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Students Explore Social Justice on CJF Missions to Ukraine, Central America, Israel and the West Coast

Whether building libraries in the Nicaraguan heat or renovating a youth center in the cold of Kharkov, Ukraine, Yeshiva University students were hard at work during the winter intersession participating in Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) programs around the world.

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“As future religious and lay leaders of the Jewish people, it is important for our students to be exposed to and engaged with issues of social justice and global welfare as well as the unique and varied challenges and opportunities facing Jewish communities around the world, from small towns on the West Coast to Beit Shemesh,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “It is critical that YU students have both a broad world-view and a deep appreciation of how these issues are dealt with through the prism of Jewish thought so they can become effective agents of change in their communities and the world-at-large. The most important journey that students take on these missions is the one of self-discovery.”

Comprised of seven service-learning missions across Europe, Israel, Central America and the United States, the programs ran from January 12-22 and involved 140 undergraduates.

“Tzedek and Tzedaka,” an 8-day experiential education program, explored concepts of social justice in a modern democratic Jewish state. Two separate groups of 15 men and women, accompanied by YU scholars in residence Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh, studied religious texts and met with top Israeli rabbinic figures, supreme court justices, government officials, prison inmates and administrators, non-profit organization founders and social activists. In addition to ethical questions about society’s relationship to criminals and justice, the groups investigated several hot-button issues, including the status of women in Israeli government and law and the challenges of building a just society when faced with opposition from extremist constituents on both sides.

Ten students also traveled to Israel for “Art in Ort,” an outgrowth of the highly successful Counterpoint Israel summer program. Drawing on their extensive graphic design, filmmaking and musical experience, YU students ran special workshops designed by renowned American art educator Andrea Rabinovitch for 160 middle school students—teens from low-income neighborhoods in Jerusalem—to help them discover their inner talents through art.

“Students are walking away from these missions with a newfound understanding of some of the most important yet perplexing issues that we as a people currently face,” said Gila Rockman, programs director at the CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education. “They have a new awareness of the complexities confronting Israel as a Jewish state in a western world.”

Two humanitarian missions in Mexico and Nicaragua continued the work of previous student visits, strengthening relationships and assisting in the establishment of critical communal institutions. In Mexico, 16 students collaborated with Hombre Sobre La Tierra (HST – Humankind on Earth), a non-profit group that seeks to promote environmental sustainability, self-sufficiency and the integration of women among poor Mayan communities. Participants helped build a tilapia farm which serves as an important source of protein for the town and learned about Mayan culture as well as principles of tikkun o’lam [repairing the world] and rights-based approaches to international development. In Nicaragua, 16 participants resumed work on a library whose foundations were laid by YU students last year, in collaboration with Servicios Medicos Comunals, a non-government organization.

“These types of service projects give students the opportunity to engage and truly live the value of tikkun olam,” said Tuvia Brander, program leader of the Mexico mission. “They show our students how they can be models of change.”

Project Kharkov, a 10-day service learning mission, took 19 undergraduates to the heart of Ukraine to gain a firsthand understanding of the welfare challenges and identity crises faced by its Jewish community following the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, as well as how the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) addresses communal needs. Students cleaned the grounds of a Jewish day school and renovated parts of a youth center to make it more welcoming to Jewish teens. They also participated in a meaningful and heartbreaking memorial at Dobritsky Yar, the site of a mass grave where thousands of Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust, and visited Kharkov’s Wohl Center, where a wide range of performing arts programs express the community’s Jewish identity.

“We all could see the vibrancy of Kharkov’s Jewish community,” wrote Ben Scheiner, a junior at Yeshiva College, in a JDC blog. “Jewish Ukrainians of all ages poured their hearts out to us in their performances. I felt honored to witness this private concert which embodied talent, personal pride and the resurgence of the Jewish community there.”

Aliza Abrams, assistant director of CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education, noted that “The most empowering part of the volunteer experience is seeing that service doesn’t have a language barrier. A student can stand alongside a Ukrainian peer who doesn’t speak a word of English and together they can transform a youth center. A student can take part in building a library alongside a Spanish-speaking Nicaraguan. The work is being done with compassion and it is the language of care and unity that gets the work done.”

In the United States, 20 undergraduates headed to one of the world’s most technologically advanced regions for the fifth incarnation of the CJF’s Jewish Life Coast to Coast program. Joined by Rabbi Brander, they traveled to San Francisco and Los Angeles, led educational programs in schools, synagogues and college campuses, and met with Jewish entrepreneurs from organizations including Google, the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Studies Network.

A delegation of 15 students also participated in Limmud NY, a four-day convention of hundreds of Jews from all walks of life. The conference, in its eighth year, was held in Kerhonkson, NY, and featured more than 300 sessions presented by leading Jewish activists, artists, educators, innovators, public figures, and scholars. Topics included Jewish textual learning, art, music, film, literature, ethics, ecology, social justice and humor.

“Attending Limmud NY broadened students’ sense of Jewish community and gave them an opportunity to participate in the Jewish communal conversation,” said Marc Fein, the delegation’s leader. “It also strengthened their own Jewish identity and pride in our community. The conference allowed students to bring a new perspective to their studies and all the work they do.”

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