‘I have a million stories to share,” gushes Margot Reinstein, a student at Stern College who just returned last week from a 10-day service-learning trip to Ukraine organized by Yeshiva University in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
One story focuses on Vlad, a college student who grew up in Ukraine and, along with more than a dozen Ukrainian-based peers, joined the YU students in decorating the bare walls of a Jewish school and visiting elderly Holocaust survivors. As the YU students chanted the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals) aloud, Vlad began muttering along, humming the tune. Then he started to choke up.
“Afterwards, I asked him, ‘What got you so emotional?’” Reinstein recalls. “He told me, ‘I haven’t heard that since I was a little boy. That is my only connection to Judaism.’”
“Most of us grew up in thriving Jewish communities,” says Reinstein, who is from Teaneck, N.J. “We had never see this before.”
In the year that has passed since an earthquake rocked Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing many more, a global consciousness has emerged among younger Jews. Instead of tanning on beaches in Hawaii or traveling to Cancun during winter break, thousands of young Jews are searching for more productive ways to spend their vacation and choosing to participate in short-term service-learning trips. They want to travel the world, yes, but they also yearn to make a difference.
As Greg Levow, an IT professional who attended a Cornell alumni service trip to Argentina, put it: “I like vacations that involve actually doing something.”
What has kindled this overwhelming interest in service among young Jews? The millions of dollars Jewish philanthropists are pumping into the short-term service world are playing a significant role in making these trips affordable. But the fact that the trips are cheap is not the primary force driving Jewish college students and young professionals to choose to spend their free time doing service, participants say.
Still, the affordable price tag doesn’t hurt. “It was cheap, and I could earn community service hours,” admitted Mara Markinson, a student at Queens College, as her motivation for signing on to tutor underprivileged children as part of a service-learning trip to Miami. “But in the end, it was so much more than that. I am a different person because of this trip.”
Markinson, a Reform Jew, says that she feels empowered to serve other Jewish communities as a result of the experience. And like many other college students who participated in Hillel-organized service-learning trips, Markinson says that she plans to become more involved in Hillel on campus.
For many first-time participants on service-learning trips, confronting poverty was a real eye-opener. When Reinstein visited one of two Jewish elementary schools in Ukraine, she was “just shocked,” she says. “I had never been to a school before with just one toilet, without a toilet seat, and no soap. They were just so poor.” It was a far cry from the world of SMART boards and iPads.
For, Avi Pomper, a 22-year-old YU student, the seven days he spent doing manual labor in Nicaragua provided a deeper understanding of the poverty that exists in developing countries than he could ever gain from reading a textbook. “I strongly feel that this experience is not only about doing everything you can do in seven days and then returning home to your comfortable house and to all your technology that you’ve been deprived of for the past week,” he told The Jewish Week. “Once you have this experience it is nearly impossible to turn your head away from those less fortunate than yourself.”
But is a week to 10 days really enough time to accomplish something concrete and meaningful, besides feeling good inside? And what exactly is “Jewish” about these short-term service trips, other than that they are organized by Jewish organizations such as YU, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hillel, the American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice and others?
“I wish that the program had been longer than 10 days,” said Jenna Spector, echoing the thoughts of many young Jews who participate in short-term service. Still, the 10 days were enough to persuade her to increase her involvement within the Jewish community. “I no longer want to wait until I’ve graduated college and gotten a job to make a difference,” says Spector, who participated in YU’s “Coast to Coast” service-learning program, in which students visited with members of Jacksonville, Fla., Charleston, S.C., Richmond, Va., and other smaller Jewish communities down the East Coast.
A study commissioned by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future found that its programs raise students’ awareness of, and involvement in, the Jewish community; and inspire students to pursue careers in the Jewish world. “In fact, the larger class sizes at Azrieli [YU’s graduate school of Jewish education] and RIETS [its rabbinical school] are filled with those who have been on short-term service programs,” says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of CJF. The longer-term effects of such trips have yet to be measured, partly because most such trips are relatively new.
After spending the better part of a week painting a mural of Mickey Mouse at the Lenora B. Elementary School in Miami, as part of a trip organized by Hillel in partnership with City Year, Johanna Sanders, a sophomore at Binghamton University, says she plans to go on an alternative break trip every year while she is still in college. She is now thinking about a career in the Jewish nonprofit world, something she hadn’t previously considered.
Short-term service programs fit very easily into people’s lives, she says. “I have five weeks off, so it’s easy for me to dedicate a week to service. It’s almost selfish not to when Hillel makes it so easy.”
Professionals within the service-learning field say that past participants frequently sign up for another alternative break experience. A smaller number choose to devote longer periods of time to service. “I highly recommend that to young Jews to commit themselves to at least one service trip before they are 30, because it will not be the only one they participate in,” says Jacob Dunn, a New York City-based financial adviser who recently attended the Cornell Jewish Connection trip to Argentina. Dunn is helping to plan CJC’s second young alumni service trip, which will take place this summer. He hopes to go on five more trips, he says, until he loses his “young alumni” status.
The amount of time spent on Jewish learning, as well as its emphasis, ranges among short-term service trips. For some participants, the fact that the trip is run by a Jewish organization is seen as key. “Jewish learning is a critical component of this type of trip,” says Adam Berman, who traveled to the Ukraine as part of Project Kharkov, a joint mission between the Center for the Jewish Future and the Joint Distribution Committee. “In Judaism, learning and action go hand-in-hand.”
For others, less so.
“After participating in this alternative break trip, I don’t feel any more or less connected to Judaism,” says Rebecca Dreifuss, who attended the Hillel/City Year alternative break trip in Miami. Still, she says, “the trip emphasized the importance of community within the Jewish religion. What I really walked away with was a better understanding of the humanitarian values within the Jewish religion.”
For many participants, short-term service-learning trips may have less to do with immediate impact of the work — such as planting a garden or clearing a littered courtyard — and more about the kind of person they are when they return from that experience. “If everyone thought, ‘What can I really do in a week to better the lives of these people?’ we would be nowhere,” Sanders says. The trips “make it possible for college students to enjoy community service and get into the habit of doing it at a young age.”
“My only regret,” says Pomper, “is not having done it sooner.”