College Students Use Their Spring Breaks to Make a Difference with AJWS

NEW YORK, March 26, 2007 – During this Passover season, as we think about how our redemption is bound up with helping others, Jewish college students from across the country will spend their spring breaks making a difference in the developing world. Through American Jewish World Service’s Alternative Breaks program, college students are committing their vacation time to performing volunteer service, an experience that is enriching for both the participants and their host communities.

AJWS’ Alternative Breaks are week-long programs for college groups to do hands-on, volunteer service projects in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Students are hosted by local grassroots organizations and work with community members on projects such as planting crops, digging ditches for latrines, and laying water lines.

A significant part of the experience for these young adults is immersing themselves in the community and exploring what it means to be a global citizen. Students live and eat meals with local families and learn about the culture of their host communities. Throughout the week, the groups spend time exploring the tenets of social justice in Judaism and issues in international development.

“AJWS’ Alternative Breaks provide a way for Jewish college students to learn what it means to be global citizens and be in solidarity with communities working to achieve social justice,” says Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS.

“Being in the developing world takes these young people out of their comfort zones. They live and interact with a new community, sharing their culture and learning more about others. That exchange is valuable on both sides: for the students and for the host community.”

Most AJWS Alternative Breaks are held in Central America, and the program is now expanding to send students to Africa and Asia. College students from Brown University recently spent 12 days of service in Thailand, and this May students from the University of Toronto will be traveling to Uganda. Alternative Breaks are organized by AJWS in partnership with campus Jewish organizations, such as Hillels.

Connections between Volunteer Service and Passover
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, executive director of Hillel of San Diego and a veteran of several AJWS Alternative Break programs, sees powerful connections between AJWS Alternative Breaks and the upcoming Passover holiday. “Jews have known both sides of the ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ spectrum,” she says. “Passover reminds us that we were once poor and oppressed, and helps us connect with communities in the developing world.”

Goldstein and 10 University of California, San Diego students will be traveling to Guatemala during their spring break. “The Alternative Breaks program helps students understand who they are, that much of the world is not like that, and to probe what that means for them. It’s an enormously powerful experience.”

“AJWS Alternative Breaks are life-changing experiences for students,” says Devora Schwartz Waxman, director of Tzedek/Social Justice Programs for Hillel of Greater Toronto. This May, students from three universities in Toronto (Ryerson University, the University of Toronto, and York University) will travel to Uganda from May 13- 27.

Schwartz continued, “Many students know about issues in the developing world, but it takes on new meaning when they leave their communities and experience it firsthand. Doing tzedek (justice) work anywhere really falls into the idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world).”

Solidarity Helps to Repair the World
Host organizations and communities are also positively affected by the experience of Alternative Breaks.

Arístides Valencia is the director of Asociacion Mangle in El Salvador, has helped to host numerous groups from AJWS’ Alternative Breaks. Speaking from San Salvador, El Salvador, Valencia says: “One of the first things our community heard about, and we’ve grown to understand, is the concept of tikkun olam. We see tikkun olam made true and bearing fruit each time there’s an exchange going on. The solidarity factor is very important to us.

“All the [Salvadoran host] families know that AJWS is an organization founded and organized by American Jewish people,” continues Valencia. “In short periods of time, very strong relationships develop between the young men and women that volunteer and the families that host them. There are students that came six years ago, and host families still ask about them.”
 

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David L. Marcus
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