Most college students spend semester breaks catching up on sleep and relaxing after the exhausting week of final exams.
Dozens of students at the University of Maryland, however, choose instead to go on service trips with Maryland Hillel’s Repair the World Alternative Breaks. This winter break, trip options include Ghana, San Diego and Israel; and spring includes Central America, Louisiana, Ukraine and Arizona.
Maryland Hillel is not the only organization to plan the trips. The Adele H. Stamp Student Union- Center for Campus Life also leads visits. But the Hillel trips are unique, according to Shikma Gurvitz, alternative break coordinator for Maryland Hillel.
“I think what’s special about Hillel alternative breaks is that you go with 13 people who are different from you in many ways, and probably the only thing that connects you is that you’re all Jewish,” Gurvitz said, adding that a key aspect of the Hillel trips is the ability to travel and explore an issue outside of the classroom.
“It gives a face to an issue and it makes it a lot more personal,” Gurvitz said.
Maryland Hillel selects students to plan and coordinate each trip. Benny Herskovitz and Gila Akselrad will be leading the San Diego trip from Jan. 8 to Jan. 15. About 15 participants will learn about immigration and border issues.
One morning will be spent following around a border patrol agent, and the group will also travel with Border Angels, a nonprofit humanitarian organization. “We’ll also have speakers from the University of San Diego and possibly the government in San Diego,” said Akselrad.
Another trip to Tucson, Arizona, will be working this spring with Comin’ Home, Inc., an organization that helps veterans reintegrate into society after returning home from the U.S. military. Sam Rosenberg and Malia Haselton will be leading the trip.
“A lot of them are suffering from alcohol, or drug addictions, or homelessness,” said Rosenberg, a senior government and politics major. “The focus of the trip is how U.S. veterans are often forgotten, and that makes the reintegration that much more difficult.”
“The problem is, as with many organizations, they don’t have enough funding, so that’s where we come in. We help them repair their houses and do handy work,” said Haselton, a junior history major. The group is also planning to visit a veteran’s hospital and speak with a professor about post-traumatic stress disorder, said Rosenberg.
Some of the trips are international. For example, one is going to Kiev, Ukraine this spring to work with students who are said to have lost their Jewish identity, according to Dillon Hagius, a student leader for the trip. The region’s Jewish community has a turbulent history, stemming from the late 19th century when Jews in Russia were persecuted and many lost their identity, said Hagius, a sophomore finance major.
The group will be working with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which reconnects bonds to Jewish identity and culture, according to its website. A highlight of the trip will be working with Ukranian college students, who will be with the Maryland participants for the majority of the trip, said Hagius.
“We’re just trying to help them get back in touch with what it means to be Jewish,” said Hagius. The ultimate goal after returning from an alternative break trip is that the experience will inspire the participants to lead projects in their local communities.
“I hope that it impacts the students to say, ‘I really can make a difference,'” said Gurvitz.