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Archive for : Repair in the News

Three Days In Motown

J-Serve teens team with BBYO and Repair the World to experience Detroit.

Albaro Aguirre, 9, of Detroit gets a ride from J-Serve volunteer Sierra Stone, 17, of West Bloomfield. (Photos by Brett Mountain)
Albaro Aguirre, 9, of Detroit gets a ride from J-Serve volunteer Sierra Stone, 17, of West Bloomfield. (Photos by Brett Mountain)

It would take three lifetimes to fully comprehend the depths and dynamics of Detroit. But three days immersed in the city provided 13 local Jewish teens, volunteering through J-Serve, the perfect opportunity to investigate and invest.

The itinerary for their service-learning trip, which was coordinated by Repair the World and BBYO, tells the story of a group of young people both serving and expanding their community:

Wednesday
4 p.m. Teens arrive at the Collaboratory, an historic home in southwest Detroit that is now the world headquarters of Summer in the City. Volunteers take their

Brothers Artemio Gonzales, 5, and Gavin Gonzales, 7, of Detroit with J-Serve volunteers Daniel Honet, 15, of West Bloomfield and Jacob Silberg, 15, of Northville
Brothers Artemio Gonzales, 5, and Gavin Gonzales, 7, of Detroit with J-Serve volunteers Daniel Honet, 15, of West Bloomfield and Jacob Silberg, 15, of Northville

unnecessarily large volume of luggage to the recently renovated third floor, where they will be sleeping less than they should. Then they get to work assembling materials for the Winter Games, a free two-day camp for kids in the neighborhood organized by Repair the World.

6 p.m. We dine at Gold ’n’ Greens, Wayne State’s new kosher restaurant. The group enjoys delicious vegetarian fare alongside WSU students and members of the general community who keep kosher or halal — or don’t — but love the all-you-can-eat-for-$8 dinner and self-serve soft serve.

7 p.m. Everyone walks across Wayne State’s campus to the main branch of the Detroit Public Library to explore (and Instagram) the endless rows of books, historic collections and artwork.

9 p.m. Two local community activists, Blair Nosan and Nora Feldhusen, lead a session as part of their new initiative Gesher (“Bridge”), which aims to connect Jewish young adults to Detroit through social and environmental stewardship. The program helps participants explore connections between Jewish Detroit’s past, present and future.

Prina Ortiz, 8, Detroit; Hannah Goodman, 16, West Bloomfield; Abby Cohen, 16, Farmington Hills; Luzmaria Cervantes, 8, Detroit

Prina Ortiz, 8, Detroit; Hannah Goodman, 16, West Bloomfield; Abby Cohen, 16, Farmington Hills; Luzmaria Cervantes, 8, Detroit

Thursday
9 a.m. J-Serve teens partner up with students volunteering from Detroit’s Western International High School. The Western volunteers are part of buildOn, an organization that runs service-learning and empowerment programs in Detroit and cities around the country. Pairs from J-Serve and buildOn prepare themselves for a mighty challenge — captaining teams of campers for the Winter Games.

10 a.m. Game on! Campers begin flooding into the Latino Mission Society, a community center (just blocks from the Summer in the City House and Western) that has offered to host the Winter Games.

Teams of campers and volunteers create their own countries, replete with name, flag, geography and anthem.

Maldonia, led by Lauren Yellen and Lily Grier, has a tropical climate with small islands named after the campers. Maldonians enjoy surfing, speaking gibberish and reading. Lifeguards, doctors and shark watchers are the primary jobs; dolphins adorn the flag.

Noon After the group eats 18 pizzas (and almost as many carrots), they compete in fast-paced relay races for points and then sing their anthems to determine faux national supremacy.

2 p.m. The campers head home and the volunteers pair off for reflection and dialogue. The conversation’s leaping-off point: grandparents, our relationships with them, the unique role they play in our lives and the common enemies we share.

J-Serve volunteer Abby Cohen, 16, of Farmington Hills works with a group on their “country.”
J-Serve volunteer Abby Cohen, 16, of Farmington Hills works with a group on their “country.”

3 p.m. No trip to the Latino Mission Society would be complete without bowling (and manually setting the pins) on their four-lane basement alley. Irrespective of the geographic, racial and religious differences between the groups, all of the volunteers are comparably poor bowlers in the absence of bumpers.

4 p.m. Volunteers watch a screening of We Are Not Ghosts, a 2012 documentary that shares compelling but often unheard voices of Detroiters as part of a narrative of community self-determination.

 5 p.m. J-Serve heads to the Repair the World Moishe House in Woodbridge to discuss eating Jewishly with Rabbi Ariana Silverman of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, who lives down the street, and then has dinner with the house’s four residents, who share their experiences living, working, learning and serving in Detroit.

8 p.m. On a roundtrip People Mover ride — the first ever for some — the volunteers enjoy their ironic interaction with a group of riders on their way to the 18th Annual Motor City Tattoo Expo.

 9 p.m. SchmoozeFest. Jewish young adults who live Downtown and in nearby neighborhoods join J-Serve for a party at a Broderick Tower apartment to mix, mingle and enjoy a view that includes the infield at Comerica Park.

One of the distinguished guests, Adam Milgrom, is in the final stages of developing “a super-duper co-working space” in Detroit called, appropriately, An Office in Detroit.

Midnight. A blizzard hits. Snow blankets the city. Blankets blanket the volunteers.

Tiushka Shaday Marquez Olivo, 9, with buildOn volunteer Lydia Maciel, 14, both of Detroit
Tiushka Shaday Marquez Olivo, 9, with buildOn volunteer Lydia Maciel, 14, both of Detroit

Friday
9:30 a.m. Anxiety. Will the kids brave the blizzard on their school break to come back to camp?

10 a.m. They came back! Kids shake off layers of coats and snow and don’t miss a beat. One mother shares that her boys literally dragged her out of bed to bring them. Chaos and creativity ensue as campers and volunteers craft their own wizards, with materials from Arts and Scraps, and instill them with all variety of magical powers.

4 p.m. Half of the volunteers don aprons to cook a local-sustainable Shabbat dinner at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. The rest stock up on provisions at Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe for an adventure that includes snow-silent Heidelberg Street and Belle Isle.

7 p.m. Participants Brian Dickstein, Lily Grier and Sierra Stone leap at the opportunity to lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which erupts into dance. Twice.

8 p.m. Congregant Ruby Robinson gives the d’var Torah, drawing a lesson for the volunteers from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tetzaveh: In the same way that the high priest carried the 12 tribes of Israel on his shoulders and in his heart, as symbolized by the jewels on his epaulets and breastplate, so, too, should we carry our service to and love of Detroit with us wherever we go.

8:30 p.m. We dine at the synagogue on the delicious dinner prepared by the volunteers: winter green salad, kasha with eggplant, kreplach soup with sweet potato stuffing, a trio of hummuses, beet and carrot slaw and, of course, hamantaschen.

9:30 p.m. Walking past the sounds of live music at Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy, the volunteers head home, tired, wired and inspired. 

Students in grades 6-12 from around the community will gather together to volunteer at and learn about organizations making a difference in Detroit. J-Serve projects include gardening, painting, food packing, park clean-up and more.

When? Sunday, April 21, from noon-4:30 p.m. Drop off and pick up at Temple Beth El, 7400 Telegraph Road in Bloomfield Hills.

For more information and to register, visit jservedetroit.org. Pre-registration is required.

Questions? Contact Danny Bittker, program associate, BBYO Michigan Region: (248) 432-5686 or [email protected]; or Jodie Gross, associate director of education and youth at Adat Shalom Synagogue: (248) 626-2153 or [email protected].

 

Do Alternative Breaks Have a Real Impact?

Each year, more than 2,000 college students and other young adults participate in immersive Jewish service-learning (IJSL) Alternative Break (AB) programs that are run by nearly a dozen organizations. Repair the World’s new study, “Breaking for Change: How Jewish Service-learning Influences the Alternative Break Experience,” investigated the short-term impacts of participation, and explored whether there were differential impacts based on demographic characteristics of the participants and based on elements of program design. The study is based off of 1,034 responses from participants from IJSL Alternative Break experiences during the 2009-2010, 2010-2011, and 2011-2012 academic years, and was commissioned as a follow up to one of their studies from 2010, which reported on the impact of AB’s on host communities.

Among some of the key findings, Repair the World found that:

  • Young People Want to Make a Difference and Learn about others: Most young adults tend to participate in Alternative Breaks experiences because they want to make a difference in other people’s lives, to have contact with individuals from different backgrounds and learn about their communities.
  • Alternative Breaks have a strong positive impact on the Jewish identities of respondents. 92% reported positive change related to Jewish identity as a result of their Alternative Break experience. The largest positive shift occurred for participants feeling that that there are many ways to be Jewish and that as a Jew, people have a responsibility for people from all backgrounds. Over 70% of respondents increased their ratings of these items.
  • Alternative Breaks also had a positive impact on the connections between Jewish identities and acts of service. More than 77% reported that they increased their beliefs that their Jewish values contributed to their commitment to service. Over 70% said that they increased their belief that Jewish values and the value of social justice are strongly connected.

To read the Executive Summary of the study, click here and to read the full report, click here.

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Beyond Birthright: Jewish students return to Israel to do some good

Growing number of post-graduates coming to Israel to dig in their heels in less-than-glamorous locations and do some good.

 

A new generation of young Jews are coming to Israel to prusue Jewish learning while contributing to, and interacting with, low-income populations. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Masada: check. Jerusalem’s old city: check. Tel Aviv’s nightlife: check. Bedouin tent: check. Yad Vashem Holocaust museum: check. What really is there left to do or see in Israel after a whirlwind, 10-day Birthright trip?

A lot, it turns out – starting with slowing down.

“It’s not that I did not love Birthright when I went on it,” says Samantha Sisisky, a 23-year-old from Richmond, Virginia who raced through, and “got into,” Israel during her senior year of college at the University of Virginia – thanks to the famous free trip that has brought some 320,000 young Jews to Israel in the last 13 years. “I totally drank the Kool-Aid and it was totally awesome.

“And then I was ready to return and see something more real.”

According to Avi Rubel, the North America director of MASA, the joint Jewish Agency and Israeli government umbrella organization that oversees some 200 study, volunteer, internship, adventure and other experiences for young Jewish adults in Israel – these sorts of sentiments are far from unique.

Among the fastest growing post-college programs to Israel today, says Rubel, is the genre of so-called Jewish service learning trips. This is where participants come to Israel, dig in their heels in one, usually less-than-glamorous-location, and try and do some good – while at the same time rooting their experience within the context of social change and Jewish values.

Sisisky, for example, is spending nine months in a low income, predominantly Ethiopian neighborhood in Gedera, a town of some 20,000 residents in the center of the country. She shares a small house with seven other young Americans, takes Hebrew classes – and sets out every day to be an assistant English teacher in the local school, help kids with homework, tutor adults at the community center, and hoe and weed in the community vegetable garden.

Group sessions and lectures tackle such questions as, “What constitutes community, Jewishly, and otherwise,” and “What is one’s role and responsibility to that community.”

“Boring? Sometimes,” she smiles. “But I would not trade it for the world.”

A group of volunteers sitting with members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in Gedera.

A group of volunteers sitting with members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in Gedera.Eliyahu Hershkovitz
“Obviously we are not Ethiopian Israelis, but I feel we do become part of the community. We walk around the streets and are invited into our neighbors’ homes. We might work with one kid, and then their older brother, and then with their mom or dad. We have host families. We have a place here.” And, she adds, as if an afterthought, “We also are doing some good.”

“I have found that there are a lot of people who crave a different connection to Israel,” says Dana Talmi, who founded the organization– called Yahel, Israel Service Learning – that Sisisky’s program is part of. Done right, Talmi says, such service-learning experiences can both help repair the world – and ignite the Jewish souls of those who serve.

There have always been many volunteer programs in Israel, Talmi and Rubel will be the first to admit. But if in the past this community work was done as a component of a broader Israel “experience” program, without much coordination with grassroots groups and without being tied into Jewish values and philosophy – the landscape now is changing.

Today, a small but growing number of volunteering programs, as exemplified by Yahel, which Rubel calls MASA’s model “boutique” service learning experience, or BINA, a popular program run by the Jewish Center for Identity and Hebrew Culture, that places North Americans in struggling Tel Aviv neighbors, where many of the African asylum seekers live, are becoming more serious – and finding a successful balance between community impact and participants’ personal development.

Talmi, an Israeli who grew up bouncing between Israel and Europe with her musician parents, returned to live in Israel five years ago, after six years in the United States. There, besides getting a degree in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill, Talmi also worked for the American Jewish World Service, a Jewish values-based international development organization. She spent several years with AJWS taking young Jews on service learning trips to Honduras – and later served as the program officer in charge of all group leading.

Back in Zichron Ya’akov with her Venezuelan-born husband and two young children, with a dream of creating a high level Israel-focused Jewish service learning program, Talmi began reaching out to local social action groups to find partners, and then, reaching out in the other direction, to MASA and organizations like New York City-based Repair the World to form alliances and get funding. The Yahel nine-month program, like almost all of MASA’s longer programs, is heavily subsidized, with participants paying in the range of just $1000 for the entire program.

“What I didn’t want to do is just take kids down to Netivot and have them paint murals on walls,” says Talmi. Working with grass roots organizations, such as, in the case of Gedera, an outfit called Friends by Nature, gave Talmi a sense of what volunteer work was needed, and where these North American youngsters, the majority of whom do not speak Hebrew and do not have much if any professional training, could do actual good.

Yahel participant Benson Ansell, 26, from Arlington, Virginia, admits he is not sure who is getting more out of the program – him or the community. If anything, he would bet it’s him. “I had never felt super connected to being Jewish, even though part of me was always interested,” says Benson, who grew up with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and spent a year teaching in Philadelphia as part of the AmeriCorps program City Year, and a stint studying abroad in Senegal before considering a trip to Israel.

“But after being here, that has changed,” says Ansell. “I have been amazed by is the diversity of the Jewish people: the history and where they come from. I became aware of minorities and marginalized communities here and it has been a real eye opener.”

Talmi dismisses criticism that programs such as Yahel or BINA expose foreigners to the “dirty laundry” of the country, and a Jewish Agency/Repair the World report released recently shows that, in fact, such exposure to Israel’s more difficult social problems engages, rather than turns off, young people. “There is no need to present a rose-colored version of Israel,” says Dyonna Ginsburg, the Jewish Agency’s director of Jewish service learning. “In fact, the more these young men and women learn about Israel – warts and all – the stronger their connection is to the country, their heritage and their Judaism.”

What’s next for the Gedera gang? “Aliyah is not a goal for us,” says Talmi. “If they stay, great. But really, what we want is for them for have a nuanced relationship with Israel.”

“I am confused now,” admits Jessica Braverman, another Yahel participant. The 26 year old from Atlanta, Georgia with a master’s degree in social work and non-profit management from the University of Georgia, did Birthright in 2009, and felt she had put the requisite “check” in the Israel box.

“I thought I would not come back afterwards. I felt like I had “done it” and was going to move on to bigger and better places,” she says. But, looking for an opportunity to go abroad after her masters, and with one foot out to door to a teaching program in Tbilisi, Georgia, she found herself browsing the MASA website.

“The decision to come here has really changed me,” she says. “I have learned how incredibly complex Israeli society is, and I have also grown a lot Jewishly this year. And now, I flip flop between thinking I will go home after these nine months and move on with my life, and thinking I might like to stay, move to Jerusalem and study some more. I am confused.”

“Confusing them,” concludes Talmi with a laugh. “That is our goal.”

Yeshiva University is Now Hiring Future Community Leaders

Hundreds Attend YU Jewish Job Fair Seeking Communal and Educational Careers

Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) and Institute for University-School Partnership hosted their annual Jewish Job Fair on YU’s Wilf Campus on February 28. More than 50 Jewish day schools and 20 community organizations from across North America, including the Orthodox Union, Nefesh B’Nefesh, Repair the World and others, participated in the event, which was free and open to the public, with YU students and alumni given one hour of priority access.

“Our annual Jewish Job Fair is a natural outgrowth of our mission to support and strengthen Jewish communities and organizations around the world,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “It also provides a platform for talented Jewish leaders to connect with opportunities that will allow them to make their mark on the Jewish world and beyond. We consider it our responsibility to make sure that our graduates are given opportunities to share their unique talents in shaping the Jewish communal landscape.”

More than 300 YU students, alumni and other job seekers gathered for the chance to meet so many employers in Jewish education and nonprofit in one place. But the event also attracted talent and employers from greater distances.

Suzy Richman, director of operations at University Jewish Chaplaincy, traveled from the United Kingdom for the fair. “We place rabbinical couples around university campuses all over the United Kingdom and we’ve had great luck with Yeshiva University students, so it was important for us to be here,” she said.

Jenn Baumstein, program coordinator at Eden Village Camp, decided to participate in the job fair because of its opportunity to tap a unique audience. “We think the folks at YU have a lot to bring to the table and we’re hiring for key positions that require a combination of Jewish knowledge and communal experience,” she said, noting that those positions range from camp nurse to assistant director. “With all the programs offered here, we thought we’d reach a high-range, high-caliber and mature crowd at the fair.”

The job fair was especially notable for job seekers in the Jewish education field. “Schools had the chance to meet with the best and brightest educators, including promising new talent entering the field for the first time,” said Rabbi Maccabee Avishur, associate director for teaching and learning at the University-School Partnership and one of the event organizers. “Job seekers got face-to-face access to school leaders from outstanding institutions around the country. It’s a great way to advance the field of education by continuing to professionalize the candidate search and placement process.”

Edith Koslowe, a Stern College for Women graduate and current student at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, agreed. “It’s great to be able to get a feel for schools and see if you match here instead of scrolling through job listings online or calling every school to see if they’re hiring,” she said. “Here, I can just walk into a room and see who’s looking.”

YU Students Going ‘Out Of Their Comfort Zone’

School’s overseas volunteer program is latest sign of growing Orthodox outreach to the non-Jewish community.

Rachel Sterman, center, who served as a volunteer at a Mayan village. Photo courtesy The Center for the Jewish Future
Rachel Sterman, center, who served as a volunteer at a Mayan village. Photo courtesy The Center for the Jewish Future

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.”

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Multi-Cultural Island of Trinidad is Destination of Trinity Contingent

Group encounters Breadth of Religious Traditions during Winter Break

Who knew that a diet of stewed chicken three times a day for almost a week could be so satisfying? Yet, the group of about two dozen staff and students from Trinity were barely fazed by the fowl-dominant cuisine, so enthused were they by their weeklong interfaith service and study trip to the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad.

Mazin Khalil ’15, described the trip as academically and socially enriching, explaining that it was exceptional for two reasons: the diverse group of Trinity students, most of whom didn’t know each other before they left, jelled into a cohesive, friendly and collaborative unit, and the traditions and activities they witnessed while on the island were both enjoyable and educational.

The group of 27 – which included College Chaplain Allison Read, Hillel Director Lisa Kassow and Imam Adeel Zeb – left for Port-of-Spain, the country’s capital, on January 3 and arrived home on January 10. Trinidad is one of eight College-run global learning sites, with students spending either a semester or a year on the island and taking their classes at the University of the West Indies.

While there, the visitors stayed at the Pax Guest House, nestled in the hills overlooking the northern mountain range in the town of Tunapuna, and were counseled, advised and treated hospitably by the staff of the Trinidad in Trinity Program: Shamagne and Gregory Bertrand, Florence Blizzard and Sunity Maharal Best.

Milla Riggio, James J. Goodwin Professor of English and a scholar who has focused her research on both Shakespeare and the Trinidad Carnival, visited the island nation in the early 1990s and is credited with beginning the program in 1998. Riggio called the administrative staff  “amazing,” and suggested that the sophisticated country – “with its diversified economy, amazing mix of races, ethnicities [and] cultures” — is a terrific venue for students who are interested in studying engineering, film studies, religion, history, pre-med, psychology, education, music and photography. Riggio has edited or co-edited three books about the Trinidad Carnival, including In Trinidad, a book of photographs by Pablo Delano, professor of fine arts.

Trinidad, which is sometimes referred to as the “rainbow island” because of its wide range of ethnicity, religion and culture, is in the southern Caribbean, about five miles off the coast of Venezuela. It is one of the more prosperous islands with a large middle class and whose economy is buoyed by petroleum. Buildings sit in proximity to temples, mosques and Catholic cathedrals.

The ability of people of many faiths – Roman Catholic, Muslim, Anglican, Jewish, Christian, Hindu and indigenous — to live harmoniously and share each other’s traditions was one of the aspects that fascinated the visitors, who also included three people from Wellesley College.

Read said she had long dreamed about doing a “faith trip abroad,” and was able to pull it off during winter break, thanks to financial help from the College, the Student Government Association and Repair the World, a New York City-based organization that is considered the leading authority on volunteering and service in and by the American Jewish community. Read and Kassow said a contributing factor in choosing Trinidad was the social and academic infrastructure that Riggio and other Trinity faculty had created.

Read, Kassow and Zeb had little trouble recruiting students to join the group. Khalil said his Brooklyn, NY high school has a large West Indian population so the trip fulfilled a long-held goal of his. Omari Roberts ’15, had the opposite experience. A native of Chicago, he was relatively unfamiliar with that part of the world and the trip was an opportunity that he “couldn’t pass by.” Irenae Aigbedion ’13, also from Brooklyn and of Jamaican heritage, said going to Trinidad represented an opportunity “to take a trip in my cultural context.”

Zeb said one of the eye-opening aspects of Trinidad was how joyfully everyone celebrates other peoples’ religions, especially their traditions, such as their food and music. “There’s not a lack of anxiety. Trinidadians are a very relaxed people.”

Sarah Kacevich ’13, of Southborough, MA, kept a blog during the trip. In one of her passages, she wrote: “If there’s one thing that observing the interfaith working of Trinidad showed me, it’s that faith matters…Faith, religion, and/or spirituality drives so much of what the world’s people think, do, say, vote for, work on behalf of, and donate to. It influences the communities that we form, the friendships we make, and the families that we raise, the alliances we seek and avoid, the type of health care we prefer. It shapes the financial, institutional, political, and philosophical patterns of so much of the world. Like it or not, faith has a massive presence in the world, and despite its ups and downs, it’s not going away anytime soon.”

In addition to the community service component of painting a home for the aged run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the group visited a Muslim mosque for prayers; had Shabbat dinner at Pax with Hans Stecher, a Holocaust refugee who arrived in Trinidad in 1938 and has led the small Jewish community for decades; visited the Temple of the Sea and the Statue of Hanuman and a second Hindu temple for yoga instruction; met with The Rt. Rev. Claude Berkely, Anglican bishop of the diocese of Trinidad and Tobago; enjoyed a musical experience of a house-to-house Parang on Epiphany; visited an Orisha shrine; and attended a smoke ceremony during which a shaman blessed the group members.

The group also found some time for fun, hiking through a rainforest, lying on the beach, swimming under a waterfall, and attending a steel pan band rehearsal. Aigbedion called the latter activities, “places of peace, calm and friendliness amidst the chaos.”

The students found the food to be unlike the diet they were accustomed to, with a heavy emphasis on stewed chicken and deep fried bread with shark.  But they didn’t mind the menu. They also agreed that Trinidadians felt a “monumental sense of pride” about their country and were oblivious to what a person’s skin color is.

“What the students all noticed and found meaningful was that Trinidad is so culturally rich,” said Kassow. “People are committed both to specific communities and to their national identity but none of those things are in conflict.”

Read attributed many of those characteristics to Trinidad’s unique history in which the nation – one that is now 50 years old – grew out of centuries of colonization.

Read summed up the trip this way: “Our students enjoyed a very full schedule of activities, and I have no doubt every one of them encountered new religious traditions, shared new experiences, and grappled with their own identities and beliefs…There was good, solid content shared by everyone we encountered and an openness to inquiry that makes such trips work. This was truly the best of experiential learning, and we are all grateful to have gone on this adventure.”​​​​

PRESS RELEASE: NEW STUDY FINDS THAT AVODAH HELPS PREPARE PARTICIPANTS TO BE LEADERS IN THE JEWISH AND SOCIAL JUSTICE COMMUNITIES

NEW YORK, NY; February 11, 2013–When AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps was founded in 1998, few Immersive Jewish Service Learning (IJSL) programs were in existence. Fourteen years later, IJSL has grown into a field with dozens of programs and thousands of alumni. As a pioneer in this space, AVODAH, in collaboration with Repair the World, a national nonprofit that mobilizes Jewish volunteers, commissioned a study to understand the impact AVODAH has had on the professional and personal paths of its alumni.

“Anecdotally we knew that AVODAH has a transformative, long-term impact on its participants,” said Marilyn Sneiderman, Executive Director of AVODAH. “Now we have the data to back it up. We can measure where alumni are making a difference and the degree to which they believe their IJSL experience helped them get there. In order to support our alumni as they become leaders in Jewish social justice and anti-poverty work, we had to understand the outcomes of our current program.”

AVODAH’s year-long program combines full-time service at anti-poverty organizations within the framework of a supportive and pluralistic Jewish community. It gives participants the opportunity to deepen their understanding of domestic poverty and enhance their Jewish identities and the connection to social justice.

Conducted by researchers from Brandeis University, overseen by Rosov Consulting, LLC and funded in part by Repair the World, the study surveyed 424 alumni of AVODAH and achieved a 72% response rate.

The study found that AVODAH paved the way for its participants to hold professional and lay leadership positions in Jewish and secular social justice organizations. Alumni of AVODAH also credit the program for providing them with the skills to be more effective in their work.

As one alumnus, now an immigration lawyer, explained, AVODAH dramatically changed his personal passions and his choice of career, saying, “I applied to AVODAH because of the Jewish component—’social justice’ was not really part of my vocabulary prior to AVODAH.”

 Of the alumni who participated in the study:

  • 92% report that that AVODAH set them on their current career path.
  • 98% report that the year-long program shaped their understanding of the causes and effects of poverty.
  • 95% report that AVODAH strengthened their commitment to social justice
  • 85% report that AVODAH helped them find their place in the Jewish community.
  • 77% report that the program initiated them in to the Jewish social justice movement

“The report underscores the proven fact that a year of service can build a long-standing commitment to civic responsibility and social change,” said David Eisner, CEO of Repair the World. “We commend AVODAH for its strong programming and commitment to strengthening the Jewish community’s fight against poverty in the United States”

To download the study and the executive summary, visit http://www.avodah.net/.

ABOUT AVODAH: THE JEWISH SERVICE CORPS

Established in 1998, AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps strengthens the Jewish community’s fight against poverty in the U.S. by engaging Jewish young adults in service and community building that inspire them to become lifelong leaders for social change whose work for justice is rooted in, and nourished by, Jewish values.  AVODAH has partnered with 135 local antipoverty organizations and placed nearly 600 corps members for a year of service.  AVODAH is working with alumni to transform the alumni community into a powerful network for social change by providing opportunities for professional development, skill building and engagement in Jewish life. In fall 2013, AVODAH will begin increasing the scale and scope of our work by launching a new non-residential program. “Like” us on Facebook: facebook.com/avodah. Follow us on twitter: @AVODAH_TJSC.

ABOUT REPAIR THE WORLD

Established in 2009, Repair the World is a national nonprofit organization that mobilizes Jewish Americans to address the world’s most pressing issues through volunteering.  Headquartered in New York City, we connect individuals with meaningful service opportunities to help their local, national and global communities, and enable individuals and organizations to run effective programs rooted in Jewish values. Visit weRepair.org to learn more. Follow us on twitter @repairtheworld.

CONTACT:

Steve Bocknek / [email protected] / (212) 545-7759 ext 305

New study finds exposure to challenges in Israel encourage community service

NEW YORK (JTA) — Jewish young adults exposed to complex issues surrounding Israel come away with a connection to the Jewish state, according to a new study.

Commissioned by the Jewish Agency for Israel and Repair the World, a Jewish service learning group, thestudy surveyed 332 young Jewish adults who participated in 12 different Jewish volunteer programs and found that working to address various inequities in Israeli life does not alienate them from Israel.

“There’s no need for program providers and funders to present a rose-colored version of Israel to our young people,” said Dyonna Ginsburg, the director Jewish Service Learning of the Jewish Agency. “Quite the contrary, we should be looking for additional ways to present Israel as it really is.

The study found that 92 percent of participants felt more attached to Israel after completing a social justice program there. Exposure to issues like the divide between secular and religious Israelis and the status of Israeli-Arabs increased their desire to pursue further opportunities in Israel.

“The more people understand about their service, the more committed they will be to it. What’s more, we know that young people — particularly those from affiliated households — become more passionate when their service brings a connection to their own personal heritage,” said Repair the World CEO David Eisner. “We hope these insights will spur collaboration among providers and funders in Israel to build content and positive experiences for those motivated to volunteer.”

Jewish Agency: Don’t sugar-coat Israel

There is more support for Jewish state among youth exposed to “warts and all,” report says.

Dyonna Ginsburg, the Jewish Agency’s director of Jewish service learning

Dyonna Ginsburg, the Jewish Agency’s director of Jewish service learning Photo: Jewish Agency

American youth who learn about Israel, including the country’s problems, are more “motivated to engage in more Israel-based service,” according to a report released on Wednesday by the Jewish Agency in conjunction with the NGO Repair the World.

The report, titled Serving a Complex Israel: A report on Israel-based Immersive Jewish Service-learning, “bucks the commonly held fear among mainstream Jewish organizations that Israel’s more difficult social problems will turn off young people from [the country],” according to JAFI.

“This fear has been why groups like Birthright, federations and even local synagogues have tended to shy away from immersing their participants, donors and congregants in situations that really show the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish-Arab tensions and extreme poverty.”

These findings are based on a survey of 332 alumni from 12 “immersive Jewish service-learning (IJSL) programs,” which engage their participants in “full time” community service for a minimum of a week.

Among the study’s conclusions is the assertion that those exposed to situations with a negative connotation, such as the religious-secular divide, the status of Israeli- Arabs or the sometimes precarious security situation “can come out with a deeper interest in serving and enrolling in future opportunities. The more these young men and women learn about Israel – warts and all – the more they are motivated to engage in more Israel-based service.”

In fact, the Jewish Agency believes that “more deeply understanding these dynamics intensifies a bond to the Jewish state” and that “volunteering in Israel often deepens, versus distances, a young Jew’s feelings for the country precisely because of its social complexity.”

According to Dyonna Ginsburg, the Jewish Agency’s director of Jewish service learning, “there’s no need for program providers and funders to present a rose-colored version of Israel to our young people.

“Quite the contrary, we should be looking for additional ways to present Israel as it really is. Immersive Jewish Service-learning (IJSL) participants have not been shying away from Israel based on their time there. They are clearly strengthening their connections to [the country], their heritage and the Jewish people,” she said.

“Young people – particularly those from affiliated households – become more passionate when their service brings a connection to their own personal heritage,” said Repair the World CEO David Eisner.

Participation in IJSL programs, the report claims, led 92 percent of alumni respondents to state that they “felt more attached to Israel.” A further 79% stated that they “felt more connected to their Jewish heritage and identity” and 78% reported they felt more connected to global Jewry. A large majority of alumni of these programs, the Jewish Agency claims, feel that their commitment to social justice has been strengthened as well.

The study also said that the respondents “indicated that it did not matter to them if they were serving Jews or non- Jews.” The Jewish Agency’s focus of late has changed from promoting aliya to strengthening Jewish identity in Diaspora communities, which it claims helps to combat assimilation.

Due to that focus, Jewish Agency funded programs such a birthright, which brings college age students on free tours in Israel, and MASA, which provides longer term professional and educational opportunities, have become increasingly important to the organization in recent years, as a way to combat what some see as rising disinterest in Israel’s wellbeing, among young American Jews.

Half of American Jews under 35 would not consider the destruction of the state of Israel a personal tragedy according to a 2007 study by sociologists Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman.

“Feelings of attachment may well be changing, as warmth gives way to indifference, and indifference may even give way to downright alienation,” they wrote in their report, Beyond Distancing.

“Inevitably, if sufficiently pronounced and widespread, this prospective sea-change in attitudes toward Israel will have profound effects upon American Jews’ relationships with Israel, with direct bearing upon Israel’s security.”

Youth Gain Attachment to Israel When They ‘See It as It is’

A new study co-sponsored by the Jewish Agency shows that fears of Jewish youth turning against Israel by being exposed to the country are totally wrong and that their experience actually encourages them to volunteer in Israel.

“Repair the World” and The Jewish Agency released the conclusions of the study on Thursday and it shows that the more these young men and women learn about Israel, warts and all, the more they are motivated to engage in more Israel-based service.

“There’s no need for program providers and funders to present a rose-colored version of Israel to our young people,” said Dyonna Ginsburg, Director of Jewish Service Learning at the Jewish Agency.

“Quite the contrary, we should be looking for additional ways to present Israel as it really is. Immersive Jewish Service-learning (IJSL) participants have not been shying away from Israel based on their time there. They are clearly strengthening their connections to Israel, their heritage and the Jewish people.”

David Eisner, CEO of Repair the World, said, “The more people understand about their service, the more committed they will be to it. What’s more, we know that young people, particularly those from affiliated households, become more passionate when their service brings a connection to their own personal heritage. We hope these insights will spur collaboration among providers and funders in Israel to build content and positive experiences for those motivated to volunteer.”

The study found that volunteering in Israel often deepens versus distances a young Jew’s feelings for the country precisely because of its social complexity. Exposing young Jews to multifaceted issues underlying Israeli life, such as the divide between secular and ultra-Orthodox society, the security situation, the status of Arab-Israelis, and the growing income gap in Israeli society can, in fact, bolster their desire to serve and enroll in future opportunities.

An overwhelming 82 percent of the respondents reported that they have strengthened their commitment to social justice and at the same time, 92% said they felt more attached to Israel.

“I absolutely think it is important for North American Jews to come volunteer in Israel,” said a 27-year-old study respondent. “They will be exposed to elements that they certainly will not see on [other programs]. Understanding what issues are swept under the rug, and why, is very important to understanding Israel, and understanding Judaism.”