From Kharkov to Cleveland, It’s All About Community

On Four CJF Winter Missions Around the World, YU Students Get Closer Look at Jewish Leadership

More than 90 Yeshiva University students spent this winter break engaged in the hands-on study of—and contribution to—vastly different Jewish communities around the world.

A student on the CJF’s “Counterpoint Israel: Winter Camp” mission teaches English at an educational camp in Kiryat Gat.

As participants on winter missions organized by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, students traveled to Kharkov and Sumy in the Ukraine; Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat and Dimona in Negev region of Israel; areas of New York that were heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy; and cities across the Midwestern United States to make an impact and hone their leadership skills.

“Our hope is that these experiences have empowered our students to explore their own unique creative gifts, and to realize through engagement—through leaving their comfort zone—that they are not only empowering others but transforming themselves,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president for university and community life at YU and the David Mitzner Dean of the CJF. “We believe the most important journeys this week weren’t to Long Island, the Midwest, Israel, or Kharkov, but journeys of self-discovery.”

In the Ukraine, 20 students volunteered in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee  to gain a better understanding of the challenges Jewish communal life in the region has faced in recent history, such as communist persecution and anti-Semitism, and how Jews there are working to renew and restore their rich traditions. Students paid special visits to isolated or impoverished seniors in their homes before Shabbat and led a Tu B’Shvat activity for children in the Lyceum Shaalavim, the community’s Jewish day school. They also participated in a moving ceremony of remembrance with young Ukranian Jews at a Holocaust memorial in the area and organized educational games for at-risk children in Sumy, a small town on the outskirts of Kharkov.

Members of the Hillel in Kharkov led Winter Missions participants in a drum circle.

“I saw how students my age are reviving Jewish traditions in their communities and it made me think about what I can do to make an impact on my community at home,” said Zvi Zobin, a junior at YU’s Sy Syms School of Business whose parents are both originally from the Former Soviet Union. For him, the mission to Kharkov was an important opportunity to explore his heritage while giving back.

“Whether we were bringing food to poor people and discussing their lives in the Ukraine or hearing how the rabbi in the small community of Sumy pasteurizes his own milk, every day was inspirational and fulfilling,” he said. “I am sure that both our group from YU and the Ukrainians learned a lot from each other and I hope to keep in touch with my new friends so we’re able to keep contributing to the global Jewish community together.”

Forty-two students participated in “Counterpoint Israel: Winter Camp,” a 10-day mission aiming to empower Israeli teens from low socio-economic backgrounds. The program doubled in size this year with the addition of four new “Winter Camps” in Kiryat Gat and the expansion of the existing program in Kiryat Malachi and Dimona, serving 850 teens in seven student-run camps. The camps’ curriculum focused on English enrichment and self-exploration through art, encouraging students to examine their Diaspora roots and develop a personal narrative based on their findings as part of a larger “Israel-Diaspora Relations” theme.  Outside the classroom, YU students worked with at-risk youth and participated in evening programs which broadened their understanding of their host communities.

Students on “Counterpoint Israel: Winter Mission” share a historical overview of the Jewish Diaspora at an educational camp in Kiryat Gat.

“Over the past winter and summer missions, I’ve met and bonded with so many of the sweetest, funniest and most sincere kids,” said Sam Weinstein ’15SB, a returning counselor on the trip. “I keep coming back because I feel like we’re making an impact among the youth of Kiryat Malachi, and each year that we return only adds to that impact and makes it more concrete and long-lasting.”

Back home in the US, 24 students participated in “Jewish Life Coast to Coast,” an interactive learning and volunteer experience that gave them the opportunity to study how different Jewish communities across North America cope with the varying challenges they face, as well as how each one functions on a day-to-day level to meet the unique needs of its members. This year’s trip focused on the Midwest, taking students to Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, OH, followed by Detroit, MI. In each city, students met with communal organizations, such as schools, shuls, and Federations, as well as professional and lay leadership, including a visit to Quicken Loans, a Jewish-owned company that recently built up an expansive headquarters in downtown Detroit and has been called “the Silicon Valley of the Midwest.”

Coast to Coast participants also volunteered in Wexner Heritage Village and ran a school program for elementary school students at Akiva Hebrew Day School in South Field, MI.

Students in the “Jewish Life Coast to Coast” program lead a Torah-learning session about Jewish leadership for middle schoolers at Cleveland, OH’s Fuchs Mizrachi School.

“I very much appreciated the diversity in the types of communities we visited, the types of organizations and professionals we spoke with, and the different background and denominations of the people we interacted with representing the Jewish community at large,” said Esther Tsvaygenbaum, a senior at YU’s Stern College for Women who hopes to pursue a career in Jewish communal work. “Hearing from them firsthand gave me greater insight into the field, the work that these professionals do, and how they got to where they are, as well as what the challenges are and how they attempt to deal with them. The chance to learn from them—and their offers to continue the conversation after we left—was extremely valuable.”

“This was the first time we visited the Midwest and the group really gained from meeting the leadership in communities that vary in size, creating different opportunities and challenges for each,” said Aliza Abrams, director of Jewish service learning at the CJF, who led the trip. “In choosing these cities we also included meetings with community members who were maybe 10 to 15 years older than our students, exposing them to people who are in positions of leadership and careers that aren’t a distant dream but are in fact just a few years ahead of where they are now.”

Students participating in the Hurricane Sandy Relief Mission steady a piece of drywall and prepare it to be fastened.

A group of 20 YU students devoted their winter break to a different kind of communal challenge in their own backyard, partnering with Nechama, a Jewish disaster relief organization, to repair damage to neighborhoods hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. As they did everything from putting up drywall and painting to installing insulation in crawlspaces, students were able to help four families get a little closer to recovery after the storm’s long-lasting impact.

“Specifically because the repair efforts for Sandy are still ongoing and so close to the Jewish community, helping other get their houses back to liveable condition taught us about the fragility of our own lives,” said Sam Reinstein, a rabbinic intern in the CJF’s Department of Jewish Service Learning who organized the trip.

The CJF’s Winter Missions are run with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation and Repair the World. To read more about this year’s Winter Missions, visit their tumblr.