|Y.U. students, From left, Michelle Levine, Aaron Miller, Esther Kazlow, Yoni Mintz, and Elisheva Jacobov make volcanoes with pupils in Haiti’s Zoranje School.|
“People think Jews only give to Jewish causes, so it’s important to immerse ourselves in different cultures to learn about them and to show that Jews are there to help everybody,” said Yoni Mintz of Fair Lawn.
Mr. Mintz, 20, is a second-year psychology and business student at Yeshiva University. He had just returned from a winter-break American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee program, the Insider Service Trip to Haiti. On that trip, 15 Y.U. students collaborated on several humanitarian projects and met with JDC partner organizations. They learned about the ongoing difficulties Haiti has faced as a result of the massive earthquake there five years ago.
Mr. Mintz said that he was proud to learn that the Israel Defense Forces sent one of the first delegations that reached Haiti to provide disaster relief. Galila Shapiro, an Englewood senior at Y.U.’s Stern College for Women, was taken aback to see how much the Haitians appreciate help they continue to receive from Israeli and American Jews.
“We saw a water tower painted with the Israeli flag; that was one of the first projects JDC did when they first came to Haiti,” she said. “In the Haiti State University Hospital in Port-au-Prince, we saw a rehab clinic that had been totally destroyed in the earthquake and rebuilt by the JDC. It has a Magen David painted on the door. It made me so proud of the concern Jews show for the global community. I never appreciated how unique that is.”
For three of the days between January 10 and 18, the students planted trees and refurbished communal areas outside a school and community center established by the Foundation for Progress and Development (PRODEV) in the city of Zoranje. They also led educational and enrichment activities in the school.
Participants met with representatives from Zanmi Lasante (Partners In Health), an organization that provides healthcare services to the poor; Heart-to-Heart International, which provides emergency medical care services to populations in crisis; and a team of Israeli and Haitian medical professionals treating amputees at the renovated rehab center.
Y.U.’s Center for the Jewish Future traditionally runs service-learning trips such as these during school breaks. “The primary goal of all CJF programming is to inspire our students to become agents of change in their communities and the world at large,” said CJF’s Dean Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, who also is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton.
“While pitching in to help rebuild the lives of the Haitian earthquake survivors, our student leaders will undergo an expedited process of growth and self-discovery that will lay the foundations for their future social-justice engagement, including opportunities for public speaking, writing, advocacy, and volunteer service,” Rabbi Glasser said.
Mr. Mintz said he gleaned an important takeaway message from the experience. “I really learned that when hearing about a tragedy, not to look for a second, feel bad, and walk away,” he said. “Wherever there’s a story, there are people whose lives have changed.” On the positive side, he added, “We have a perception of Haiti as a devastated place, but we saw great beauty and people who are making a difference in society.”
Four Teaneck residents were among the other Haiti mission participants: Esther Kazlow, Ariella Levie, Michelle Levine, and Zev Rosenbaum.
Meanwhile, another Y.U. group of 20 students was gaining new insights into the history, strengths, and challenges of Jewish communities in Atlanta, Charleston, Richmond, and Baltimore. This experiential mission aimed to broaden their horizons through meetings, volunteering, and interactions with local rabbinic and lay leaders as well as with residents in schools, synagogues, and community centers.
“Engaging Jewish communities across North America will open our students to the diversity and vibrancy that permeates Jewish life outside the New York metropolitan area,” said Aliza Abrams, director of the university’s Office of Student Life and Jewish Service Learning.
Yosie Friedman of Teaneck, a second-year student, reported that in Atlanta he was impressed to see how the rabbi of the historic Reform synagogue called the Temple and the Orthodox rabbi of the 10-year-old Young Israel of Toco Hills “have so much respect for each other and try to find areas of common ground, like social-action projects.”
At the Atlanta Jewish Academy high school, the visitors from Y.U. led an educational session about Jewish leadership. “When we asked them to define what makes a Jewish leader, many of the kids stressed that they thought it had to be someone who not only leads and organizes but also is a good, honest person,” Mr. Friedman said.
In Charleston, they visited Addlestone Hebrew Academy. “It’s a community school, so it’s nondenominational, with a carefully designed curriculum that’s Jewish but accommodating of different beliefs and ways of practicing,” Mr. Friedman said.
In Richmond, the students formed an assembly line to help organize the annual Jewish Food Festival, a major fundraiser for the Orthodox synagogue Keneseth Beth Israel. “Unlike a typical shul dinner run by a committee, the entire shul participated by cooking, transporting food or setting up,” Mr. Friedman said. “I found it inspiring; a nice model that communities in other places, especially in the New York metropolitan area, could try to emulate.”
Reflecting on what he learned from the overall experience down South, he said, “Jews across the spectrum have more similarities than differences, and if we focus on areas where all denominations agree, we can try to bring people together. We saw this in action, and I’d love to see communities in metro New York do this too.”
“We’re delighted that our five year partnership with Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future has engaged their rising Jewish leaders with global Jewish issues from Kharkov to Port-au-Prince,” Naomi Sage said. Ms. Sage is the managing director of JDC Entwine, the JDC’s young adult movement.
“These transformative service-learning experiences truly shape young Jews’ worldview and commitment to pressing challenges in Jewish communities and beyond,” she continued. “We look forward to continuing our relationship with Y.U. and to working with their students as they bring this experience home.”
Other local participants in the Jewish Life Coast to Coast mission were Ayala Carl, Daniella Marcus, Elliot Shulman, and Rebecca Van Bemmelen, all of Teaneck, and Adeevah Goldstein of Passaic.