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Archive for : alternative break

Alternative Break Interview: Yonatan Isser on Visiting Israel with Yahel

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.

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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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.”​​​​

Alternative Winter Breaks for Sandy Relief: Rebuilding in Breezy Point

Benjy Brandwein’s home in Belle Harbor, Queens (next to Breezy Point) was badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy. So in the days after the storm, the mechanical engineering student rallied friends to come help him recover and rebuild. Inspired by the outpouring of support, he wanted to help other people rebuild as well.

His opportunity arrived a few weeks later when he received a call from the Bnei Akiva youth group, asking if he could organize an alternative winter break trip for Jewish college students who were home in New York for break. As long time supporter of the Bnei Akiva (he’s been a camp counselor and program coordinator there, and is currently involved in coordinating year-round programming), Benjy jumped at the chance. Partnering with Habitat for Humanity oF Westchester, and with micro-grant support from Repair the World, the program he created paid the kindness he’d received forward, and enabled students to make a difference.

How did the service program come about?
My house was severely damaged in the Hurricane. Once the storm passed, I posted on Facebook to rally friends, and had a lot of people come out to help me. A few weeks after the storm, I got a call from the heads of Bnei Akiva in New York saying they wanted to host some kind of volunteer program to help homeowners whose homes had been damaged or destroyed. They were open to any kind of program, so I put together a schedule and budget for a mission that partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Westchester. The idea was that participants would volunteer during the daylight hours, and have bonding activities – like going to the movies and hanging out – in the evening.

One of my bosses let me know that Repair the World was offering micro-grants to support Sandy recovery alternative breaks in New York. We applied and received the funding, which really helped us move the project forward.

How many participants did you have?
We ended up with 12 college student participants from all over the New York area – they drove in from as far away as Riverdale, Washington Heights, and the 5 Towns.

What kind of projects did they work on?
We split into two groups of 6 every day. We had the teams help with demolition – in one of the houses, all the floors had to be ripped up. In other cases, they shoveled sand or removed debris. Their volunteer work was dictated by whatever the needs were in a specific house.

Whose houses did you work on?
Habitat for Humanity had a station set up in Breezy Point where homeowners could come to them and say, “I need help with X,Y,Z,” and they’d help match needs with volunteers. Each morning around 9:30 we would head over there and be sent wherever we were needed. In most cases, the people we were helping would be there watching us rip up their homes and getting all the debris out. Seeing their reaction to having their homes demolished was difficult at times.

What kind of response did you see in participants?
At the beginning, the overwhelming response from participants was, “Wow – what are we doing coming into people’s homes and destroying them?” But they came to realize that tearing down the damaged structures was a part of the rebuilding process. In the end they were happy to have helped. They didn’t realize in advance just how bad the damage was, and they were excited to make a positive difference.

And how about your response? You put together a pretty amazing program!
Honestly, I was slightly overwhelmed. I had never done anything like this. I had worked as a camp counselor before and done a little construction work on my house, but to put them together to help people was entirely new. Luckily, Habitat for Humanity made it all easy. They were there to help us through the process. We have a second group of alternative break students coming next week, and I am looking forward to doing it all again.