording 91 of their rising stars the opportunity to shine as they honed their leadership skills, Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future sent these outstanding undergraduate students on service-learning, experiential-education, and humanitarian-aid missions spanning three continents during the university’s recent winter intersession, during January 10—20.

The student leaders participated in an array of hands-on community-building projects in Israel, the United States, Nicaragua, and Mexico while developing their own leadership, teaching, and advocacy skills.

Mexico and Nicaragua. Beginning on January 13, students on two humanitarian missions in Mexico and Nicaragua explored the relationship between social justice, service, and Judaism. In Mexico, 16 students collaborated with El Hombre Sobre la Tierra (HST—Humanities on Earth), a local nonprofit organization that works within the Mayan community to promote environmental sustainability, advance the integration of women in the economy, and strengthen the capacity of grassroots groups. Continuing the work of previous student visits, the group assisted with a variety of projects, including farming and harvesting in local private and public gardens, building pools for aquaculture development, and contributing to the community’s ecotourism project.

Talia Kugelman of Woodmere is one of the students who collaborated with Hombre Sobre la Tierra. “The Yucatan Peninsula is very dry and therefore it is hard for the people to grow a lot of produce,” she explained. “For years they had been using a system of agriculture known as the slash-and-burn technique, in which they cut down trees to make a clearing and then burn the trees to use the ashes as fertilizer, This technique is not the most efficient form of agriculture, so the local NGO, HST, is working with them to change their system of agriculture. We helped make different natural fertilizers with leaves, manure, and dug-up soil. We dug holes in the more hilly areas to plant fruit trees.”

Talia adds, “I have always been very into volunteering and trying new things. When I originally heard about the program, both of these aspects were what appealed to me. How often do you get the opportunity to volunteer in a Mayan village in Mexico? I also thought this was a great opportunity to put into practice the ideal of tikkun olam, which Judaism so much emphasizes. The trip would be the epitome of tikkun olam.”

“I think what was most rewarding was being able to meet and interact with the local people and hear firsthand accounts of what their lives are like,” she says. “World poverty was always a foreign concept to me; it was hard for me to relate to it, and, to be honest, it was not on the top of my list of concerns. After meeting people who face poverty daily on a level I have never encountered before, it has become an issue which I feel very passionate about. It is also very different reading about these issues in the newspaper than seeing them with your own eyes. These people are now names to me, not numbers or statistics.”

In Nicaragua, another 16 participants volunteered with Servicios Médicos Comunales (SMC), an NGO that promotes community-based sustainable development in the southwestern district of San Juan del Sur. An outgrowth of SMC’s educational programming, the students assisted with the construction of a public library, a project started by previous CJF winter mission participants.

“Following a strong, multifaceted student-led Hurricane Sandy relief effort, our students were energized and excited to pick up where they left off, exercising their hearts and bodies as they worked to empower individuals and transform communities,” said Aliza Abrams, assistant director of CJF’s department of service learning and experiential education, and the staffer who guided the massive relief effort in New York and New Jersey.

“While pitching in to repair these corners of the world, our student leaders experienced an expedited process of growth and self-discovery that will lay the foundations for their future social-justice engagement, including opportunities for public speaking, writing, advocacy, and volunteer service.”

As in the past, the CJF winter missions are run with support from and in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, Repair the World, and the American Jewish World Service.

Israel. Building upon the success of the “Counterpoint Israel” summer program, 39 YU students ran a series of Counterpoint “Winter Camps” for over 450 Israeli teens in Jerusalem, Kiryat Malachi, and Dimona that focused on English enrichment and self-exploration through art. Throughout the ten-day service-learning mission, the YU students guided the Israeli teens through the process of developing a personal narrative and using various media to create multi-dimensional biographies. The students were also active in the respective host communities, working with youth at risk and running workshops for the parents of high-school dropouts.

“Little did I know I was about to encounter a group of motivated, passionate, and compelling students,” Yonati Haymov said. “The second I stepped into the classroom I was greeted with many smiling faces shouting, ‘Shalom! Shalom!’ Already in a matter of moments, each student made me feel at home. I was welcomed with open arms, which was something I had not expected,” recalls the Cedarhurst resident, one of the 39 YU students who ran the Counterpoint Camps.

“After one day of teaching, I noticed one girl who was always watching my every move. At first, I thought I might be imagining it. She would keep asking me questions which I thought were merely casual conversation, but in reality this was the first step to forming our friendship. One day, each group of teachers was assigned to give a teaching lesson dedicated to help map out the students’ future. This particular student approached me, telling me she aspired to become a teacher. I asked her why, thinking she would respond by saying, ‘I don’t know,’ or shrugging her shoulders. Instead, she left me speechless by replying, ‘Because I want to be like you and do what you are doing here in our school.’

“On the verge of tears, I looked over at my teaching partners to see if they had caught the moment I was in. We just looked at each other and smiled. At that moment I realized that I can impact someone’s life in one week and even simply in one day. I realized that instantly these children felt comfortable around me as if they already knew me. They not only had faith in me but also put their trust in me, believing in who I am and what I stand for. I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

Texas. During the same time frame, 20 students met with local rabbis, educators, and communal leaders in Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas, in an effort to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by these diverse Jewish communities. Known as “Jewish Life Coast to Coast,” this experiential education mission aims to broaden the students’ Jewish communal knowledge through informative meetings, hands-on volunteering, and the students’ implementation of educational programs in schools, shuls, and community centers. Highlights included meetings with executive staff members from the Houston and Dallas Federations and Jewish community board members employed by NASA.

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“It is exciting to see that true partnerships are developing between Yeshiva University and communities around the world. As much as it is important to us that our students take part in these missions to expand their worldviews and hone their leadership skills, Jewish communities anxiously await our winter visits, seeing them as opportunities to involve our students in their supplemental education programming and Jewish identity- and community-building projects,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of the CJF.

“Israeli municipalities allow us to completely take over the curriculum in their schools for a full week, and lay leaders of North American Jewish communities vie for the next spot in our programming schedules because they all realize the added benefits of establishing and deepening their relationships with Yeshiva University and our up-and-coming communal stars.”

Rabbi Brander adds, “As they visited communities around the world, the most important and meaningful journey the students embarked upon was their individual experiences of self-discovery as they realized their full potential and discover things about themselves they never knew existed. The group that is the most transformed are the students themselves. There’s a ‘light’ that goes on as they realize how blessed they have been spiritually. Yeshiva University gives these young people the opportunity to engage communities through the prism of Torah. When you give to others, you receive in return; these values are mandated by the Torah.” v


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