When Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future planned its Project Connect: Israel Winter Mission last year, the itinerary did not take into account the war that would be raging in Gaza when the 35 students arrived. The service learning program was focused on understanding the successes and challenges of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants.
But its coordinators managed to alter the schedule so that the participants, from a variety of colleges, could interact with these two communities while assembling packages for Israeli soldiers on the front lines. Half the group went to the Tzrifin Army Base to work with the young women of SELAH, a program that helps facilitate the immigration of university students from the Former Soviet Union. The other half worked with Ethiopian children at the headquarters of the Tzofim Youth Movement in Be’er Yaakov, which provides a free venue for the kids during the evening hours while their parents are at work.
David Abrams and Zahava Merlis, Yeshiva University students from Teaneck, spoke with The Jewish Standard on the final day of their visit.
“I met a 16-year-old girl, Dana, at the base,” said Merlis. “She was from Moscow, and she came here four months ago without her family. She said she wanted to come to Israel because her soul is tied to this land. I think it takes a lot of guts to just pick up and come to a new country by yourself.”
Israel’s head social worker explained to Merlis’ group that many highly educated immigrants from the FSU hold menial jobs in Israel because they lack language and cultural skills. As a result, the children often lose respect for them and get into trouble. Merlis worked with a group that takes some of these children to parks and community centers after school to provide them with creative outlets.
Merlis and her team discovered that the immigrants they met overwhelmingly identify as Jews or Israelis rather than as Russians or members of other diaspora nationalities.
“We’re all brothers and sisters, we’re all Jews, even though we come from different places and speak different languages,” she said.
Abrams visited an institution where 80 Ethiopian young adults learn computer skills and are placed in jobs afterward. He heard tragic stories of siblings who died on the difficult trek to Israel and parents who took their own lives from despondency. He asked students why they’d decided to make the journey despite the hazards ahead.
“One man told me, ‘When the kes [spiritual leader] said we had to get up and leave, that was the word. We knew Jerusalem was the place we had to end up. And the journey was worth it. It was a necessary loss for a better life.'”
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of CJF, said those chosen for the mission – run in conjunction with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation – show strong leadership potential. More than 150 students from 17 universities applied to fill the 35 available slots.
“One of our many goals is to motivate those on the mission to make a difference in the Jewish community and the world at large,” Brander explained. “We hope that after meeting individuals who overcame great challenges to transform society and better their communities, these students will be inspired to do the same.”
Abrams had been planning to take accounting courses this summer but has decided to apply for another YU-sponsored service-learning trip to Israel instead. Likewise, Merlis, who had planned to take graduate school admission tests during the summer, prefers to return as well. “It calls to me,” she said.