Finding a Jewish future around the world
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Finding a Jewish future around the world

Local YU undergrads travel to underserved communities during winter break

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Clockwise, from left: Shai Berman volunteering at Aishel House, a project that provides Jewish patients at the Texas Medical Center with kosher food and other services; Berman leads a program at Yavneh Academy in Dallas; Sam Weinstein with ninth-graders in Kiryat Malachi, Israel.

In Nicaragua, Texas, and Israel, several local Yeshiva University undergrads used their winter intersession to discover new things about the world and about themselves.

The university’s Center for the Jewish Future offered four 10-day service learning trips to YU and Stern College undergraduates over the January semester break: Teaching English and self-exploration through art to Israeli teens in Kiryat Malachi, Dimona, and Jerusalem; meeting Jewish communal leaders in Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston; and two humanitarian missions in one Mexican Mayan community and the other in Nicaragua.

Sam Weinstein of Teaneck, a sophomore who is majoring in accounting, was one of 39 YU students running programs for about 450 Israeli teenagers from underprivileged Israeli neighborhoods. In Kiryat Malachi, he learned about some of the issues facing Ethiopian immigrants.

“The principals and therapists we spoke to explained that these are all great kids, but they don’t see so many people who go to college and come from stable families,” Weinstein said. Teaching English and doing projects with seventh-, ninth-, and 10th-graders was a way to act as role models while interacting with the students.

One discussion-prompting activity with ninth-grade girls involved gluing a mirror to a sheet of construction paper and adding pictures to the page symbolizing their dreams for the future. Weinstein noticed that one girl wasn’t even looking through the packet of pictures he provided, so he asked her if she had any ideas about life after high school.

“She said ‘No.’ I said, ‘Have you thought about it at all?’ and she said, ‘No, I don’t care.’ So I went through the pictures with her and she said, ‘Oh, I’m kind of interested in going to the army,’ and ‘I am kind of interested in cosmetics,’ and slowly we added pictures to her page. She’s not necessarily going to do those things when she grows up, but now she has a general direction.”

Jeffrey Berger, also a sophomore from Teaneck, opted for the Nicaragua trip. He and 17 other YU students stayed in the impoverished city of San Juan del Sur and spent their mornings moving wood, sawing pipes, and hammering nails with a crew of Nicaraguan builders, working in collaboration with American Jewish World Service and Servicios Médicos Comunales. They were constructing a technological school and public library.

“The goal was for us to benefit from learning about a new culture, and for them to benefit from our help building the school, but I think it was more a learning experience for us, as we lived and worked with them and contrasted their circumstances to our lives and our opportunities,” he said. “It was very different, very isolated.”

Assuming – correctly, as it turned out – that the local populace had little knowledge of Judaism or Israel, Berger made it a priority to provide an introduction. “I brought a box of matzah, and offered it to them as a way of offering my culture, through a translator, and though they didn’t like the taste so much, they appreciated it.”

When it came to Israel, Berger told the Nicaraguans: “Visiting Israel is similar to visiting Nicaragua in that people have a perception that it’s a war-torn, third-world country with nothing growing or prospering, but that’s not really what it’s like at all.”

He confided that the prospect of leaving brought him to tears, despite his inability to converse in Spanish. “Somehow through hand motions and a few basic words we were able to communicate, laugh, and have a great time. The biggest lesson I learned was how to look beyond differences and see that the similarities shine brighter than the differences,” he said.

Shai Berman and Chaim Metzger of Teaneck and Uri Schneider of Bergenfield joined 20 other future communal leaders in meeting Texas Jewish lay leaders, educators, and rabbis from all streams of Jewish life to understand the dynamics and challenges of “out of town” Jewish life.

All three were especially impressed by a 27-year-old Texan who is founding a new Jewish day school in San Antonio, a city with only about a dozen Sabbath-observant families. “In the New York area there are many such schools and lots of kids, but in Texas they need to make the [Jewish] school available to all segments of the Jewish community,” said Berman, noting the friendship among rabbis of different streams in Houston. “They work together on their commonalities,” he said.

Metzger learned that it’s not only rabbis who can take a leadership role in a small community. “You can have an impact, even if you don’t know it yet,” was his take-home message from meeting a woman in Houston who built a community mikveh in the basement of her own house. “She ran it by herself for 30 years. Really impressive.”

Schneider, who is considering the rabbinate as a career, was affected by a remark made by one of the rabbinic directors of an outreach kollel (scholarly institute) in Dallas. “He was from Plano, and he said that the only way [these small communities] can grow is through Torah. It comes down to teaching Torah. We have to be able to interact on different religious levels, but we have to be able to teach something.”

The YU students led “tikkun olam” – social action – activities at Jewish day schools in the three cities.

“At the end, each kid goes to the board and writes something they could do to make the community better,” Berman said. “We did the same thing among ourselves at the end of our trip, writing something that we are inspired to do now or in the future based on what we learned.”

Among those items: “I definitely would consider living outside the New York area. They have a very warm environment and there are a lot of opportunities in terms of affordability and helping the Jewish community grow.”

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