This past year, thousands of high school and college students spent their winter and spring breaks volunteering to help other people. Yehudit Goldberg, a 21-year old student at Stern College in New York City, was one of them. She volunteered in Nicaragua with Repair the World grantee-partners American Jewish World Service and The Center for the Jewish Future.
Now that she’s back, Yehudit is back to the busy school grind. But she took the time out of her hectic schedule to speak to Repair the World about her desire to reconnect with the issues she cares about, what it’s like to help build a school, and how to keep the passion for service alive once a trip is over.
What is your background with service?
Growing up I went to a modern orthodox day school in University Heights, Ohio (near Cleveland) that did a lot of volunteer work within the Jewish community. We worked with children with special needs and did events around the holidays. We also had a yearly event called Make a Difference Day where they sent students to 20 different locations around the city for various service projects. My school also partnered with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland on their Public Education Initiative where we’d tutor children in the inner city on reading.
How did you first learn about AJWS and how did you decide to join the Nicaragua trip?
AJWS partners with the Center for the Jewish Future at Stern College and Yeshiva University for the trips to Nicaragua and Mexico. The CJF sends out over 400 students each year on various service missions in Ukraine, Israel, Mexico, Haiti to name a few. I was interested in the Nicaragua trip because it was described as having a lot of person-to-person exposure. It seemed very interpersonal and also like a good opportunity to reconnect with the reasons why I care about helping others. Besides, serving on a mission in a developing country is an experience that I had always hoped to encounter.
Were you drawn at all to the Jewish learning piece?
At Yeshiva University we are blessed with many opportunities to study and engage with Jewish texts in both formal and informal settings. But I thought this trip would provide a unique opportunity to study those Jewish sources while working in an “on the ground” context. Going on this trip was also about connecting with the cause on a different, more human level. I hoped to connect with the people, work with them, and help with best of our abilities.
What type of work did you do on the ground?
Building a school was the main project. There’s an NGO started by a woman there – she knew that there wasn’t a high school in the area and that a lot of students don’t have the means to travel to other places for school. She also noticed that the area has some serous health issues with the water, which causes disease. A lot of the problem has to do with people not being able to read the instructions on the medications they take – as a result they were misusing them. So simple illnesses were not being treated because people couldn’t read the labels.
She realized that giving people the opportunity for schooling in a formal way might help on both fronts. So she started a schooling program, but they don’t yet have a building. They work in people’s backyards. Now, through AJWS sending student groups there, they will eventually have an actual school. Unfortunately, it’s a long term project. Last year they started the foundation and by the time we got there the building had walls and basic structures. But it’s scheduled to take a couple of years to be completed.
What was it like to work on a construction project – was it your first time doing that?
Yes – most of us had no understanding about how to build something. It was a little bit scary, but there were professional builders working with us. They gave us jobs and taught us how to use a piqueta, or pickaxe. And if we messed up, they were there to help us – so we felt totally supported.
And what type of interactions did you have with people?
We met so many people, both adults and kids. The kids were particularly fun – they sang and danced with us and we bonded without words. We had a translator and could ask some questions, but mostly we interacted through fun. We also bonded with lots of the people we worked with. Since we ate rice and beans three meals a day, every night our partners counted out and checked beans for meals the next day. Members of our group would help them look through the beans, and we’d chit chat and make jokes across the kitchen table. Some of our group members spoke Spanish and could have longer discussions on a deeper level, but for me language was a bit of a barrier, and so I connected more with our partners through often wordless, but always friendly and warm, human interaction.
That said, being with them and hearing their stories was very powerful. The problems of inequality that we all read and know about were right in front of us all of a sudden. Seeing poverty and inequality for what it truly is creates an urgency that is qualitatively different from that which usually results from reading a book. Hearing about the struggles and challenges in the lives of our new friends was unlike anything I had experienced beforehand.
What was your AJWS group like?
I went with a diverse, energetic group of YC and Stern students. While we’re all modern orthodox Jews, there were students coming from slightly different religious backgrounds. For example, I went to a coed high school and camp, but some of the trip members had never really spent casual time with people from the opposite gender. This meant that there was a broad range of perspectives among us, and made it really fascinating to learn and discuss global justice through a Jewish lens. We had two trip leaders from AJWS and two from the Center for the Jewish Future, and so we were fortunate to gain both a rich and nuanced understanding of global Justice within the Jewish context.
What happened once the trip was over?
I think we all left with a stronger and more intense connection to the causes of global responsibility and ending poverty. I have found it important that people maintain their sense of connection once they leave the trip. When you’re there you’re being constantly fed visuals and first person narratives, so it’s easy to be passionate. Poverty is right in front of you, and there’s nothing to distract you from that. Maintaining that passion once you leave is a challenge. I’ve found that it has helped to keep reading about the issues, maintain a connection with the people you went on the trip with, and help to spread the word. Our group is currently holding a fundraiser for the Heights Initiative as a way of staying active and involved with these important causes.
Any last thoughts?
The trip taught me a lot about the importance of maintaing a broad perspective, but narrowing one’s focus when practically addressing social justice causes. There are so many problems that require immediate attention and remedy in the world, and nothing takes away from the gravity of that. But to be able to prioritize a cause that matters most to you, and to take real, concrete steps to contribute as best you can to that cause, will perhaps, in some way, create a real difference.