Hillel promotes ‘alternative’ spring breaks

More students are opting to spend their vacations working on community service projects.

March 21, 2010 05:52
3 minute read.
An Israeli student in Ghana.

israeli volunteer ghana 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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NEW YORK – Over her winter vacation in March, Adina Goldwasser traveled to Guatemala to help build a medical center. During her spring break last week, the college junior traveled to New York City with Hillel to repaint two community centers in Harlem.

“Seeing the people we’re affecting, one on one, gives me such a good feeling,” said Goldwasser, a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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As some students increasingly opt to spend their breaks immersed in service projects, Goldwasser was one of 32 students who traveled to New York to take part in a new collaboration between Hillel and City Year, a youth service program that places volunteers around the US year-round.

It is an unusual partnership that kicked off in January with a pilot service program in Los Angeles. This spring, the organizations are running four “urban” alternative spring break trips for Jewish students, in LA, Miami and New York in what officials from Hillel and City Year said is the first large-scale partnership between Jewish and secular national service organizations.

Hillel, which has offered “alternative spring breaks” for several years, ramped up its service programs after Hurricane Katrina. City Year’s volunteer corps spend 10 months running after-school programs and doing other service projects.

“That’s where we really meet in the middle,” said Meggan Levene, a senior project manager with City Year’s Care Force. On Thursday, she surveyed the scene around her, a gymnasium at the Hansborogh Recreation center on West 134th Street in Harlem, where students were painting over dingy paint with soft shades of yellow and blue.

For Hillel, the trips are “significant in terms of where Hillel is going” as an organization, said Adam Broms, a human resources fellow who was leading the New York trip. “The other piece of this is, what is the Jewish piece in this?” he said. “The work we’re doing this week is probably not for other Jews, but that’s OK,” he said.

Back in January, Hillel President Wayne Firestone said the partnership “advances our efforts toward helping students find a balance in being distinctively Jewish and universally human through the pursuit of tzedek, social justice.”

Adrienne Tyrey, a junior at the University of Tulsa, said she grew up in a Reform congregation in St. Louis, Mo., where her teachers and parents impressed upon her the importance of helping others as a Jew.

“I kind of absorbed that concept at a young age and haven’t strayed from it since,” she said, taking a break from the painting. At home, Tyrey is a vice president of Habitat for Humanity at her school and is helping to build a fifth house.

Spending her spring break on a service trip was a given.

“What am I going to do? Go to Mexico and get drunk and lay on the beach?” she said. “That would be a waste of my time and not helping anyone else.”

This was the first “alternative spring break” for Justin Etinger, a Colgate student from Massachusetts, who went skiing in Colorado with friends last year. “This is obviously a 360-degree difference,” he said. Etinger, who is interested in education, was attracted to the opportunity to volunteer in inner city schools.

But he was struck by the impact of community centers in the neighborhoods Hillel has visited. They are “very cherished spaces,” he said, noting a parallel to the role of community space in the Jewish community.

“Outside of Tikkun Olam, Jews have worked so hard for so long to create a safe space for themselves in shuls, schools, Jewish community centers,” he said. “It’s kind of our time to give back,” he said.

On Thursday morning, Broms wandered around a rooftop playground where students were painting hopscotch and four-square boards onto the concrete. Taking a break from painting, Goldwasser pointed out the hopscotch board and asked a Hillel executive board member if he ever played.

“Hopscotch, I’ve seen,” said Mort Lowenthal, laughing. “I thought it was shuffleboard.”

Dressed in paint-stained pants and work gloves, Lowenthal recently returned from a Hillel service trip to New Orleans. “It’s more than painting,” he said. “It gives the kids a great chance to help people.”

From Hillel’s perspective, it is also a way to get students to engage in Jewish life through tzedaka. “This is the time to bring them in or lose them,” Lowenthal said.

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