CJF Missions Take Students to Israel, Ukraine, North and South America

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The Nicaraguan village of Boca de la Montana appears remote and desolate in an image captured from space by a satellite; hardly the place for a hard-earned vacation. But more than a dozen Yeshiva University students accompanied by Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani [spiritual advisor] of  YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), visited Nicaragua during their winter break to help lay the foundation for a new library there. YU students were introduced to the community two years ago when they worked on the construction of the road and bridge to the school complex.

Student and Rabbi Blau, right, shovel dirt to be used in mixing cement for village library.

Student and Rabbi Blau, right, shovel dirt to be used in mixing cement for village library.

“I think it’s an important part of our student’s education, that they interact with others and take responsibility,” Rabbi Blau said. “The intellectual experience in school, while the essence of what we are, does not automatically translate to life. This is a way of translating the values that we learn into actual experiences and doing so while contributing and not just watching.”

Other YU students participated in Jewish Life Coast to Coast—a trip to Richmond, Charleston, Jacksonville and South Florida—during which they explored how individuals can become active and make a difference in North America’s diverse Jewish communities.

“Watching our students engage with the Jewish community of Richmond was exciting,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF). “They interacted with Jews of all ages and all backgrounds. In the process of inspiring the communities they encountered, our students were transformed.”

Laying bricks for library's foundation in Nicaragua.

Laying bricks for library's foundation in Nicaragua.

Coast-to-Coast and the Nicaragua mission were among seven experiential learning trips organized this winter by the CJF. Others included a humanitarian mission to Mexico; Project Kharkov, a two-week program aimed at gaining firsthand understanding of the welfare challenges and identity crises facing Ukrainian Jewry; QUEST II, a leadership program that helped former Gush Katif residents rebuild their lives in the desert community of Halutza; and “A Place Called Home,” during which students traveled across Israel for a week, discovering what it means to create a national home for the Jewish people. Throughout “A Place Called Home,” students engaged Israelis on kibbutzim, in development towns, immigrant villages, towns in Judea and Samaria and religious and secular communities. These compelling experiences forced students to examine their shared existential dilemma of loyalty to both a birthplace and a homeland.

YU students design and lead programs for children of the Martin J. Gottlieb School in Jacksonville, FL.

YU students design and lead programs for children of the Martin J. Gottlieb School in Jacksonville, FL.

The trip also introduced the students to “some of the complex social issues of the State of Israel,” said Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, rosh yeshiva at RIETS. “Specifically, this group was introduced to the issue of the disengagement from Gaza in a way that they were not aware of before. These programs are very valuable and should be attended by anyone planning to go into rabbanus [the rabbinate] or chinuch [Jewish education].”

The CJF is grateful to the programming and institutional partners that made these missions possible for hundreds of YU students. They include: American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewish World Service, the Eckstein Family, Jim Joseph Foundation, Jewish National Fund and Repair the World.

See article on how young Jews are changing the world in The NY Jewish Week and Rabbi Brander’s op-ed on Generation Y in The Jerusalem Post.