YU Students Engage in Volunteer and Service Learning Missions Around the World

This winter break, 90 Yeshiva University students took part in an array of hands-on community building projects in Israel, the United States, Nicaragua and Mexico.

Counterpoint Israel participants conducted English language and art camps for Israeli teens.

Organized by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, the missions differed widely in focus, ranging from service-learning and experiential education to humanitarian aid. Building on the success of the Counterpoint Israel summer program, 39 YU students ran a series of winter camps for 500 Israeli teens in Jerusalem, Kiryat Malachi and Dimona that sought to strengthen their English language skills and facilitate self-exploration through art.

In Mexico, 16 students assisted with farming and harvesting in local private and public gardens, building pools for aquaculture development and contributing to the community’s ecotourism project, in collaboration with a local non-profit organization that works within the Mayan community to promote environmental sustainability, advance the integration of women in the economy and strengthen the capacity of grassroots groups.

A group of 16 students also volunteered in Nicaragua with Servicios Medicos Comunales, an NGO that promotes community-based sustainable development in the southwestern district of San Juan del Sur, by assisting with the construction of a public library—a project started by previous CJF winter mission participants. And 19 students traveled across Texas—from Houston to San Antonio to Dallas—on the CJF’s “Jewish Life Coast to Coast” program, meeting with local rabbis, educators and communal leaders to gain a better understanding of the unique challenges faced by these diverse Jewish communities.

Students worked alongside local Mayan farmers on a humanitarian misson to Mexico.

“On each of these missions, our students discovered talents they didn’t know they had, becoming better citizens of our Jewish community and more effective change agents of society,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “These experiences serve as leadership incubators, helping our students develop their perspective on engaging with the larger world and appreciate the richness of Jewish communal life outside the Tri-State area, while also enabling them to recognize the challenges found in developing countries and their own power to affect the lives of teens in the poorest towns in the south of Israel. As Torah Jews, they learn they have a responsibility to make a difference in these places.” He added, “Perhaps the most important journey our students embark on is that of self-discovery.”

Students explored their responsibility to better both the Jewish community and the larger world by delving deeply into the lifestyle and culture of the places they visited. “Spending mornings digging holes alongside local farmers transformed a trip to Mexico into an experience of daily Mayan life,” said Josh Nagel, a sophomore at Yeshiva College. “I’ve come back to the United States with a deeper understanding of the random injustice of poverty and how organizations are trying to fix it, as well as a sense of responsibility, both as a Jew and a human being, to help change that bitter cycle.”

Coast to Coast participant Davida Kollmar facilitates a session on tikkun olam with junior high students at Houston’s Robert M. Beren Academy.

For Atara Burian, a senior at Stern College for Women, the opportunity to mentor Israeli teens from underprivileged neighborhoods on Counterpoint Israel and partner with them in creative, self-reflective work taught her as much about her own values and beliefs as it did about Israeli society. “I learned about my religion, my land, my people and myself,” she said. “Seeing the campers’ pieces hung up for display at the end of the week was so unreal. Their parents, their teachers and their counselors were so proud, and they were proud of themselves.”

Closer to home, Stern College sophomore Adi Cohen was struck by the innovation and self-sacrifice of a young couple she met in Houston on “Jewish Life Coast to Coast.” “We volunteered at the Aishel House, which is run by a Chabad couple that provides food and housing for patients and families being treated at the Texas Medical Center,” she said. “It put the mission of ‘Coast to Coast’ into perspective for me, because this organization had been started by young people who realized their community was in need and took this responsibility upon themselves. One person can really make a difference and affect the lives of many people.”

The CJF winter missions are run with support from and in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, Repair the World and the American Jewish World Service.

Additional photos of the CJF winter missions can be viewed here.