Jewish Volunteers Span Globe to Aid Developing Communities
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Jewish Volunteers Span Globe to Aid Developing Communities

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The people Saul Carliner dined with during his seven- week trip usually began every meal with a Christian prayer.

But for his farewell dinner, he was glad that they remained “sensitive to the other” at the table and did not pray to Jesus. For some dinner guests, this omission was difficult to understand since Carliner was the first Jew many of them had ever met.

After all, the west Africa nation of Cameroon is not exactly recognized for having a Jewish population.

Cameroon is where Carliner, a Minneapolis-based consultant, spent a summer as a member of the Jewish Volunteer Corps, a program of the American Jewish World Service.

The program allows Jewish volunteers, from recent college graduates to retirees, to use their professional skills in the developing world.

Volunteers have helped develop small businesses, provide health care and education and assist with agricultural development in countries around the world, including Zimbabwe, Senegal, Honduras, Belize, India and the Philippines.

Carliner was sent to Cameroon in the summer of 1996 to use his communications skills at the Pan-African Institute for Development. He wrote a marketing plan and a catalog for the institute, which is located in the city of Buea and provides training and research on economic and development issues for developing communities.

The Pan-African Institute is just one of many partner organizations that the Jewish Volunteer Corps has throughout the world. In total, JVC sends about 15- 20 volunteers each year.

Among those who have served were a business consultant from Juno, Alaska, who helped a women’s cooperative in Mexico to establish businesses, a volunteer who taught people in Senegal how to use video and computer equipment and a physical therapist who taught villagers in Honduras how to use their bodies properly for farm work.

With these kind of activities, the JVC is becoming known as the “Jewish Peace Corps.”

While the volunteers are Jews working in non-Jewish communities, they often find themselves becoming more involved in Judaism by helping others.

Carliner, for example, said he became more aware of how people view Jews. Many of the people he met in Cameroon were curious about Judaism, but “a lot of people saw all Jews as Israelis — they couldn’t make the distinction,” he said.

The program is about “making a difference as a Jew,” said Andrew Griffel, president and chief executive officer of the American Jewish World Service. It is a way to “build bridges between Jews and non-Jews.”

But Griffel does not consider Jewishness to be the most important part of the program.

“To the extent that it encourages volunteers to explore their Jewishness,” said Griffel, “that’s great.” More important, however, is the impact that the volunteers make on the communities in which they work.

Volunteers help to ensure that people in the developing world have the skills they need to build their own communities.

“We are fortunate to have certain resources,” said Griffel. “We want to share them.”

In sharing, volunteers often find themselves receiving as much as they give, said former volunteer Lucy Steinitz.

A resident of Columbia, Md., Steinitz left her post as executive director of Jewish Family Services of Central Maryland and spent three months in 1994 in Zimbabwe with her family, working with a rural development organization.

She said her family’s experience with the program “gave us a deep sense of appreciation for people’s struggles and what’s really important in life — and that’s not material things.”

The experience in Zimbabwe had such an impact on the family that they decided to relocate to Africa.

They left last month for Namibia, where Steinitz and her husband arranged jobs for themselves and school for their children. They plan to remain there for at least a year.

Steinitz is working in a residential center for delinquent youth, and her husband, Bernd Kiekebusch, found a job as a computer analyst for the Namibian Ministry of Education.

With success stories like those of Steinitz and Carliner abounding among adult volunteers, the American Jewish World Service is attempting to get more young people involved in its volunteer corps.

It recently expanded its summer program for college students, adding an Israel component to field work in either Honduras or Zimbabwe.

In these countries, college students participate in more physical work than most volunteers. Last summer, volunteers helped to build wells and convert an area of the rain forest to a national park.

After their field work, the two groups of students meet in Israel, where they work with five of Israel’s main development institutes to learn more skills. Participants volunteer with Ethiopian immigrants and in an Arab village.

They also learn more about Judaism through Jewish text study. Students study “Jewish texts that relate to what we do,” texts that reveal the importance of helping others, Griffel said.

The American Jewish World Service founded the Jewish Volunteer Corps in 1994 as a way for its constituency to get involved in a more “hands-on” way. Previously, the organization had provided assistance mainly through grants to local, nongovernmental organizations.

A program like this with Jewish volunteers had “never been tried before,” said Griffel.

There are plans to expand the program to work with Jewish communities, such as dispatching volunteers to work with developing communities in Russia and Ukraine.

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