Repair Interview: Nina Mermelstein on Teen Volunteering with AJWSby Leah Koenig | October 11, 2011 | 0 comments
Growing up, 18 year-old Nina Mermelstein learned tons about service and social justice at school, but her interest in tikkun olam broadened from a local to a global focus after she attended a life-changing summer service trip to Ghana with Repair the World grantee-partner, American Jewish World Service, (AJWS).
Today, Nina is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Public Health. Nina took the time to speak with Repair the World about building a latrine in Ghana, bringing one of the country’s champions of children’s rights to her community, and the global hunger Shabbat she’s planning to host this fall.
What is your background with service?
I went to a Jewish day school in Great Neck, New York that really stressed doing community service as part of a Jewish life. It was a major point they tried to make throughout my upbringing and education. In high school I joined a few service organizations and spent my summers doing community service projects. The summer after my freshman year I went to Puerto Rico on a service trip and helped build a hurricane shelter for the community we visited. That experience really opened my eyes to a different culture, and from there my interest in global service grew.
The following summer I volunteered in Kansas City with the American Jewish Society for Service. We completed a project with Habitat for Humanity while learning Jewish texts that tie together service and the tradition.
Why do you think you’re most drawn to global service?
When I was younger a lot of the volunteering we did in high school was very localized – things like working with soup kitchens and packing supplies for homeless shelters. Going to Puerto Rico that summer, I was so fascinated to learn about a different culture and language. It got me thinking about how many different cultures and communities there are out there, and how people from very different backgrounds can share in doing service together.
What program did you do with AJWS?
Last summer I participated on their program for high school students in Ghana – something I’d heard about from some of my peers in AJSS. Students came from Oregon, Michigan, Florida, California – really all over. We had a seminar in New York City before we left – it was a few days to get oriented with the country and learn a bit about their culture and language.
What did you do once you arrived?
We lived in a small village called Sovie, which is about 6 hours from Ghana’s capital, Accra. We lived in the community – it was a separate housing facility, but very much a part of the neighborhood. Our main focus was to build latrine in the village. Most people do not have bathrooms in their homes, which makes these facilities very important. We worked with people in the community to carry cement blocks down the hill, mix cement, carry water. We were able to finish the project in the 7 weeks we were there. We also got to teach English in the local primary schools. That was unbelievable experience.
Can you describe the impact the experience had on you?
The program has shaped my whole outlook on what I hope to do with my future. I’d like to pursue learning more about health care in developing nations and hopefully be able to spread more medical care in underdeveloped countries like Ghana. In fact, I chose to come to Johns Hopkins after attending the AJWS trip specifically because of their public health program.
The trip reinforced everything I’d been taught beforehand about the importance of doing service and living in a global community. We also did learning sessions during the trip – we’d come back after work and discuss biblical texts and situations that presented us with the Jewish take on global service. It was a great reinforcement of what I already knew.
What was something you learned that particularly stood out to you?
As I mentioned, I had done a lot of domestic service and this was more of a global service experience. In Judaism there’s an idea about how you help and who you help first. There are questions of priorities – do you help your family, the Jewish community, the wider domestic community, the global community? We learned many texts which discussed the importance of helping out your Jewish community, and also texts which stressed helping the stranger. That was really important for me to read and learn – we learned the texts in a much different way than I’d studied them in school. Plus, studying the texts combined with observing and participating in work on the ground made it especially powerful.
How did you bring the trip from Ghana home with you?
While in Ghana we’d met a few of the organizations that AJWS supports. One was this organization called Challenging Heights, which is aimed at rescuing children who are sold by their parents into slavery in the fishing industry – which is the big industry there. I was very moved by this organization’s goals, so when I got back to New York, I contacted the founder James Kofi Annan, and ended up bringing him to my community to speak during the year.
We hosted him for a few days, and he spoke to the members of my community who showed up at my house for Friday night dinner. He got a big crowd and the people who came were amazed by his work. Nobody had any idea that this was going on – nobody knows this problem exists. His visit was so important because it changed a lot of people’s views on Ghana. It’s viewed as a more developed country, so for them to see that practices like this are still going on was eye-opening for them. Kofi also joined us for Shabbat dinner – it was really nice having him.
Have any plans coming up?
I’m hoping to host a global hunger Shabbat on campus, which is another AJWS program. It’s a Shabbat dinner where we discuss texts and world issues related to hunger.
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