Thousands of Jewish students in recent years have spent their winter, spring and summer breaks building homes in New Orleans, working with the rural poor in Guatemala and helping staff human rights groups in Asia and Africa. It’s all part of an upswing in community service opportunities offered by organizations like Hillel, the American Jewish World Service, Jewish federations and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Rather than partying or heading to the beach, college students involved in these “alternative breaks” are choosing to pair their interest in social justice or tikkun olam, with Jewish study.
But rarely have Jewish students from campuses outside the New York area converged on the city for community service, as 35 Hillel students did last week.
That alone would have made their week a unique one, but making it even more unique is that it marked the first fruits of a large-scale partnership between a Jewish agency and a secular national service organization — a relationship that Hillel is calling a first. And the students, from campuses in Oklahoma, Kansas, upstate New York, Maryland and Ohio, not only worked in Harlem, but also devoted part of their time to a study of Jewish poverty.
The Jewish poverty portion of their break included a meeting with William E. Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, and a choice of either assembling Passover food packages or delivering them on behalf of two local Jewish community councils, both affiliates of Met Council.
What they learned in the process appeared to stun the students, many of whom come from small, tight-knit communities that don’t share the same broad spectrum of wealth and poverty that exists in this area, some of them told The Jewish Week.
The 35 students, most from the Midwest, came to New York for an alternative break organized by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and City Year, a national organization that brings together young adults for a full year of service as tutors, mentors and role models in urban schools. Their partnership, announced in December, has also united more than 150 other Hillel students for similar breaks in Miami and Los Angeles.
Adina Goldwasser, 22, a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said she preferred to help others over spending her week lying on the beach or going to bars.
“I think it’s important to volunteer and give back your time,” said Goldwasser, a resident of Silver Spring, Md., who just spent a year in Israel, doing similar work. “It’s very rewarding to see what we’ve accomplished and, most important, to see the people we’re impacting.”
“It’s tikkun olam, and it helps you realize that your own backyard needs help,” said Rebecca Blake, 21, a Colgate student from Oradell, N.J. “It’s our responsibility as people of relative privilege to help people in need.”
Both students made their comments at the Hansborough Recreation Center in Harlem, where they and other members of their group painted the walls of a gym and created murals. They also performed similar chores at the Dunlevey Milbank Boys & Girls Club, a center sponsored by the Children’s Aid Society, and, during their afternoons, helped run after-school programs at various public schools.
Students from Colgate, working in one school, created an activity for the youngsters that they called “Represent,” said Justin Etinger, 21, whose family lives in Boston. The activity allowed the children to explore their identities or, as Etinger added, to “represent” themselves.
In another school, students from the University of Maryland explained Passover to the youngsters by creating a small skit featuring a mother, a father and four children, each of whom searches for the afikomen, Goldwasser recalled.
“We wanted to give them a little taste of what our culture is like for this holiday,” she said. “They can relate to a family sitting down for dinner, and they can relate to a game of hide and seek.”
As much as the students gained satisfaction from their work, their exposure to urban poverty and the social ills surrounding it appeared to be nothing new for many of them. Blake, for instance, participated in an alternative break last year in New Orleans, where she helped build a house on property devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Goldwasser, meanwhile, has spent a week in Guatemala in addition to the year she spent in Israel through a Young Judaea program, where she helped elementary-school students with their English.
But learning about the extent of Jewish poverty in New York appeared to surprise the students, many of whom never encountered the problem in their own communities.
Rapfogel, the Jewish leader who met the students in Harlem, recalled seeing that surprise when he told them that as much as a third of the city’s Jewish population is living in poverty or close to poverty. Those numbers, based on figures from the 2000 U.S. census, include an estimated 226,000 Jews who have been living at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, as well as the roughly 120,000 Jews whose income is between 150 percent and 250 percent of the federal poverty level. But they don’t include the growing number of middle-class Jews who have lost their jobs in recent years and are struggling to make ends meet, Rapfogel said — a new population for which there are no figures.
Those numbers became real for the Hillel students last Friday, when half of them volunteered at the Queens Jewish Community Council, where they packed hundreds of Passover food packages, and half went to the Bronx Jewish Community Council, where they delivered Passover food to elderly Jews and shared a meal with other elderly clients.
Blake, among those students who worked in the Bronx, said she had heard in the past about the elderly poor, but that her own grandparents are well-off and so, too, are the grandparents of most of her friends.
“There’s this stereotype of the rich Jewish grandparents who buy you a car or hand down their money,” Blake continued. “But I definitely didn’t see that in Parkchester,” the area of the southeast Bronx where the students volunteered.
Similarly, Micah Margolies, a University of Kansas student from the Kansas City area, said the “common” assumption is that most Jews are affluent. But the 18-year-old discovered that New York “is a city of extremes,” unlike Kansas City, and that many people here can fall through the cracks.
Service-learning projects like the one last week have come under criticism from some quarters, including Jack Wertheimer, a professor and former provost at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Writing in Commentary magazine, Wertheimer questioned whether the Jewish community should be spending money on creating service projects that help non-Jews when the Jewish community has so many internal needs. He took particular aim at Repair the World, a new nonprofit created by several foundations that helps fund social service programs, including Hillel’s alternative breaks.
But Wayne Firestone, Hillel’s CEO, said Wertheimer’s argument is missing something “fundamental” — that each of Hillel’s alternative-break programs include the informal study of Jewish values, tradition and text. Moreover, he added, those learning experiences bring together a diverse array of Jewish students, from those who’ve studied at yeshivas in Israel to those with little or no Jewish education.
In addition to working with City Year, Hillel also partners with a variety of Jewish organizations, including AJWS, the Joint and Jewish Funds for Justice.
Those experiences “are designed to be a catalyst” for students to seek more Jewish involvement as they go along, said Michelle Lackie, director of Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, the organization’s social justice arm. “Our goal is to create opportunities for students to challenge their sense of social responsibility as Jews.” n
JTA contributed to this story.
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