Jennifer Mesrie had planned to study drama this summer. Michal Benzaquen was going to earn some money as a lifeguard. Shaanan Meyerstein "was definitely going to travel somewhere."
All three are traveling to South America this month: as Jewish community volunteers, not tourists.
The Columbia University undergraduates and 47 other college students from across the United States left this week for Argentina and Uruguay. They will visit a half-dozen cities there, repairing synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, visiting orphans and the elderly, packing and delivering Shabbat meals, taking young Jews on nature hikes, serving in farms and soup kitchens, teaching Hebrew and English.
"It’s hands-on labor. College students can’t write big checks," says Meyerstein, from Baltimore, who organized the mission. "We will be doing solidarity work."
The idea was born after he heard a report last year about deteriorating economic conditions in the two countries. Meyerstein was going to go "with three or four friends."
Then he decided to announce his idea, on-line, through Hillel chapters in the U.S. Some 300 students expressed interest in volunteering. After a few intensive months of arranging international logistics, Meyerstein winnowed the number down to 50, the capacity of a coach bus that will carry the participants around.
"A very pluralistic group," mostly women, Meyerstein says.
The mission is not affiliated with any Jewish organization in this country; the major Jewish communal groups in Argentina weren’t interested in Meyerstein’s proposal. He made contacts with individual Jewish communities and organizations in each city he wanted the students to visit.
In addition to the Americans, a few students from Israel, England and Israel joined the group. Each one is paying $1,800 (all travel and lodging expenses included) to take part in the kosher, Sabbath-observant mission. And each participant raised $500 to $1,000 to be distributed at Jewish institutions along the way (they had raised more than $40,000 by the time they left New York Monday), and brought a duffle bag stuffed with clothing and toys and medical supplies for indigent Jews.
"One of the most immediate ways to combat poverty is to bring touring missions," says Hune Margulies, a Buenos Aires-born professor of political science at Pace University who helped coordinate the mission and is serving as its guide this month.
"It’s important to put these isolated Jewish communities back on the map," says Margulies, a consultant for economic development in Latin America. "There’s not a better way to practice tzedaka."
For the students, most of whom grew up in comfortable homes, the encounters in Argentina and Uruguay will be an education in how the other half lives, Meyerstein says. Accompanied by security guards and local Jewish students, they will stay in hostels and low-price hotels, and occasionally with local families. "We’re going to see things that are disturbing to us."
The students will speak about their experiences when they return to their hometowns, and Meyerstein hopes to start twinning projects with Argentine and Uruguayan Jewish communities.
This summer’s mission will probably become an annual event, he says.
For Benzaquen, of Oceanside, L.I., it’s a return to her roots. Her father grew up in Argentina; a grandfather was a rabbi in Argentina; another relative was chief rabbi in Tucuman, one of the cities on the itinerary.
"I have family all over Argentina," she says. "I thought it would be nice to see where my father grew up."
"I can study theater anytime," says Mesrie, who lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn. "It’s not any time I can go to Argentina and make a difference."
She sent out an appeal for funds to 18,000 people on a Sephardic database, and raised $3,000, mostly from friends and family. "They’ll probably continue sending, even while I’m in Argentina," Mesrie says.
Volunteer work will supplant drama studies next year too, she says. "Next summer I’ll probably do something like this again."