The most noticeable cultural difference between the Africans that Shira Epstein met while volunteering in Ghana this summer and the American Jews with whom she worked wasn’t their dress. Sure, the Africans wore flip-flops at the construction site where they were building a library, while the Americans wore state-of-the-art hiking boots. But the Africans worked at a much different pace than the Americans. It was less frenetic.
"We in the Western culture seek to have control over how we spend every minute of the day. They don’t see it like that. They play it more by ear. If it’s raining out, so we’ll have breakfast a little later," said Epstein. "I think that some people in the Western world see that as lazy, but there’s something beautiful in it."
And it wasn’t just their pace, it was how they worked, she said. While Americans seem very much inclined to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" and make it on their own, the Africans had more of an "it takes a village" mentality.
Epstein, ‘8, spent six weeks out of her summer helping to build a library in Kpeme as a group leader of 15 college volunteers for the American Jewish World Service.
Sometimes misdescribed as the Peace Corp of the Jewish world, it is an international development organization with a Jewish conscience.
Its corps of some 150 skilled volunteers, according to AJWS president Ruth Messinger, are now dispersed throughout the world. Each year, it sends between 500 and 600 high school seniors and college students to parts of the developing world to work on projects such as Epstein’s Ghana group.
Messenger, who served as a New York City councilwoman and as Manhattan borough president and was the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City in 1997, has been the president of AJWC for seven years. Under her, the organization’s budget has grown from $3 million per year to $1′ million.
The group has raised an additional $11 million for reconstruction after last year’s South Pacific tsunami. But the organization didn’t simply throw money at the problem. Instead of just sending food to tsunami survivors, it sent fishing boats and nets.
The organization, she said, is designed not just to help developing world develop, but to help Jews understand that it is their Jewish obligation to help as well.
"Sending 15 or 30 college students to help lay a water line or build up the walls of a school is tremendously helpful physical work," she said. "But we want them to get the sense that people should care enough to spend their time doing so, and we want to create cross-cultural understanding. This is the Jewish thing to do. It is what we are taught to do, and we don’t have a right to resist. We have to remember what it means to be the other, or to be the stranger."
It’s not the Peace Corps, said Messinger, because, while its focus is on helping the developing world, it is also designed to help build Jewish community.
Epstein, who grew up in Teaneck and now lives in Manhattan where she is writing her Columbia University Teachers College dissertation about service learning and social action experience for children, was responsible for the educational component of her program in Ghana.
AJWS provided her with a curriculum and reading material, and each day she’d lead discussion groups with her 15 volunteers, where they’d address questions such as: "How do we engage in cross-cultural communication? What is the face of poverty and how do we interface with it? What are our responses to poverty? And what are our responsibilities as Jews and how does our Jewish identity interact with this?"
But some of the more interesting cross-cultural dialogue came from discussion within her own group. The 15 volunteers shared a house, but they came from a range of Jewish backgrounds from Orthodox to the one volunteer who was raised as a Quaker but was now discovering her Jewish roots.
The group had to figure out how to deal with the kashrut of the house and had to come to some compromise about how to observe Shabbat, said Epstein, who belonged to the Jewish Center of Teaneck with her family as a child but who now prays with alternative prayer groups in Manhattan, such as Hadaar and Kol Zimra.
In the end they decided to begin Shabbat early so that they could have a co-ed mixed service with a guitar, then they each separated to pray on their own before coming back together for dinner.
And it is that combination of helping the global community and a study in self that is the essence of the AJWS, according to Messinger.
"We know that our participants learn a great deal about global poverty and about their own people. We are representing the hand and the heart and the voice of the Jewish world to the rest of the world," she said. "What makes us different is that our focus is working with the developing world, and the people we are helping are not Jewish. But we’re providing help in accordance with Jewish values. And we’re helping to build Jewish community by doing so."
For more information about AAJWS, visit www.ajws.org.