For Yeshiva University sophomore Josh Zimmerman, one of the highlights of his winter break was a day of harvesting peppers, plucking up tangled vegetable roots, picking up garbage from the sand and repairing a decrepit greenhouse for a community of Jewish refugees — all with 11 of his peers in Israel’s Negev Desert.
“We literally worked the land ourselves,” said Zimmerman, a 20-year-old psychology major. “We wer e making a difference from all aspects — hands-on, literally working the land itself, and verbally, by promoting the cause and fundraising for the community.”
Zimmerman and his peers were visiting the region of Chalutza that day, helping to develop a community for Jews who were evacuated from their homes in Gaza’s Gush Katif in 2005. The students headed to Israel with Marc Spear, who is leadership-training director for Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, which sponsors the Quest Leadership Training Fellowship. Quest is a two-semester, non-credit program offered to both male and female undergraduates.
After a year of intense leadership training and raising $20,000 for an Israeli cause of their choice — in their case, the Chalutza communities for Gaza evacuees in the western Negev — the students traveled to Israel through a first-ever collaboration between YU and the Jewish National Fund, to visit these very communities they had worked so hard to support.
“The trip is the culmination of the semester,” Spear said. “They see the power of volunteering; they see the fact that they can make a bigger difference in the world.”
Though the Quest Program meets weekly like an ordinary course, students do not receive credit for participation and must be willing to commit to the work-intensive syllabus despite their intense dual curriculum at YU.
“We can’t just be another club,” Spear said. “We are going to invest in their future, but they need to invest in us.”
Both men and women are welcome in the Quest program, and so many have been interested that Quest consistently has a waiting list, according to Spear, who selects students who have already demonstrated significant leadership experience. Throughout the two-semester program, Spear said he invited Jewish community leaders, an official from Halutza, Yeshiva alumni who have made aliyah and other role models for the students. The first semester primarily concentrated on leadership skills training, ethics and public speaking; the second shifted to fundraising and hands-on community interaction. Among other fundraising activities were event-planning sessions, online solicitation debriefings, a school-wide comedy night and a telethon held at the JNF.
“Service doesn’t begin when you land in Israel; it starts before,” said Rebecca Kahn, JNF campus program manager.
For Zimmerman, one of the highlights of the second semester’s fundraising efforts was when four or five students successfully persuaded a prominent Chicago rabbi to make a particularly large donation to their cause. This success, along with the tireless hours spent promoting their cause around campus on busy school nights, made Zimmerman’s personal ties to this refugee community even deeper.
“When we were having a debriefing last week, I remember noticing that we all have this unbelievable connection with the region, even before we physically got to work with them,” Zimmerman said. “Even before we actually met with them, we really felt like we belonged.”
On the trip, the students spent time volunteering in both Chalutza and other places around Israel like Yerucham village in the Negev Desert and the Jaffa Institute for disadvantaged children in Tel Aviv. In addition to their time spent doing service projects, the students heard lectures from political, social and business leaders in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the rest of the country. But for most participants, the highlight of their trip was still their daylong opportunity to get down on their hands and knees, and mingle with the people who would benefit from their year of hard work.
Chalutza residents, who have largely stayed together as a community, originally lived in a settlement in the Sinai, until, in the wake of the Camp David accords, they were resettled in Gaza. In Sinai, Gaza and now Chalutza, the primary focus of community businesses revolve around agriculture and developing desert land for organic farming, according to Rabbi Eric Lankin, chief of institutional advancement and education at JNF.
“They’re essentially re-creating their private companies that existed in Gaza,” he said, noting that JNF is independently helping Chalutza build greenhouses, community centers and yeshivot.
During their full day at Chalutza, Zimmerman recalls helping out in the fields to clear the soil of garbage and troublesome plant growth, as well as cleaning out an old greenhouse to revamp it for modern use.
“There is a huge organic produce market that is mostly paying for all the construction that will be occurring for building homes and synagogues,” Zimmerman said. “This region is very focused on learning, but part of the curriculum for these community members is to physically work the land itself.”
While there, Zimmerman said that the male students met with a group of yeshiva boys and their rabbi, who stressed the critical importance of such labor to their education. Meanwhile, Zimmerman’s peer Sarit Bendavid added that the female students met with a group of high school girls, who were astounded by the American effort to support Israel.
“We were living in such a different world from them — they were so un-materialistic, idealistic and passionate,” said Bendavid, 20, a Stern College junior studying history and English literature. “They don’t even know the concept of Israel activism. We told them that even if we don’t make aliyah, we’re always fighting for Israel.”
And their program leader Marc Spear maintains that this drive to do service for Israel and for the rest of the world is by no means rare at YU. Though he acknowledges that the university has certainly experienced a dramatic increase in service opportunities for its students in recent years, Spear also remembers traveling on a volunteering trip to Australia with the university 15 to 20 years ago when he was a student there.
“It’s always been going on in some shape or form,” Spear said. “There’s a very, very strong interest now, and I don’t think it’s new, but I think the infrastructure to support that is new.”
“Back then we had spots for 10; now we have 100,” he added.
The Center for the Jewish Future continues to provide students with a slew of other volunteer programs, including service programs in Central America, a Washington D.C. learning experience, Israel Operation Healthcare and Israel Shabbat 2010 — where students experience the political, social and communal ramifications of Shabbat in the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, JNF offers a wide range of alternative winter and spring breaks to Israel like the YU Quest trip. JNF’s alternate winter and spring break Israel programs are in their fifth year, growing from a group of originally 25 students to 300 each year.
“This population of 18- to 30-year-olds are such an important priority that JNF donors are raising $100,000 to invest in this age group,” Rabbi Lakin said. “JNF has made a strategic choice to invest in this population and provide an impactful, cohesive program for these young people.”
“We believe the way to impact these people’s lives is by taking them back to Israel,” he added, while Kahn noted that 65 percent of the participants are Birthright Israel alumni.
After participating in the yearlong YU Quest Program followed by their JNF trip to Israel, participants maintain that they were certainly worth the investment and that they intend to continue implementing their leadership skills as adults in the Jewish community.
“It was a trip to give back but it was also a trip for us to get — we were able to implement everything that we learned through Quest,” Zimmerman said. “It was a great foundation, which only builds up our interest to do more.”