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Archive for : Hillel

Repair Interview: Robert Beiser Talks Teen Feed and JConnect in Seattle

Seattle, in a word, rules. That’s partly because the city is home to Teen Feed, a groundbreaking organization that engages volunteers in offering meals, support and services to homeless youth and teens. It’s also because of JConnect Seattle and Hillel UW, two organizations (and Repair the World partners) that engage college-aged and young adult Jews in all kinds of amazing, Jewishly-rooted service work – including volunteering with Teen Feed!

Robert Beiser, who is the Campus/JConnect Repair the World Director at Hillel UW, took the time to speak to us about how Teen Feed serves Seattle’s homeless and street-connected youth, why JConnect decided to host a weekly Teen Feed site, and what it’s like being Seattle’s largest default kosher education organization.

Tell me a bit more about Teen Feed.
It’s an incredible program that’s been around for 25 years. They work with volunteers to serve meals to homeless and street-connected youth – the meal serves as a platform for case workers and long term volunteer workers to create and build relationships with them. Over time, they have become an incredible resource for teens in Seattle and a model for other organizations nationally.

How many teens usually show up for meals?
On any given night there’s usually 30-70 youth who come in for a meal. While they’re eating, advocates go and sit with them. It’s a great way for youth to connect with services that they can’t access so easily through the government. For example, if a 15-year old needs some kind of service and they talk to someone in government they’ll likely be told, “you’re under 18, we’re going to place you in foster care.” They might also be deterred from going to social services in the first place – somewhere where they’ll be in an office with adults they don’t know. They could feel embarrassed and uncomfortable and decide it’s not worth it, when really they need services.

Teen Feed says, we’ll give you a hot meal and there will be people there who think you’re valuable and who believe in you and your future. Through the meals they develop relationships before they’re ever asked anything, like if they want more stable housing, or to go back to school, get a job, or get help with substance abuse. It’s been a really successful program. There are lots of cases where former guests now have jobs and families, and are even on the board of Teen Feed.

How have Jconnect and Hillel UW been involved with Teen Feed?
Teen Feed is held in a different church or community center each night of the week – Hillel hosts it on Sundays, and Jconnect members volunteer to cook and serve. We’d volunteered for a while, but wanted to take the opportunity to provide a real service to our community. We wanted to integrate the program into JConnect and make it a hallmark of what we do. So we talked to Teen Feed about being a host site. These days, for the first time in 25 years, Teen Feed can offer meals 7 days a week, and every night of the year. We also regularly send groups to help make food on days like Christmas and Easter Sunday, because our volunteers will be free.

What do Jconnect participants do when volunteering at Teen Feed?
We have an average of 10-12 volunteers a week, and we’ve had about 90 different volunteers over the course of the year. The meal team volunteers provide the food, and then both cook and serve it on a buffet line. We use real dishes and have a compost for all the stuff people don’t eat. We’ve actually helped other Teen Feed hosts set up composting at their sites too. Our team works out of the Hillel kitchen, which is strictly kosher. So in a way, we’re also the largest kosher education organization around by necessity!

What type of impact have you seen from JConnect’s work with Teen Feed?
While we’re volunteering, we occasionally get into really deep conversations about the role of Jewish communities in doing service and social justice work, and about individual versus collective responsibility. 9 times out of 10, I’m not the person leading the discussion – this type of work really gets people talking and gives them a chance to grow.

Another thing that is really remarkable to me is the Teen Feed staff. They’re mostly young people in their 20s, and they go week in and week out and hear some of the most heartbreaking stories from people who look just like them. They take that on with so much dignity and compassion, and keep the focus constantly on what they can do to best serve and be the best organization they can. Teen Feed is constantly improving itself to become smarter and more compassionate in its work, and to respond to feedback, trends and changes. It’s an honor to be involved.

Learn more about Teen Feed’s work here, about JConnect here, and about Hillel UW’s work here.

Repair Interview: Andrew Tepper and the Jewish Disaster Response Corps

Since 2009, Repair the World’s grantee-partner organization, the Jewish Disaster Response Corps has mobilized hundreds of Jewish students in helping to rebuild communities after disasters (like hurricanes, fire, and floods). Recently, JDRC was down in Alabama, rebuilding homes for victims of last year’s tornados.

Andrew Tepper, a senior at NYU who recently volunteered with JDRC, took the time to tell Repair the World about his first experience with manual labor, the trip’s interfaith focus, and the exhilaration that comes from building a home for someone in need.

How did you get involved with JDRC?
I first learned about them last year. One of the Rabbis at the Bronfman Center at NYU spoke about the need for people to help out in Alabama – and particularly about how there had been very few Jewish volunteer groups to go down. Several months after the tornados struck, the initial sensationalism had died down, and support for the area was dwindling a bit. This was a chance to not only live our Jewish values and help others, but a chance to say to the people of Alabama, “we haven’t forgotten about you.”
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UCLA Homeless Aid Group Has White House Hopes

A UCLA student group that supports the homeless is one of 15 finalists in the White House’s Campus Champions of Change Challenge. The group was chosen from hundreds of applicants, and online voters will choose the top five.

Rachel Sumekh, president of Swipes for the Homeless and social justice vice president forUCLA Hillel, says momentum is building to get clicks before voting closes March 3.

Five winning applicants will be invited to the White House for a culminating event as part of President Barack Obama’s Winning the Future initiative. The student groups will have the opportunity to work with mtvU, an MTV channel for U.S. college campuses, to produce a short film that will air on MTV and mtvU.

UCLA Swipes for the Homeless was founded by Jewish student Bryan Pezeshki, now a senior. In 2009, he and a bunch of friends redeemed unused vouchers on their prepaid meal plan to purchase sandwiches, which they delivered to people living on the streets of Westwood, near campus.

They cashed in about 300 swipes that semester, then decided to organize and urge other students to donate swipes off their meal cards. Unused meal vouchers don’t roll over at the end of the quarter, so in the past students would either purchase nonperishables such as drinks and chips or lose the money.

Last quarter, UCLA students donated 7,400 swipes at redeeming stations set up at the dorms at the end of the quarter. Now, in addition to some prepared food, UCLA Dining Services provides palettes of packaged food, which the students deliver to homeless shelters, to food banks and to people on the streets.

Some of the food also stays on campus, stocking a discreet, unstaffed food closet where any student can pick up free food. Around 50 students a day make use of the closet, said Sumekh, who is also active in keeping the food closet running.

Pezeshki, a senior in neuroscience who is applying to medical school, is now working on taking the concept national. He established Swipes for the Homeless as an independent non-profit, and 10 other universities are running the program.

Sumekh says a large number of the Swipes volunteers are also active in UCLA Hillel. Under the leadership of its director of Jewish life, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, UCLA Hillel has incorporated more social justice work into its activities through its Repair the World Street Team, which helps students take on leadership roles in the area of social justice.

Sumekh, a Street Team intern, participated in a spring break program that took her to on-the-ground efforts to aid the needy, and she visits schools in disadvantaged areas to talk to students about college.

Sumekh is graduating this year with a degree in history and minor in complex human systems, and will do a year of service next year.

To vote in the Campus Champions for Change Challenge, click here.

Hillel, Repair the World partner for community service

With a budding partnership already under way, two groups are planning to redefine the role of service in American Jewish life.

In January 2011, Repair the World, a national organization devoted to promoting service among Jewish communities, teamed up with Penn Hillel as part of a broader mission to engage Jewish college students in sustainable and meaningful service projects.

This semester, many new initiatives and programs of the partnership will kick off, including student-run initiatives and educational sessions.

Last spring, Repair and Hillel awarded three fellowships that include financial, technical and managerial support to student-run initiatives. The fourth fellowship was added this semester, according to Debbie Yunker, Penn Hillel’s assistant director for Leadership Development and Operations.

Repair and Hillel hope students will create initiatives that will develop into permanent service programs at Penn. These students applied for fellowships last May and some have been planning their initiatives since as early as last semester.

Repair hopes to cultivate a “hub for campus-based service,” said Jon Rosenberg, chief executive officer and 1988 College graduate.

Rosenberg believes a period of intensive service should become a “rite of passage” for Jewish young adults, and that the college time frame is by nature a “strategically important time in which to work [with students] because behaviors fostered now can last into the rest of their lives.”

“We want service to get so deeply embedded in the Hillel community that it becomes a part of the organization’s DNA,” he said.

College junior Alexis Mayer, who is one of this year’s fellows, is planning an event for the weekend of Mar. 17, held in conjunction with a national initiative called “Sharsheret Pink Shabbat.”

The event is geared toward raising awareness of the various risks of breast cancer and educating the Penn community about the resources available for affected women and their families, Mayer said.

To increase awareness in the Penn community, Mayer plans to distribute “fact and figure” sheets around Hillel, sell pink-colored challah — a traditional braided bread commonly eaten during Jewish holidays — on Locust Walk and invite a breast cancer survivor to share her story.

Mayer added that for Ashkenazi Jews, the genetic descendants of particular medieval Jewish communities in Germany and who make up a large percentage of the Jewish individuals on campus, the likelihood of contracting breast cancer is “nearly 70 percent more likely.”

“We want students and community members also to be aware of their genetic history,” she said.

Another student fellow, College sophomore Shayna Golkow, has launched a high school mentoring initiative called ATID. The program’s goal is to establish one-on-one relationships with juniors at University City High School. Volunteers will provide standardized test preparation and assist students with applying and selecting colleges and future careers, Golkow said.

“Hopefully these students who don’t always have someone helping them out anywhere else will benefit from having mentors on their side,” she added.

Currently, ATID has ten pairings, and ten more are in the process of being matched.

Other initiatives such as a family cooking workshop in West Philadelphia and a program that sends volunteers to a local emergency daycare and to a group home for pregnant teenage girls are still in their developmental stages.

“Ideally, all initiatives are ongoing,” said Greta Deerson, Penn’s Repair coordinator. The early start-up stage of Hillel’s relationship with Repair should serve as “an incubator for new ideas,” she said.

Penn Hillel is one of only seven campus partnerships with Repair. The organization also established partnerships at university Hillel communities at Tufts and Cornell Universities, the Universities of Maryland and Washington and the Universities of California Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Repair Interview: Rebecca Weintraub’s Alternative Break with Hillel and Yahel

The end of January has arrived, which means two things: 1. Super Bowl Sunday (yay!) and 2. the end of winter break (not so yay). Students across the country are buckling down and getting back in the groove of papers, quizzes and homework. Meanwhile, daydreams of winter breaks just-past still dance in their heads. Especially for students like University of Maryland senior, Rebecca Weintraub.

Weintraub, along with 15 other students, joined Maryland Hillel and Repair the World for a life-changing alternative break trip in Israel. The students volunteered with Repair the World grantee-partner Yahel (learn more about Yahel here), for a 10-day whirlwind of learning and serving with Israel’s Ethiopian community. Weintraub took a minute from her busy back-to-school schedule to tell Repair the World about planting gardens with Ethiopian-Israelis, trying injera and other new foods, and how the trip influenced her relationship with Israel.

What inspired you to go on the alternative break trip?
There were several different alternative break trips being offered through Hillel – like one to San Diego that focused on immigration, and another to Ghana with American Jewish World Service. But the one that caught my eye was one in Israel with Yahel. It seemed different than the typical Israel trip where you visit Masada and the Kotel – it delved into social justice issues and seemed like it could help both deepen and challenge my relationship with Israel.
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Alternative Breaks for an Alternative Experience

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.

Video: Hillel Students Serve in Russia

This past May, a group of 170 Hillel students and their families volunteered to help clean up Jewish cemeteries across Russia – in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg, and Khabarov. Together they restored headstones, swept up leaves and debris and painted fences. It was a meaningful act of service, particularly considering that many of the cemeteries across the former Soviet Union – both Jewish and not – are poorly maintained.

Check out the video of their day, made by one of the student participants:

See more on eJewishPhilanthropy and Hillel’s website.