As college students look forward to the end of a semester or a Spring break escape from classes, Hillel students are trading Cancun getaways for something more meaningful: Alternative Student Breaks.
Alternative Student Breaks (ASB) offer college students the opportunity to connect with Jewish community and values by participating in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) projects in distressed communities on a national and global level. Through Hillels across Illinois campuses, our students travel to places like New Orleans, Cuba, Argentina, and even Morocco to explore some of the key values of Judaism.
"Each ASB trip has a different focus and educational lens; some trips involve working with a Jewish community abroad, whereas others focus more broadly on poverty and development issues, working with non-Jewish communities but driven by Jewish values," said Rebecca Russo, Doppelt Director of Engagement at Northwestern University.
Nick Liebman, program director for Hillels Around Chicago, took students from around Chicago to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a community still suffering from the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There, his students recycled scrapped pieces from buildings and homes, built a baseball field for youth, and even helped expand the AmeriCorps volunteer encampment. "It really taught me how to put to use what the Torah teaches, the action with the learning in the doing," said Michael Evers, a member of DePaul Hillel who traveled with Liebman to New Orleans. "I can use my hands, thoughts, and words to create something that would help repair a bad situation."
ASB trips to other countries, such as Uruguay, Argentina, or Cuba, are not just social justice oriented trips, but are also immersive experiences in global Jewish peoplehood as our students interact with the local Jewish communities. "The opportunity to encounter Jewish communities abroad has a transformative impact on students' own Jewish identities and connections to the Jewish people," Russo said.
Her sentiment was echoed in remarks by Alex Grubman, a Northwestern Hillel student who went to Cuba for ASB. "The way we engage in the Jewish community there is unique. I personally had the opportunity to meet my contemporaries, Jewish Cuban youth, and find out what it means for them to be Jewish and compare that to my own life."
Grubman was part of a group that brought medical aid that was distributed through a Jewish Community Center to Jews and non-Jews in the community. Last year, they brought 3000 pounds of aid, just from Northwestern student fundraising efforts. Grubman was personally very inspired by the Cuban Jewish community. He explained that, after the revolution, many Jews left, and those who stayed had to rebuild their community. The community is much smaller, and Jewish youth are many of the people leading that rebuilding of the community. "They have shown me a different perspective on leadership that has influenced my own Jewish community building in college."
ASBs provide more than just a "feel good" trip with one's peers; they also serve as valuable tools for engaging students who might not otherwise seek out a Jewish community on campus. "ASBs have been a successful engagement tool at Northwestern Hillel," Russo said. "They appeal to students who are committed to social justice work or love traveling, but may not have otherwise gotten involved in Jewish life on campus."
Liebman commented on the value of ASB for his work at DePaul University, where "we usually see an increased commitment to attending Hillel events, and even planning and taking on leadership roles in Hillel after participation in an ASB. Other students see their peers transformed by what they've experienced which builds anticipation for continued participation in ASBs and other Hillel programing as well."
The impact of ASB trips brings students home even more committed to Jewish life here in Chicago and the community's communal work towards bettering the world. "JUF strives to put Jewish values and the collective resources of our community into action to make our city, our state, our country, and our world a better place," Liebman said. "As students begin to see how their tradition is relevant to them, they also strive to find a way to put their values into action on a continuing basis. JUF is the channel for this continuing commitment to Jewish philanthropy and the pursuit of a more just society in Chicago and beyond."
Lisette Zaid is Program Director of the Lewis Summer Intern Program, and Development Associate for Campus Affairs & Student Engagement.
Hillels throughout Illinois are part of the Department of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago/Jewish United Fund. For more information, visit www.juf.org/hillel or contact Lisa Klein firstname.lastname@example.org (312) 444-2094.