Outside a small school building in a small village in rural Mexico, Stern College student Rachel Sterman is sitting with some local kids one recent afternoon, talking about their future.
Sterman, 20, a participant in a weeklong volunteer program sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), asks the primary school students what they want to do after their school days are over. They have no idea. No one seems to imagine a life beyond staying in the village where they had grown up, or working on their family’s small plot of land, as generations in their families have done before them.
“That really spoke to me,” Sterman says, back in New York City, sitting in an empty Midtown classroom, reflecting on her first, intensive exposure to another culture, another way of life. She learned, she says, a lesson about poverty — poverty of dreams. Even if the students harbor aspirations beyond their poor village, “there’s nobody to help them make that happen.”
Sterman, from New Rochelle, calls that afternoon a highlight of her time in Muchucuxcah, a three-hour drive south of Cancun, where she was part of a group of 16 volunteers from Stern College for Women and from Yeshiva University (they were accompanied by a few adult leaders) who helped local residents update their agricultural methods. The students were among 91who spent their recent winter break as volunteers on CJF (yu.edu/cjf) humanitarian community-building projects in four countries.
The projects are part of an outreach effort under the auspices of CJF that since 2005 has sent nearly 1,200 student volunteers on 56 missions to 15 locations. They work with Jews in this country, Israel and Eastern Europe, and with non-Jews in Central America, partnering overseas with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and American Jewish World Service.
The CJF initiative is the latest sign that parts of the Orthodox community are expanding their vision of service outside exclusively Jewish circles, a cause that the New York-based Uri l’Tzedek Orthodox social justice organization advocates.
“It is taking a while for the Orthodox community to come out of the shtetl and feel safe and proud of advocating for Jewish values in the public sphere,” says Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founding president of Uri l’Tzedek. He calls the CJF initiative a valid “first step” that gives students the opportunity “to begin wrestling with their social responsibilities as Jews and global citizens … the goal is to provide an educational experience for privileged American Jews to understand more deeply and care more passionately about responding to global poverty.”
That’s the point of the CJF initiative, says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Center dean. “These experiences serve as leadership incubators and help our students develop informed perspectives on world issues. Our goal is to take our students completely out of their comfort zones and to expose them to global needs in countries like Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.”
In addition to Sterman’s group in Mexico, some volunteers this winter went to Nicaragua, where they helped build a small library-school; Israel, where they took part in an English-enrichment “Winter camp” with 450 Israeli teens; and the United States, where they worked and learned in several Texas Jewish communities in a “Jewish Life Coast to Coast” project that offered an insight into Jewish experiences away from the East Coast.
“I wanted to learn more about the world,” Sterman says.
“I wanted to spend one vacation not being selfish,” not doing the usual vacation-time touring and tanning, says Chanie Shalmoni, a 22-year-old sophomore at YU’s Sy Syms School of Business, sitting next to Sterman in the empty Midtown classroom. A resident of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Shalmoni was part of the CJF delegation in Nicaragua.
Both would probably have gone during their time-off from school to Israel, where relatives live, had they not been accepted into the highly competitive CJF program, they say.
Both say they are eager to do it again. Both call their recent overseas volunteering the first-such intensive altruistic overseas work they’d done. Their experiences sound similar: families not delighted by the prospect of their young daughters going to places often associated with danger, and friends’ “why?” questions; hours-long van rides from an airport to isolated villages of modest concrete huts; camp-like living quarters, separate, of course, for the men and women; limited electricity and no Facebook; mornings where they woke up “with the rooster”; hot, humid days in the sun, under protective hats and sunscreen; bonding with the local residents and learning about a foreign way of life; chilly nights and ice-cold showers; inspirational Shabbat davening and singing; weekday mornings of work followed by afternoons and evenings of intensive, text-based learning on such topics as poverty and charity.
“My brain did more work than my body. My brain was hurting more than my body was,” Shalmoni says. And her body was sore. She spent her mornings — outfitted in a long-sleeve T-shirt and a modest skirt; the guys wore cargo pants — helping local residents of La Boca de la Montana, about 60 miles south of Managua, build a one-story, concrete library-school for the village. Shalmoni sawed. She hammered. She shlepped. “It was actual manual labor. I loved it.” At the end of the day, she says, “we were exhausted.”
She had a particularly challenging hammering assignment one day. What took the men a matter of seconds took her ten minutes. She was sweating. Everyone was watching. “I didn’t give up,” she says. “I kept on hammering.” Everyone was cheering. “They were all encouraging me.”
The assignment of Sterman’s group was to teach up-to-date farming methods to the residents of the Mayan village, who are still raising crops on their land using centuries-old techniques. The volunteers showed the farmers the advantages of compost; and they made compost, mixing compounds of peat and rotting food and manure. And they dug holes in rocky soil, expanding the farmers’ available land.
“We got a lot of holes dug up,” Sterman says.
The hands-on volunteer projects were supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation, and Repair the World.
In Nicaragua, the volunteers worked with Servicios Medicos Communales, a non-governmental organization that promotes community-based, sustainable development in the southwestern district of San Juan del Sur. The volunteers’ partner in Mexico was Hombre Sobre La Tierra, a nonprofit group that promotes environmental sustainability.
Rabbi Brander says the number of applicants for the CJF volunteer projects has quadrupled since they started eight years ago. “Many students have based their career choices on the experiences they have gained during our service missions. They become better citizens of our Jewish community and more active members of broader society.”
At the end, the groups in Nicaragua and Mexico saw some progress at their worksites. Sterman and Shalmoni say, and families’ concerns about security were unfounded.
And no one wanted to leave. “We felt we were being yanked away too early,” Shalmoni says. The villagers were crying when the volunteers left.
Sterman and Shalmoni say they want to do similar volunteer work again. Maybe in Africa, Shalmoni says. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.” If Sterman hears about another group, she says, ‘I will be the first to sign up.”