Since 2006, Repair the World grantee-partner Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village has provided a community and high school in Rwanda for the young people who were orphaned during and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It has also served as an amazing place for service learning.

This past May University of Pennsylvania junior, Jamie Etkind, attended a Hillel-led trip for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students to ASYV for a 10-day service learning program. The students spent time with Agahozo-Shalom’s villagers, worked in their gardens, school and community, and gained a deeper understanding of the lasting impact the genocide has had on the country. Etkind took the time to tell Repair the World about her once-in-a-lifetime service experience.

What is your background with service and volunteering?
I was raised in a reform Jewish household, participated in mitzvah days when I was younger, and had a service project around my bat mitzvah where I raised money for the Koby Mandell Foundation. In high school I was also the co-founder and president of an organization that raised money for and got students involved as volunteers in hospice work. But I had never been on a service trip, and never really given much explicit thought to how deeply related Judaism and service are.

How did you find out about Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village?
Two of my friends had participated before and came back with rave reviews. They both said, “you have to do this!” I had learned about the Rwandan genocide in high school, but before the trip I never knew what happened there after the genocide. Leading up to the trip, I was incredibly excited. I did a lot of independent research including watching a bunch of documentaries about what the country is like today. I also read the powerful and fact-filled book, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families. In the semester leading up to our trip, our group also read a lot of survivor testimonials and did outreach events, so by the time I left I felt pretty well versed – but I still didn’t have any first hand experience.

What did you do during the trip?
A lot of the trip was focused on forming personal relationships with the students in the village. Every morning we would do a service project, like helping in the garden or kitchen. After the students’ school day, we met up with them and went to their after school clubs and took tours of the village. On Saturday, since the students weren’t in school, we got to work side by side with them in the garden.

Can you share a story or two of the impact the trip had?
One of my favorite interactions was with a student named Pacy, who I first met during a meal. One night when we were walking from dinner – it was pitch black outside in the village, but she knew her way – she told me her life story. She opened up about her family’s history and her ambitions and said, “I’d love to be like Oprah someday.” I said, “Oh, so you can be on television?” And she said, “No, so I can help other girls in positions like me.” That was really powerful – these kids have such a sense of service ingrained in them. It’s part of their daily life – they can’t wait to go to university and come back and be the generation that helps make their country great.

What surprised you most on the trip?
I wasn’t expecting to have so much introspection about my Judaism. As I mentioned, I grew up reform but I’ve been a part of the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship at Penn, and have found a lot of meaning in that. On the trip, there were Jews across the denominations, as well as Christian, Catholic, Mormon, and Muslim students. We would talk a lot about religion, and people would ask me very innocent questions like “Why do you work on Saturday, but the other Jews aren’t?” or “Why are you not keeping kosher but the other Jews do?” I had never been asked those questions by anyone and it led me to the realization that if I don’t do these things, I need a reason why. I’m at a point in my life where it’s not enough to simply say, “I do it because I was raised that way.” So my eyes were opened by these other students.

Did the trip also change your thoughts or perspective about Judaism and service?
Yes, I had really never put the two together before even though I’d experienced them together. I never really thought about service being such a strong pillar of Judaism, but that was something we really explored on the trip and it got me thinking. I had always associated tzedakah as simply giving money, but now I know it’s also about service and so much more.

Learn more about Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village’s work here.