Training Future Community Leaders

On Center for the Jewish Future Missions, Students Help Haiti and Explore American Jewish Communities 

Over a whirlwind eight days, 36 Yeshiva University students took part in a humanitarian aid mission to Haiti and actively participated in the inner workings of small Jewish communities across the United States as part of two winter service learning programs organized by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF). The undergraduates signed on to expand their educational horizons through the missions, from January 10-18, with one group of 15 students on the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) Insider’s Trip to Haiti and another group of 21 on Jewish Life Coast to Coast.

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Michal Segall, a participant on the mission to Haiti, teaches songs to students at the Prodev school in the town of Zoranje.

“For some, winter break is a chance to relax and reenergize before the beginning of a new semester,” said Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, David Mitzner Dean of CJF. “But for these students it was a life-transforming experience that instilled a deep commitment to the broader Jewish community and the world.”

On the humanitarian aid mission, students worked to improve the lives of Haitians still reeling from the aftereffects of the 2010 earthquake, while learning the laws and philosophy behind the religious ideals of tikun olam [repairing the world] from a YU curriculum.

The students learned about Haiti’s history, development and humanitarian needs, and met with community leaders working to improve the lives of Haitians. They toured Port-au-Prince, the focus of most of their work, and spent Shabbat in Jacmel. The students planted trees and community gardens, improved areas outside a school and community center and created educational activities for orphaned children that ranged from art, music and dance to technology and sports. They toured and were briefed on renovated and reopened medical, rehabilitation and educational facilities.

“In Haiti, our students were exposed to the poverty and need that is felt by millions of people throughout the world,” said Rabbi Glasser. “The experience of providing the most basic life necessities to those who are not privileged to live within reach of basic resources, instilled within them a deep and profound commitment to the Jewish value of ‘or lagoyim,’ serving as a light unto the nations.”

Esther Shmunis, a participant on the Haiti mission, works on an art project with a student in Zoranje.
Esther Shmunis, a participant on the Haiti mission, works on an art project titled “This Is Me” with a student in Zoranje.

Gideon Turk, a Yeshiva College biology major from Thornhill in Ontario, Canada, saw the Haiti mission as tikun olam. “The trip was so much more than I ever imagined,” he said, noting that he had learned the importance of education and was impressed by the leaders he met. “These people have no reason to dedicate their lives to making the world a better place, yet they continue to do so. An example is Maryse Pénnette-Kedar, founder of Pro-Dev, whose mission is to educate the youth of Haiti, so eventually the country will grow into a flourishing, educated democracy.”

Turk was also inspired by the “passion” of the students in Zanmi Lasante and in Zoranje. “Every activity we did with them was done with a level of zealousness that is hard to put into words. Whether it was playing catch with a wiffle ball, building bridges with gum drops and toothpicks, or digging holes to plant trees, all the children were ecstatic throughout the projects.”

Stern College for Women student Michal Segall of New York City described the medical and health system in Haiti, with lines of people waiting up to six hours for care at the general hospital in Port-au-Prince, the largest public health facility in Haiti, and others walking hours to seek medical attention at a mobile facility. Students also visited a school for 600 students, some of whom walk up to four hours each way to get there.

“I think more than anything, this trip has granted us a different outlook on education—if we were not grateful for it before, we have come to truly appreciate the value and necessity of our education now,” said Segall.  “We have learned so much in just a few days and the depth with which we have engaged in conversations with the locals is an extraordinary testament to our years of schooling, something we can all be extremely grateful to our parents for providing us with.”

The Jewish Life Coast-to-Coast group focused on leadership development, immersing participants in the workings and needs of community leadership in small American Jewish communities in four Southern states. The goal, said Aliza Abrams Konig, director of student life and Jewish service learning at CJF, is “to expose YU undergraduates to Jewish communities around North America.” Over the 10 years of the program, students have visited many Jewish communities including some in California, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Ohio and Michigan.

This year students visited Georgia, North and South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia. They met with Jewish community leaders, rabbis and educators and toured schools, community centers and synagogues. They ran educational programs for students in a school, led a teen oneg [Shabbat celebratory gathering] Friday night and community learning on Shabbat.

“They learn the roles that they can play as community members,” said Konig. “It shows them the future community leader inside of themselves. Ultimately, once they become adults in a community, this will help them take leadership roles as professionals or as lay leaders.”

Highlights of the trip included a meeting with the founders of an expanded Jewish genetic screening program, meeting author and Emory University professor Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, learning about and touring Jewish historical Charleston, and touring local Holocaust museums.

Participants on the Jewish Life Coast to Coast mission at The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia, which was bombed during the Civil Rights Movement for its rabbi's close connection with Martin Luther King Jr.
Participants on the Jewish Life Coast to Coast mission at The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia, which was bombed during the Civil Rights Movement for its rabbi’s close connection with Martin Luther King Jr.

Danny Abboudi, a Yeshiva College sociology major from Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, with plans for a career in education, observed the leadership and priorities of the communities on the mission. “I was excited to hear the different ways each community deals with struggles that are common to all of them,” he said. “It was interesting to see what values different communities hold, how they implement them, and what their aspirations are.“

“When I signed up for the trip,” said Rachel Weinberg, a Stern College senior from Newtown, Massachusetts, “I hoped to learn about different Jewish communities outside of New York and see how they have overcome diverse struggles and challenges. As the trip began, I was amazed to see how united each community was and the spirit of achdut [unity] in each community.”

Weinberg praised the unity across denominations in the Jewish community of Atlanta, Georgia, and in the schools in Charleston, South Carolina and Richmond, Virginia, noting the respect the rabbinic leadership had for each other. “Each understood the other’s viewpoint and embraced the opportunity to work together to serve the Jewish people in their community,” said Weinberg. “As I start to look toward my future as a Judaic Studies educator, I hope to show the same respect and acceptance for the families and students I will have the privilege of interacting with.”