For some students, summer vacation isn’t a vacation from studying or from community service. While many high school and college students spend June through August making money or working on their tans, others use the time giving their time. This summer there were members of the American Jewish Society for Service who built Habitat for Humanity houses in Wyoming, and volunteers from Yeshiva and University Students for the Spiritual Revival of Soviet Jewry group who tutored at Jewish camps in the former Soviet Union.
The Jewish Week talked to four students who performed cancer research, served as counselors at a camp for infirm children, built a school in Africa and led educational programs in Cuba. These are their stories.
Yitzy HaberA Special CounselorYitzy Haber and one certain camper played sports together this summer. They did arts and crafts together. They shared long talks.
Then, on the third day of Camp Simcha, in the showers, the camper noticed something unusual about Yitzy — he is missing a leg.
Yitzy, 20, like many of the boys at the camp in Glen Spey, N.Y., is a cancer survivor. A camper there and a staff member for eight years, he volunteered this year to serve as a counselor.
His right leg was amputated in 1993 after he was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer. He’s had 13 surgeries and chemotherapy. “I lost my hair — the whole bit,” Yitzy says.
“I can do basically anything” that the campers do — “swim, run, jump,” says Yitzy, who will enter the new Lander College for Men in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, this month as a business major. “The only difference is, I swim without a leg.
“I can understand what’s going on in their lives,” he says of the campers.
Some 200 young Jewish boys and girls, with cancer or other “catastrophic illnesses,” attended separate 22-week camping sessions this summer. Camp Simcha, established in 1986, is the flagship program of Chai Lifeline, a New York-based organization that runs an array of activities for ill children and their families. There is no fee for campers, who range in age from 6 to the late teensCamp Simcha typically features a one-to-one camper-counselor ratio. Yitzy’s camper was 12 years old, and he didn’t know the youngster’s exact diagnosis. “We’re not given any information that doesn’t have to be given,” he says.
The pair slept in the same bunk. Yitzy helped his camper shower, and helped interpret his speech, which often was difficult to understand.
“It’s a Big Brother type of relationship,” Yitzy says. “Part of the job is being a shoulder, somebody to cry with. The kids all want to talk about their sickness.”
Like all counselors, he took part in an intensive pre-camp orientation. Like Yitzy, in remission for seven years, some of the other counselors are cancer survivors.
“I’ve been through it” — the testing, the operations, the pain, the fear. “It creates a strong connection” with the campers, Yitzy says. “I can tell them, ‘you can get to the next stage.’ ”
Yitzy doesn’t announce his medical past — “It sort of comes out.” He plays basketball, “sometimes with a slight limp.” The Teaneck, N.J., resident became a counselor because “it gave me a chance to give back.”
He says he was nervous at the beginning about being a counselor “because I knew my counselors gave their all to me. It’s a 24-hour job.”
In addition to his formal counselor’s duties, Yitzy also performed a little magic — some tricks and folding balloons. He’s a self-trained clown.At the end of camp, along with the hugs, some of the kids told him, “I want to be a magician like you.”
“It’s the best feeling,” Yitzy says. “It’s the best thanks.”
William Recant, assistant vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was skeptical when Sasha Weiss called him to propose an overseas service project last winter.
Sasha, 16, and three friends, all 17, wanted to spend a month teaching in the Cuban Jewish community.
“I said we don’t have the infrastructure to baby-sit you,” Recant recalls. The Joint’s new country director in Cuba has his hands full with the country’s 1,000 Jews, Recant said.
“Don’t worry,” Weiss responded. “We speak the language. We’re prepared to be self-contained.”
A recommendation letter from a prominent New York rabbi followed. Recant called the four teens and their parents to his office. “They answered my questions very well,” he says.
Weiss and her local friends — Louis Lipner, Leila Bilick and David Kahane — spent a month in Cuba this summer.
“I wanted to teach,” says Weiss, a senior at the Ramaz School who dreamed up the Cuban project after watching the film “Buena Vista Social Club” and hearing a lecture about Cuban Jewry last year. “They are building a community from scratch.”
The Cuban government has permitted greater freedom of religion for Judaism and other faiths in recent years.
The Joint arranged for the volunteers’ visas, but the four teens did the rest — making and paying for plane reservations (each teen spent about $2,000 for the month), finding a place to stay (one volunteer’s father had a friend with extra rooms in Havana), bringing along books, posters and medical supplies (“We shlepped two big suitcases,” Weiss says.)
Technically, the four were assigned to Ivan Glait, the Joint’s Argentine-born country director. Actually, they had to make up their own assignments.
Weiss and her friends attended Shabbat services in the capital’s main synagogue, affiliated with the Conservative movement. They read from the Torah and taught new melodies for prayers. They taught at a Joint-sponsored youth camp at a hotel five hours away in the mountains.
Back in Havana they led Hebrew and Israeli dancing classes and set up private tutorials on various Jewish subjects — mostly introductory Judaism from a nondenominational perspective.
“They were really receptive,” Weiss says. “People are a lot more knowledgeable than I expected them to be. They are surprisingly organized.”
On the bus ride back from camp, a 19-year-old boy, sitting next to his girlfriend, handed Weiss a gift, an origami flower. He wrote “for Zacha,” his Spanish rendition of Weiss’ first name. Next to it he drew a Jewish star.
It was his thanks for the lessons, Weiss says. “It was an even exchange.”
She plans to raise money here for Cuba’s Jewish community.
Count Recant as no longer skeptical. “The evaluations I received were that they were very well received. It changed my perspective to the degree that when kids want to go down there, I see how valuable it is.”
Would he send teens abroad again on such an independent project?
“If it is kids of this caliber, I’m happy to do it again,” Recant says.
The African Scene
For a month this summer, Susan Schwarz had no outside distractions: no radio, no telephone, no mail. Just hard work.
Schwarz, 20, a junior at Columbia University, was among 15 volunteers who helped build a school in rural Ghana as part of American Jewish World Service’s International Jewish College Corps. She lived in a simple, one-story concrete building with a corrugated tin roof. Her room had a single light bulb. Her “bathroom” was a nearby outhouse. Her shower was an open air set of 5-foot high walls; the unheated water, cupful by cupful, came from an isolated spigot.
For Schwarz, the rustic experience was not novel. The White Plains resident had spent past vacations working in Thailand, Vietnam and Tibet.
“I’m always drawn into it,” says Schwarz, a history major who hopes for a career in the nonprofit sector, with some international travel.
AJWS, based in Manhattan, sent groups of young volunteers this summer to Honduras and Ghana. The 30 volunteers then went to Israel for three weeks of community development activities with West Bank Arabs and Bedouins.
In Ghana, Schwarz’ home was Ziavi-Lume, a village in a forested plain in the southeast corner of the western African nation. In her room, which she shared with two other women, she slept on a mattress on the floor, protected by mosquito netting.
In Ziavi-Lume the volunteers helped villagers construct a schoolhouse, a one-story cement structure that will have seven or eight classrooms. The villagers had already laid the building’s foundation. They and the Americans worked side by side, finishing the site. Schwarz’ duties included mixing cement, breaking large rocks into small stones for gravel, carrying cement blocks, lugging buckets of water and smoothing the ground.
Everything but the roof was in place at the end of the volunteers’ stint. “You could see what the school would be like,” she says.
The common language at the work site was English. Schwarz learned “some basic phrases” in Ewe, the regional dialect.
The village’s adults were inspired by the Americans’ efforts, Schwarz says, “knowing that we came to help them.”
For the people of Ziavi-Lume, she says, Jews were a novelty. Christianity is Ghana’s largest religion.
“I don’t think they had a very clear idea of what Jews are,” she says. “Their only experience with Jews was in the Bible.”
The Ghanians learned some Hebrew from the visitors. “We sang songs together,” Schwarz says. “The children used to walk around singing hinei ma tov and Dovid melech Yisroel.”
After work, the volunteers were invited into village homes, often lean-to bamboo stalks and palm fronds, and shared family meals. The main course was fufu, which consists of ground-up cassava root, a tuber, and some spices.
What did it taste like?
“Not a whole lot,” Schwarz says.
“Everywhere we went,” she says, “we knew what it was like to be a celebrity.” Such light-skinned individuals — including Schwarz, who is Korean born — are an unusual sight in Ghana’s rural areas.
On the volunteers last day, at a havdalah ceremony, the people of Ziavi-Lume offered prayers and thank-you speeches and small gifts. Schwarz received a hand-woven black scarf.
“The trip brought together my values in Judaism, and my interest in international development,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine myself in a field where I wouldn’t make a difference.”
Avi OppenheimerLabs And LifeDuring business hours he conducted research on prostate cancer. On lunch breaks he discussed Middle East politics with a Muslim physician from Egypt. His other colleagues included people from India and China.
Avi Oppenheimer’s summer at the University of Miami Medical School was “a learning experience on all fronts,” he says.
Oppenheimer, 22, a Yeshiva University summa cum laude graduate who is enrolled in the school’s rabbinic ordination program, worked in a laboratory on an American Cancer Society fellowship, with an eye on a career in medicine.
“This gave me an insight into what goes on behind the scenes,” says Oppenheimer, of Miami.
Working with samples of cancerous prostate tissue, Oppenheimer investigated a technique for determining why certain people are more likely to benefit from hormone treatments — that’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s early treatment of choice for his prostate cancer.
“This is not a cure. It’s a diagnostic tool … a few years away,” Oppenheimer says. “Not everyone responds very well” to hormone treatments.
Assisted by a high school student, he treated the paraffin-covered samples (They looked “like white snowflakes,” Oppenheimer says) with antibodies, heated them, put them through a spin in a centrifuge and a subsequent computer analysis (“I didn’t see the cells themselves.”) He was responsible for ordering his own supplies and doing the shopping on-line. Oppenheimer was asked to write an academic paper on his findings.
“This was my project. I had to do everything myself,” he says, adding that “very few students” have this level of responsibility in medical research.
“It was an unbelievably exciting and challenging project,” says Oppenheimer, who worked on the prostate research as an unpaid volunteer the previous summer. “It made me want to be a doctor [even more].”
Oppenheimer plans to enter clinical research, probably as an oncologist. “I plan on seeing patients.”
After business hours this summer he studied Torah a few hours each night at home with his father, Steven, and at a Miami kollel. “At YU you’re used to a dual program of religious and secular studies,” he says.
On the job he compared cultural experiences with his international colleagues. He brought a kosher lunch; the Egyptian, a devout Muslim, would bring his halal meal. They would talk about the peace process. “It was very friendly,” Oppenheimer says.
The last week the whole group went to a kosher pizzeria. Oppenheimer excused himself for the ritual hand washing before a meal. He explained the procedure.
“The whole group followed me” to the sink, he says. “They all washed their hands.”