The term "spring break" conjures up images of hedonism on the beach.
But according to Campus Compact, a nonprofit coalition of more than 950 colleges dedicated to promoting community service increasing numbers of students are choosing to perform community projects during their spring vacations.
In this area, college students Dana Greenberg of Franklin Lakes and Allison Teitelbaum of Fair Lawn opted to spend their spring breaks doing social outreach under Jewish auspices.
Allison Teitelbaum chopped down reeds at the bird reserve at Kibbutz Lotan. photo provided by JNF
Dana, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, joined up with the Argentina-bound Alternative Spring Break program co-sponsored by Texas Hillel and the Joint Distribution Committee. Allison, a freshman at NYU, went to Israel with a program organized by the Jewish National Fund.
In mid-March Dana, a member of her Hillel’s Tzedek committee, headed for Buenos Aires, where the ‘5 members of her group were immediately put to work serving meals to children at the baby help center run by the JDC.
Dana points out that the severe economic crisis in Argentina has led to an increasing number of Jewish poor, many of whom have lost their life’s savings. She says that the JDC has expanded its presence there to provide emergency assistance and help maintain a basic communal structure. The baby center provides daycare for working mothers as well as food packages for disadvantaged families.
At a JDC welfare center in Moisesville an agricultural community founded by European Jews who came to Argentina a century ago, and which still boasts about 300 Jewish residents Dana "saw firsthand how lives have changed here due to the crisis," she said. "I met a man with no family who lost his savings and has absolutely nothing."
Hearing his story and his fears about growing older was "startling."
"When I spoke with this man, I tried to imagine being in his situation," she said. "I thought about my own grandparents."
Dana’s group also visited the headquarters of the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina in Buenos Aires, which was bombed in 1994. Eighty-five people were killed, and another 300 were wounded in the deadliest terrorist event in Argentina’s history.
"They took us there just to see it," she said. "There’s now high security and a memorial by [Israeli artist Yaacov] Agam that represents [different aspects] of Jewish culture."
The Hillel contingent attended a Megillah reading at a synagogue in Buenos Aires, where members of the congregation acted out the Purim story. "It was very emotional seeing a community like this so far away," she said. "I don’t speak Hebrew or Spanish [but] we went back on Shabbat because you just fit in, no matter what."
The students did more than visit. Dana reports that they painted the welfare center and public hospital in Moisesville, taking special pains with the children’s wing, where they also hung pictures. In addition, they planted a garden.
In a "shanty town No. 31," said Dana, students worked in a children’s soup kitchen, which "was the size of a normal kitchen but served about ’00 kids for each meal."
Dana knows that the short time she spent in Argentina did not change much in that country, but, she said, it did change her own perspective.
"I’ve been personally strengthened in my Jewish identity and in my view of community service," she said. "It’s opened my eyes to the need to reach out to others."
Allison Teitelbaum had been to Israel three times before, but this time, as part the Alternative Spring Break program sponsored by JNF’s Israel Advocacy and Education Department, she went to "contribute in my own small way to [its] progress."
The JNF program, part of the organization’s Blueprint Negev campaign to develop the desert, took ‘5 college students to the Negev "to connect the participants from different parts of the country, some secular, some observant with the people of Israel [and show us] what it means to live there," said Allison.
The group spent four days in Kibbutz Lotan. Founded as a Reform movement Jewish community, the kibbutz now prides itself on its "environmental awareness," said Allison, noting that it offers "green apprenticeships to students who come for 10-week environmental courses."
Realizing that their concrete structures are not suited to the desert, kibbutz members are trying out a new construction material, said the NYU student, who helped build a bench made of "used tires stuffed with non-organic garbage and covered with bricks and oil, to make it fire-resistant."
Allison also spent time "chopping down reeds in the kibbutz’s bird reserve," helping, she said "to create a resting area for migratory birds and [ultimately] bring more eco-tourism."
One of the highlights of her trip was a visit to a children’s hospital in Petach Tikvah, where unable to speak with a child in Arabic she managed to communicate through the child’s mother, who translated for her from Arabic into Hebrew. It was a "magical moment," she said.
The JNF group also spent time at Ayalim, a settlement started by 70 Ben-Gurion University students who chose to develop a community in the desert rather than live in Beersheba.
"It was amazing," said Allison. "They started it from scratch, living in old caravans. We split into three different groups to do different tasks shoring up the bottoms of caravans with piles of rocks, weeding the gardens, and pouring concrete onto some paths."
"We stayed for their Purim party," she said. "We did traditional Israeli dances and I felt like one of the pioneers who worked all day and then danced at night."
"The settlement is not a collection of houses, stone, and concrete," said Allison. "The students have built a community and succeeded in making us all feel really welcome. I felt really connected with Israel."