Right now, colleges and universities across the country are kicking off their spring breaks. As students prepare for their time off, we thought we’d check in with someone who chose to spend his last break making a difference.

Yonatan Isser, a senior at University of Maryland, participated on an alternative spring break program in Israel with Yahel. While there, he and his fellow participants lived and volunteered with members of the Ethiopian community. Yonatan found the time to chat with Repair the World about why he chose Yahel and how this trip changed his life for good.

Why did you decide to join the Yahel trip last winter break?
I knew that I wanted to go to Israel for winter break, as I have done in the past. I come from a modern Orthodox background, so my previous visits usually included visiting family, going to the Kotel, and learning at a Yeshiva. This time around I wanted to see what it is like to really live in Israel as a citizen – to get the day-to-day experience for people with different backgrounds than mine. I wanted to see other sides of Israel I had not been exposed to before, and Yahel seemed like the perfect way to do that.

What type of activities were you involved with during your time there?
We spent a lot of time with the Ethiopian community, hearing about their lives and experiences. We had organized home stays within the community, where we got to know the families, and helped their kids with homework at night. That was wonderful for developing deeper relationships. We heard a story from one resident who had immigrated to Israel and joined IDF. He ended up being one of the soldiers on duty for Operation Solomon, which meant he got to help bring many other Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

We also did lots of hands-on service. We helped plant a community garden so that people in the community could partake in recreational agriculture. We painted a mural on a wall, and helped an elderly woman in the community with some light construction in her house. We painted her kitchen, fixed cracks in her walls – things like that. That was a more informal opportunity to connect with a community member; she had heard that we were going to be in town and asked for our help through an NGO in the community.

What was most special about this type of service for you?
Unlike my other trips to Israel, this trip really pushed me out of my comfort zone. It compelled me to emotionally connect with the world around me, and experience things on a much deeper level. It wasn’t like the typical acts of chesed (kindness) I learned about growing up. We actually got to know the people we were helping, and got to speak with them and hear their struggles first hand. It was about getting the deeper story. I came back to the United States with a desire to keep volunteering at this level as an important part of my life. The trip inspired me to do more.