Thanks so much to Wexner Service Corps teen, Ilana Hoffman for writing this lovely, first hand account of her volunteer experience with Repair the World.
The Wexner Service Corps (WSC) is a program designed to inspire and unite Columbus-area Jewish teens to engage in service learning. The WSC is open to high school juniors and seniors to participate in a week-long service trip followed by a year of monthly volunteering and Jewish learning. A select group of Corps members can return for a second year to join the Senior Leadership Cohort (SLC). The WSC launched in June 2013 with an inaugural service trip to New York and has since served in New Orleans (2014) and Detroit (2015) with 40 teens on each trip. Columbus Jewish teens have cumulatively put in thousands of service hours into serving both the Columbus community and the communities it visits. The Wexner Service Corps was inspired by Hannah Wexner and the mantle was taken up by her sister Sarah, who is currently part of the SLC. The WSC is generously supported by Leslie and Abigail Wexner and The Wexner Foundation.
Teamwork Makes Dreamwork
By: Ilana Hoffman
At some point in our lives, we’ve all been forced to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to feel their pain and experience their life through a different lens. We’ve been asked to forego the privileges we take for granted and focus on the lack of resources that others around us have. Rather than feel pity for those less fortunate, we attempt to feel true empathy for other human beings. The Wexner Service Corps’ trip to New Orleans last summer and Detroit this summer changed my perspective on what empathy means. These trips, as well as the monthly service I participated in during the year, gave me an opportunity to work with different types of people and to help them. The 40 of us high school kids got to step out of our privileged bubble, to serve, to study Jewish texts together and to open ourselves up to empathy.
As a returning member of the Wexner Service Corps (WSC), I was eager to share my new found perspective with the incoming members, while also having the opportunity to continue my learning through the service work and the Senior Leadership Cohort curriculum. The Senior Leadership Cohort consisted of 11 returning members who exemplified leadership and dedication on last year’s trip to New Orleans and throughout the year during our service in the Columbus community. Being a part of this select group was not only an honor but a rare privilege.
To frame the week, we started at the Detroit Institute of Art to explore the history of Detroit through the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibits. Next, we headed to the B’nai David Cemetery to weed around the gravestones. This service was special because the people who were receiving our help couldn’t thank us. “I truly understand the meaning of Tikkun Olam,” said returning WSC member Jacob Naiman, “the sites we visited look so much better off than when we started.”
We next visited the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, which happens to be the last freestanding synagogue in Detroit. During our learning session that first evening, we created a covenant for the week in order to stay positive and motivate each other at all times. The Wexner Service Corps also met the Fellows from Repair the World Detroit, the organization that we would be working with throughout the week.
Repair the World is an organization that aims to mobilize thousands of young Jewish adults who want to help improve lives and neighborhoods across the United States. Repair the World consists of eight fellows who share a house for one year while spending their days volunteering and coordinating service opportunities for other groups. Repair the World has workshops in Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore and Detroit and plans to expand. The eight fellows served as our eyes and ears throughout the week, offering insight and guiding us through our experience.
Our first full day of service in Detroit was spent at Pasteur Elementary School getting to know students of all ages and making skits about summer in their classrooms. We were welcomed to the school by the chair of Pasteur Elementary Alumni Council Marcy Feldman who happens to be a Wexner Heritage Alumna (Detroit).
That night our learning session connected the work we did that day to Jewish texts and values. The Senior Leadership Cohort had a session learning about empathy and stereotypes, while the first-year WSC members discussed when to take responsibility for worldwide problems and how to prioritize the many issues we face in our society on a daily basis. Hannah Bryan said that the nightly learning sessions made her experience in Detroit more complete and helped her realize that she really can make a difference. “The sessions gave me a stronger sense of my duty as a Jew, and why helping others means so much,” she said. “Learning Jewish texts that talk about service gave the work a deeper and more special meaning.”
Returning WSC member Ethan Glickstein agreed and explained that going through the motions of volunteer work means little if you don’t have the opportunity to reflect on your work. “I always knew it was important to give, but I now know why,” he said. “The trip strengthened my Jewish identity by first teaching me the importance of giving, and then showing ways I can do that.”
The third day of the trip was spent at Maybury Elementary School where we were divided into groups to conduct a field day for the students. This was my absolute favorite activity in my entire WSC experience because I felt and saw the joy I was bringing to the children as we danced our way through the field day stations, playing soccer, blowing bubbles and covering our bodies in temporary tattoos. Spending time with children who were not much younger than us allowed us to feel empathy and think about all of the resources we take for granted.
Now that the WSC got to spend two days working with children, it was time to get our hands dirty. Our next day was spent at Voices for Earth Justice, cleaning gardens and planting seeds. We also had the opportunity to visit Keep Growing Detroit, a garden in the heart of city. The majority of fruits and vegetables that Detroiter’s consume are grown by residents at this outdoor facility. In this peaceful landscape, we weeded between kale plants and tasted the sweet strawberries that were being grown. “The highlight for me was seeing 39 Jewish teens all working hard for someone else’s benefit,” remarked Ethan. “Every member of the Wexner Service Corps spent a week of their time being selfless. We all made a conscious decision that it was more important to help people in need rather than ourselves.”
On the last day, we spent the morning at Gleaners Community Food Bank, packing cereal boxes and learning the true efficiency of Henry Ford’s assembly line that famously originated in Detroit. Hunter Cohn described this day by saying that “teamwork makes the dream work.” He was amazed at the rhythm that was created without formal directions and noted the effort that each member brought to the group. “I learned that through service and holistically authentic acts of kindness, anyone can make a difference,” Hunter said. “Further, if we combine our efforts and work towards a cause, anything is possible.”
Before coming to Detroit, I heard a plethora of stereotypes making me somewhat apprehensive about spending five days there: “the streets aren’t safe”, “the buildings are damaged and vacant.” When I got to spend more time around the city and with people, it became evident that my preconceived notions were unfair. I encouraged myself and others to let go of our perception of “dangerous” Detroit.
Hannah Bryan told me that she noticed a change within herself after completing the service work in Detroit . “I just want to keep doing service and can’t wait to see the opportunities that we are given throughout the year.” Hunter agreed, mentioning that his experiences in Hebrew School, Camp Livingston and BBYO have all connected him to his Jewish identity but not quite like this. “This trip was the most influential experience thus far in my discovery of Judaism,” he explained. “Working towards a genuinely good cause with no strings attached, surrounded by inspiring leaders, is an element of Judaism I’d never been exposed to. This program exemplifies the impact we as Jewish People can make, no matter how small we may be in numbers.”
Find out more about Wexner Service Corps on their website.