My Alternative Spring Break in Nicaragua

Students from the University of Florida Hillel on an AJWS Alternative Spring Break in Nicaragua

Originally posted on the blog of, News and Views of Reform Jews.

Last fall, as a junior attending the University of Florida (UF), I was considering all the possibilities for the upcoming spring break. I know that typical UF students spend their spring breaks on cruises and at beaches, drinking and getting awkward tan lines. I was not excited by the prospect of getting sunburned or putting myself in a bathing suit. Sure, I could visit my parents in Texas, but since it was a recent relocation, there would be no friends there for me and sitting on the couch all week just sounded boring.

I thought about my Jewish camp friends from OSRUI. I could visit them over spring break! Unfortunately, none of our spring breaks matched up, and although I could have visited them at their campuses, spring break is about NOT going to class.

To my delight, UF Hillel decided to sponsor an alternative break trip with American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an organization I’d first heard about when I watched Judd Apatow’s hilarious video of celebrities speaking on behalf of AJWS and the type of work AJWS does throughout the world. I had shared the video through every social media outlet I could think of… multiple times… for weeks. It was meant to be.

After my parents’ initial resistance over Thanksgiving (mixed with a small dose of Jewish guilt), I wore them down. My mother later said, “How can I teach my children to love tikkun olam and repair the world, and then say ‘no’ when they want to go to Nicaragua and do just that?”

After two prep sessions, last-minute shopping and packing, two friends and I were on our way from Gainesville to Miami where we would leave the following morning for Managua, Nicaragua. The heaviest item that I packed was the enormous, spiral-bound AJWS curriculum. Although its size is daunting, it turned out to be worth its weight in gold. Our group leaders guided us through every day in Nicaragua using the curriculum, which includes stories, case studies, and Jewish texts, which helped us explore our individual and collective journeys.

Expecting the worst conditions, but hoping for the best, I waited anxiously in the airport with nine other young women from Gainesville. Hours later, our Florida group walked into the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua, where we were greeted by our group leaders, and our van driver, who showed us to the vehicle and proceeded to drive us the hour to Diriamba, the city that would become our home over the next life-changing week.

As soon as I saw the bunk beds, I thought of OSRUI, the Reform Jewish summer camp where I had spent eight years as an overnight camper, and am now approaching my 5th year there on staff.  Being part of a Jewish community on this trip across the world felt familiar and comforting.

It was windy and cool when we arrived at Cooperativa de Proyectos Agropecuarios de Diriamba (COOPAD), the farm where we’d be staying, a grassroots organization working to combat food insecurity. I looked around and could not believe the beauty of my surroundings. We bundled up and went outside to watch the sunset, and after dinner we began our first group bonding–camp style. I recognized the ice breakers that were right out of the counselor handbook. Of course, this was followed by another first day camp ritual, writing a “group agreement,” which I affectionately referred to (in my head) as a brit.

Walking into our first day of work, none of us were really sure what we would be asked to do. As Americans who live on fast-paced schedules, many of us didn’t know how to cope when we weren’t able to start on time, due to lack of supplies, or insane winds. Thank goodness for our wonderful group leaders who stepped in at those moments, and engaged us in learning sessions that helped us recognize the meaning in the work that awaited us.

One day, not having the slightest idea as to how to build a cattle pen, we did as we were told (or what we thought they were telling us, for those of us who don’t speak Spanish)—and literally dug in! While the men at the work site pick-axed the perimeter of the structure, it was our job to dig up the resulting loose dirt. Later in the week, the director of COOPAD told us that our work digging with the men had noticeably helped in the struggle to break down gender stereotypes in Nicaragua. Who was it that said one person could make a difference? And that 12 American Jewish women helping to build a cattle pen in Nicaragua can promote women’s rights?

As I struggled physically with the work, the curriculum was challenging me both mentally and morally.  The sessions seemed to be perfectly timed,  which I’m sure was no coincidence. Three of those lessons stand out in my mind:

1) My Favorite Learning Session
We were divided into two groups and given ten cards with quotes on them. We had to choose a scale, and then rank the cards based on the scale. Our group chose the scale “Ignorance to Understanding.” Starting with cards that had superficial quotes from former AJWS participants, and ending with quotes from Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Martin Luther King Jr., our rankings suggested to us that by taking this trip we had become part of a growing and learning process, and one that was already making an impact just midway through the week.

2) The Curriculum That Spoke Most Personally To Our Group
On one of the last days, we were not qualified to do the work on the cattle pen (laying cement and moving 50-lb. concrete blocks). We sat outside with our group leaders and read a poem about not having to know all the answers, but letting oneself embrace the questions.  As mostly college juniors and seniors, this poem seemed to speak directly to us, with the constant flow of similar questions we receive from parents, friends, and teachers. ‘What are you doing after you graduate?’ ‘Do you plan on going to grad school?’ And, in my case, ”You’re majoring in Jewish Studies and Family, Youth, and Community Sciences?  What is that?? What do you want to do with your degree?” The poem encouraged us to embrace the questions, and to allow ourselves time to reflect and live and enjoy what’s happening in the moment.

Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” – from Letters to a Young Poet

3) The Most Challenging Curriculum
We read Jo Ann Van Engen’s article The Cost of Short Term Missions, in which she writes that if we take the money spent on service trips and send it to the community we had planned to visit, it would do more good than going there. Had our UF Hillel group put ourselves on a pedestal, going to this remote part of the world to help this community? At first, the article offended me. I thought, how dare she tell me that this trip is a waste and I should have just sent money. Throwing money at problems doesn’t fix them.

But Van Engen also writes, “When people return from their trip, they don’t talk about what they did, as much as what they saw and how it changed them…They don’t often talk about what they accomplished, but about how much they learned about themselves.” She presents a call to action:  Build long-term relationships with the group and organizations you’re helping.  Read and learn about the people and the culture before stepping foot in the country you’re visiting. Focus on learning. Spend time with locals. And finally, get involved when you return.

And that is exactly what I decided to do.

This account is the first step in my journey to share my story. I hope to have an opportunity this summer at OSRUI to continue sharing. And I plan to use my Alternative Break experience as my real life study guide in an attempt to embrace the daunting questions of “what do I want to do after graduation?” that are certain to come my way.

Missy Goldstein, a third year Jewish Studies and Family, Youth, & Community Sciences major at the University of Florida, is the summer administrator at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, and liaison to the Cornerstone Fellowship. Next year she will serve on Hillel’s board as their Jewish Learning intern.