Building a Better World

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During Winter Break, Students Give Back on Service Learning Missions in Houston, Israel and New York City 

For many university students, intersession is an eagerly-awaited chance to relax and unwind. But for undergraduates at Yeshiva University, the week-long winter break presented unique opportunities to give back to communities here at home and across the Atlantic Ocean and to deepen their understanding of pressing Jewish and global communal issues via three service learning and humanitarian aid missions offered by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future. Some flew to Israel to help the country heal from the ravages of wildfires, others traveled to Houston to engage with a Jewish community that has made an incredible rebound from devastating floods in 2015, and a few migrated to Queens to pound nails and frame walls for Habitat for Humanity.

“We are proud that so many of our students are spending their short vacations engaged in learning real-life lessons about community and philanthropy,” said Naomi Kohl, director of student life on the Israel Henry Beren Campus. “By giving of themselves so willingly, these students personify YU’s core principals of altruism, education and communal responsibility.”

Responding to Flames of Destruction

To help combat the damage from wildfires that ravaged Israel in November 2016, students traveled to the Neve Tzuf community to remove debris and rebuild their homes. In addition, they transformed YU’s Israel Campus in Jerusalem into a carnival for youth displaced by the fires to buoy their spirits during this difficult time. For Shanee Carmel, a junior at Stern College for Women, running the carnival was an especially impactful experience. “We got to interact with these kids and give them an entire day of fun where they could just be kids and not have to worry about their everyday struggles,” she said.

Students removed debris and helped rebuild damaged homes during the trip.

The group also met with Israeli first-responders and ecologists to learn about the efforts undertaken by international firefighting teams to extinguish the brush fires and restore the 32,000 acres of scorched earth. “Knowing that YU cares about Israel’s physical and spiritual well-being, as seen by our focus on the physical and spiritual fires in Israel, is very important for me as a Jewish American student,” said Tzivya Beck, a senior at Stern.

Jewish Life Coast to Coast: Houston, Texas

As part of the Jewish Life Coast to Coast program, a group of students convened with local rabbis, educators, medical professionals and communal leaders in Houston, Texas, to broaden their Jewish communal knowledge. They also met with executive staff members from the Houston Federation and Jewish community members employed by NASA, teachers in the Robert M. Beren Academy, and members of the United Orthodox Synagogue community.

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During “Jewish Life Coast to Coast,” students ran educational programming in local schools in Houston.

Eitan Ungar, an upper junior at Yeshiva College, enjoyed interacting and building relationships with the members of the community. “They welcomed us into their homes throughout the trip, and especially on Shabbos, we had the chance to get a genuine feel for the Houston Jewish community.”

Eitan Lipsky, in his second year at Yeshiva College, was impressed by the resiliency of the Jewish community in Houston. When he entered a shul that had been severely damaged in the 2015 floods, “it was emotional for me to see the shul rebuilt and stronger than ever, and to understand that despite this event, the community hadn’t fled Houston, but they had rebuilt and picked up right from where they left off,” he said.

Day of Service With Habitat For Humanity: Queens, New York

On January 16, YU students collaborated with Habitat for Humanity NYC for a special Day of Service to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, working together on a construction project in Queens to revitalize homes in a low-income neighborhood.

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Jonathan Mintz, a senior at Yeshiva College, chose to participate because “sitting in classes during the year should not be where our education ends,” he said. “The incredible influence and change that we can have on the world need not be a far distance away – we can even have an effect on the world in our ‘backyard,’ in Queens.”

Senior Daniel Shlian had the same sentiment: “It was important that I devote time to causes outside myself, especially on a day dedicated to public service and concern for those outside our immediate orbit. It was wonderful to join with those from inside and outside Yeshiva to contribute to a project with real, tangible results.”

“Yeshiva University is an incubator for leadership opportunities,” said Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, vice president for university and community life. “These service missions allow our students to realize that they can become agents of change. Our programs allow our students to take the lessons of the beit midrash and the classroom and make a difference around the corner and around the world. Their greatest journey on these experiences is that of self-discovery.”

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