NEW YORK, April 24 (JTA) When Rebecca Shaloff left her suburban Washington home for a college campus, she also left behind the comforts of her lifelong affiliation with her Jewish community.
It wasn’t until Purim, when she heard the Megillah in a California town with 10 peers from the University of Maryland Hillel chapter and the town’s small Jewish population, she “realized what an amazing sense of community it is to be Jewish.”
Shaloff celebrated Purim this year while participating in an alternative spring break, partly sponsored by Hillel, in which students traveled to California to help migrant workers build homes.
Alternative spring breaks have sprouted on many college campuses in recent years as students opt to better humanity during their vacation instead of working on their tans.
“I’ve always been into doing community service,” said Shaloff of why she chose to spend her vacation on a construction site. “I didn’t consider it giving up my spring break. It’s the best thing I could do for myself.”
Many Hillel-sponsored spring breaks try to make Judaism relevant to students while exploring other cultures and offering aid to those in need.
The New York University chapter shuttled 20 students to El Salvador to help rebuild hurricane-ravaged communities, and students from Washington University in St. Louis traveled to New York to help foster black-Jewish relations.
Shaloff, a psychology major raised in a Conservative Jewish family, saw it as a privilege to work with a group called Global Volunteers to help build the homes. To her, it’s a chance to help those less fortunate while simultaneously learning from peers with different Jewish backgrounds.
Students took part in actual construction tasks, including putting up walls, installing roofs and painting
“I remember my very first nail,” Shaloff said. “I hit and hit and nothing was working.” But by the end of the week, “I was slightly better but I mostly stuck with painting.”
Shaloff said the experience gave her new insight into Judaism.
“We all came together,” she said. “I look at Judaism and see it so much as a community and I feel like I’m a member.”
A Hillel initiative called Tzedek Hillel, which funds campus chapters that make a one-year commitment to public policy and social activism, is fostering the increase in the alternative breaks.
The Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which means repairing the world, and acquiring a better understanding of other cultures inspired Ari Alexander to participate in the University of Pennsylvania’s alternative spring break.
As a member of a black-Jewish dialogue group called “Alliance and Understanding,” Alexander had the opportunity to travel south with seven other black and Jewish students to explore the civil rights movement and Jewish connections through visiting such places as Jackson, Miss., and Selma, Ala..
“Outside of school, I try to get the most out of people and places that I can,” said Alexander, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish home.
A junior who is majoring in history, Alexander’s curiosity about different cultures surfaced during his year of study at Israel’s Hebrew University in 1997.
“What would it have been like if I was born a Palestinian?” Alexander began asking himself. It was this interest in “those seen on the other side” that inspired him to engage in bridge-building when he returned to Penn.
“Lack of contact with people breeds suspicion,” Alexander cautioned.
Dialogues and tours of the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery were intertwined with a traditional Friday night service and dinner.
“Making the world better for everyone” through understanding and sharing common experiences “is a Jewish manifesto,” Alexander said.
He said the interaction with people who were involved in the civil rights movement brought history to life, even more so than when he hears stories of Holocaust survivors, since the age gap with those who were on the front lines in the South is not as large.
“It’s hard to go back to schools and read about in books,” he said, once he met the actual historical payers.
Since his return from the South, Alexander has become co-chair of Alliance and Understanding.
According to Liz Minkin, associate director of University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel, an alternative spring break to both Senegal and Israel is in the works for the coming years in continuation of the bridge-building spirit.
Fostering contact between different cultures not only educates students about diversity, according to Shaloff, who has become involved in her Hillel since her trip to California, but also helps them personally and religiously.
Of her break, Shaloff said, “It was kind of my own Jewish community that I facilitated.
“You can build you own Jewish community wherever you go.”