Students on American Jewish World Service Mission Find the Sacred in Poverty-Stricken Senegal

Aug 26, 2009 –Four Yeshiva University graduate students, all advanced Torah scholars, traveled to Senegal this summer on a social justice mission sponsored by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Sion Setton and Noah Greenfield of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Gilah Kletenik and Meira Levinson of the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS) at Stern College were part of a group of 25 students from across the spectrum of Jewish affiliation, all of whom—with the exception of the GPATS women—are studying to become rabbis.

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The group visited impoverished Senegalese villages to both help and learn from the African villagers. Mornings were spent building latrines in the villages of Darou Mouride and Keur Songo, which will help fight the swift spread of disease; afternoons were devoted to meeting political officials, studying development in the world’s poorest countries and planning follow-up programs in students’ home communities.

“Most American Jews are shielded from this particular reality of the world,” said Rabbi Brent Spodek, director of Jewish communal relations at AJWS who led the mission. “I think it’s essential for Jews, especially students who will become community and spiritual leaders, to realize that God created everyone in this world and that many of those people live on less than $2 a day.”

Setton said the experience deepened his understanding of what Talmudic scholars have to say about wealth. “Witnessing how so many comfortable Americans can be dissatisfied with their lot and how Senegalese could live on so little and be so wealthy in much more important ways helped me understand our sages’ saying: ‘Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot.’”

Kletenik, who co-led YU’s Social Justice Society last year, said she came away with a valuable lesson. “One thing that became clear from this trip is that despite our differences with Jews from other denominations, we can and, indeed, must unite in the areas on which we agree, like social justice,” she said.

Now that they are home, the four are planning to share their insights with the YU and wider communities. Kletenik and Levinson, who received sponsorship from YU’s Center for the Jewish Future to participate in the mission, will run an educational program for undergraduate students about social justice based on their experience in Senegal. Setton plans to incorporate what he learned in Senegal in future sermons and on other occasions as a communal leader, and Greenfield said he has been sensitized to broaden his advocacy to include worthy global causes.

Rabbi Spodek was impressed by the foursome’s unique contribution to the group. “Their strong educational background allowed them to use a framework of sources from Halacha and Midrash to make sense of the circumstances and suffering in Senegal. It takes a real sense of sophistication to use Jewish texts to explain what’s going on in Africa.”

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