A Mensch's Guide to Campus Activism


Alternative school break trips help the needy and inspire students

 Lauren Mangurten 
By Lauren Mangurten

For some students, school breaks mean lying on the beach at a tropical vacation hotspot. For others, school breaks provide an unconventional opportunity for service trips.

Hillels across the nation offer alternative school break trips to national and global destinations, giving students the opportunity to fulfill the task of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Abbey Greenberg, Tzedek program associate at the Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, said Hillels at 125 campuses each sent at least one alternative break trip in the last school year.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I) is one of the many schools sending trips to repair Hurricane Katrina damage.

University of Illinois students help repair homes damaged by Katrina.

Melissa Cohen, program coordinator at U of I’s Hillel, led trips to the Gulf Coast region for the past two spring breaks. She said the 2006 trip went to Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., where students worked to build 19 roofs. In 2007, the group worked to gut homes in New Orleans, La.

The main goal of the trips was “to provide relief to victims from this natural, national disaster,” Cohen said. The secondary goal was “to get Jewish students to understand the beauty of giving.”

What makes a Hillel alternative break trip unique from other similar trips is the opportunity for Jewish learning, Cohen said. While students work at different sites during the day, they come together in the evenings to share reflections and discuss giving from a Jewish perspective. Cohen said she would begin the discussions with an initial thought from biblical or scholarly texts tied to giving.

Rayna Schaff, a junior at the U of I, was a student participant on the trip Cohen led in 2007.

“It was one of the most eye opening, life changing experiences that I’ve ever had,” Schaff said. “It’s really rough because you hear things on the news just about how intense the situation was in New Orleans. There was a whole lot of media attention at first but over time other things became more important in the media … it’s easy to let it slip your mind.”

It was rewarding to help people in the country who are figuratively your neighbors, Cohen said. People do not have to go far to find those in need of help.

“Every time I look back on it I remember the unbelievable feeling you get when you see a homeowner’s face and you know you gave them the best gift you could,” Schaff said. “You gave them hope.”

In addition to the numerous Hillel trips providing services to communities in the U.S., Hillels across the nation also give students the option to help globally. Joel Schwitzer, executive director at U of I’s Hillel, said past alternative break destinations included Montevideo, Uruguay and Santiago, Chile.

Last spring, Andrea Jacobs, Doppelt director of engagement at Northwestern University’s Hillel, led a group of 26 students to bring medical supplies to the Patronato, the Jewish center in Havana, Cuba, which has a pharmacy.

She said each student participant collected 20 pounds of medical aid to bring to Cuba. In addition, each student brought 15 pounds of non-medical supplies to Cuba, including Hebrew books, crayons and markers.

The Northwestern students also met people in the Cuban Jewish community, celebrated Shabbat with their new Cuban friends and took their Cuban peers to the beach, which is otherwise only for tourists.

The group helped to clean a Jewish cemetery in Havana, Jacobs said. They also saw a baseball game and toured other sites.

“It was important to see just everyday life in Cuba,” Jacobs said.

Arielle Gottlieb, a junior at Northwestern, was a participant in this trip. She said she did not know there were Jews in Cuba before she heard about the trip.

“When I got past the surprise and novelty of Jews in Cuba, they were just like every other Jewish community you walk into,” Gottlieb said. “They welcomed us.”

Gottlieb said Jewish life in the U.S. can be taken for granted, but because communism kept Cuban Jews from practicing for a long time, the Jews she met in Cuba really appreciated their Judaism.

“I didn’t expect to be as affected by it as I was,” Gottlieb said. “It was a vacation. It was spring break. But at the same time, there were a lot of ideas to grasp.”

She said that after learning about the public education system and the health system in Cuba, the idea of offering these services to everyone does not seem so bad. At the same time, there are also people struggling to support their families because the country cannot provide necessary services.

“In examining Cuba, it also forced me to think about the U.S.,” she said.

She said she realized that even though the U.S. has the resources, money and surpluses that Cuba does not have, there are also people starving and not going to school here.

Gottlieb said she would be interested in going back to Cuba again. She is studying abroad in Argentina for the year, and learning about the Jewish community in Cuba increased her excitement to explore Argentina’s Jewish community.

The experience is not about going somewhere glamorous, but it is about helping a community in need – tikkun olam, Jacobs said.

“We have to take care of each other in Israel and in the Diaspora,” Jacobs said. “It’s important to help Jews all over the world.”

Posted: 10/22/2007 09:03:47 AM

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