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CJF Summer Missions Explore Jewish Identity and Global Responsibility in Haiti, Germany

Yeshiva University students grappled with complex questions of Jewish identity and responsibility in a global context as they traveled to Haiti and Germany this summer on two concurrent programs run by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Jonathan Adler, left, and Yaniv Lautman, right, run educational programming for children in a school located in Bel Air, Haiti.

From June 10-17, in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and with support from the Repair the World Foundation, 16 students participated in a disaster relief mission to Haiti, a developing country still reeling from the impact of a massive January 2010 earthquake. There, they worked with other aid organizations to run educational programming for children, restore homes and renovate community facilities, including an impoverished medical center and a damaged soccer field, and met with local leaders to learn more about Haitian history and the crises the country now faces.

“Jewish tradition places tremendous value on being involved in the welfare of humanity at large,” said Adam Berman ’11YC, a rabbinic intern at the CJF and student at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, who led daily Torah learning sessions for students to frame the experience. Haiti is not a focus of traditional Jewish aid—partly why Berman felt it was important for YU students to get involved there. “While supporting the poor and institutions within the Jewish community are our major priorities, we can’t forget about the people around the world in desperate need of assistance.”

“It’s critical that our community sees our work in Haiti and our involvement,” agreed Aliza Abrams, assistant director of the CJF’s department of service learning and experiential education. “We believe that exposing students to experiences outside the Jewish community enables them to better grow as future Jewish leaders and developers. Our hope is that this will spark something greater within the Jewish community.”

Students repair a clinic in Port Au Prince.

Devora Weinstock, a senior majoring in biology at Stern College for Women, felt that spark had been lit. “One thing we definitely took away was that we may not be able to do everything for everyone, but no matter what, we cannot ignore extreme suffering and poverty anywhere in the world,” she said. “When we help others, we are working towards fulfilling our responsibility as Jews toward all of humanity.”

“Our students are extremely motivated to engage and help their fellows Jews and the challenged in our society,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the CJF’s David Mitzner Dean. “CJF initiatives give our students the opportunity to exercise their passion while at the same time empowering them to become citizens of the world through the prism of Torah ideals.”

“Germany Close Up,” an 11-day experiential education trip, took 18 students on an exploration of modern-day Germany, where they analyzed their own perceptions of the country that created the Holocaust, yet is now home to some of the fastest-growing Jewish communities outside of Israel. Students toured the Buchenwald Concentration Camp and historical sites like Wannsee Villa, where Hitler planned the Final Solution with senior officials of the Nazi regime, but also visited thriving yeshivas in Leipzig and Berlin and held discussions with German Jews and non-Jews of all ages that centered around questions of forgiveness, legacy, and how to reconcile Germany’s bloody past with the future many Jews now see there.

Students on Germany Close Up tour Buchenwald concentration camp.

“We experienced firsthand the complicated feelings and emotions of today’s Germany as they deal with the history of their grandparents and great grandparents,” said Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, who helped lead the trip, and whose father survived the Holocaust. “We met politicians who spoke of their special relationship with Israel, yet choked up when speaking of their historical past. We walked the streets of the city of Erfurt, where over 900 Jews were killed in a pogrom in one day in 1349.”

But the group considered these painful memorials in juxtaposition with evidence of vibrant Jewish life in modern-day Germany. “In Leipzig, we davened [prayed] in the only shul [synagogue] that had survived the war,” recalled Hannah Dreyfus, a Stern College junior who is co-majoring in English literature and Jewish history. “Celebrating Shabbat, in all its detail, was the ultimate statement of defiance and victory, a way to concretize and actualize the message ‘am yisroel chai,’ the nation of Israel lives.”

For Malka Nussbaum, a Stern College senior majoring in Judaic studies, the experience was an opportunity to delve deeper into Jewish history and explore the distrust and mixed feelings with which the Orthodox community views Germany. “It’s funny because I hear the arguments on both sides and I feel like they’re very valid,” she said. “This trip just made the conflict even more complex and harder to reconcile. I think what we saw was only a small piece of the puzzle.”

In addition to Germany Close Up and the Haiti Disaster Relief Mission, the CJF is hosting an assortment of learning and internship programs in cities across the United States. Its Counterpoint Israel Program, a month-long service-learning initiative that aims to empower the next generation of Israeli youth via an exciting, Jewish values-driven summer camp experience, has tripled in size this year, and will serve 300 Israeli campers in five communities from July 3-August 5.

View photo galleries of the Haiti Disaster Relief Mission and Germany Close Up. To learn more about about CJF programming, visit www.yu.edu/cjf.