RAMOGI VILLAGE, Uganda (JTA) — Here in this humid and leafy village in eastern Uganda 20 minutes from the Kenyan border, 16 American college students sit in a circle. They are protected by the shade of a straw thatch structure adjacent to the complex where they have been living for the past month.
It is the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, the summer fast day marking a series of Jewish calamities, and the students are contemplating the meaning of hunger, of suffering. This year, however, it means something different now that they have witnessed such things firsthand: extreme poverty, rampant (and often curable) disease, hunger, a lack of education, employment opportunities and hope.
“I have had a hard time comprehending what we read in Eicha and what we are seeing in Uganda,” says Judith Frank, 22, a Mount Holyoke College political science major, referring to the tract about ancient Jerusalem’s destruction that the group read the previous night. “I have a hard time connecting it to what we are seeing here, that people are suffering.”
But connecting Jewish texts, Jewish philosophy and Jewish identity to suffering in the developing world is all part of the mission of the American Jewish World Service, which sends about $13 million overseas each year to fund 400 grantees in 36 countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia. The AJWS has also sent more than 3,000 Jewish volunteers to work with local NGOs around the world, either alone or in groups, on short- and long-term projects. It sends high school, college and post-college students, and rabbinic and community delegations.
By sending volunteers, AJWS aims to implement the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world — to commit Jews to social justice and inspire passion about their role as “global citizens.”
“The rabbis and the Jewish leaders have discussed the balance between helping Jews and non-Jews,” says Ruth Messinger, the president of AJWS. “It doesn’t say, ‘Build justice just for Jews.’”
It seems like Jewish summer camp here in Uganda as Tisha B’av comes to a close and the AJWS group sits around reading, writing in journals, playing cards, talking and waiting for the fast to end on this rare mid-week day of rest. This camp has no running water and only intermittent electricity; it has mosquito netting to prevent malaria (one girl caught it, but was better a few days later) and a tough work schedule, with participants building a school and putting the roof on a church in conjunction with the Uganda Orphans Rural Development Programme, a local NGO.
This is exactly the type of program — volunteering in a developing country under basic living conditions with a group of Jewish peers in a Jewish context — that drew these unusually idealistic and enthusiastic participants from all walks of Jewish life.
“I wanted to travel and go to Africa and I preferred service, because I wouldn’t have seen the culture. I felt volunteering was a better conduit,” says Leran Minc, 23, a self-described agnostic raised by Israeli parents. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Minc, like many participants, was involved at school in protesing genocide.
Some participants said they felt a Jewish sense of responsibility to come volunteer.
“My grandparents are Holocaust survivors and I began to wonder what are we doing to try and stop genocide we know of?" said Faigy Abdelhak, 22, a graduate of Queens College who is working in Chicago with Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, which sends participants to work with anti-poverty organizations in the United States. "In Rwanda, they could point their fingers at us and say, ‘You said, never again!’"
Abdelhak, who is Orthodox, said she likes the Jewish aspect of the AJWS curriculum, which ties volunteers’ experience to Jewish learning with segments like the one about Tisha B’av, or about Shabbat and sustainability, or tzedakah and Maimonides’ eight levels of charity. “I love seeing that Judaism asks people to do what I already want to do,” Abdelhak said.
Some of the volunteers who came to Uganda were not particularly involved in Jewish or social causes. No matter their past experience, most suggested that nothing had prepared them for what they are witnessing here in Uganda.
“As much as you read about what’s going on in the developing world,” said Shani Mintz, 23, a graduate of Stern College, the women’s college of Yeshiva University, “it’s different to experience it.”
The experience involves manual labor in the morning, and meetings with the local community or working on individual projects such as teaching in schools or volunteering with health care workers in the afternoon.
“You, sir, I don’t know your name. Come with me,” work site contractor Jon Jones (J.J.) Okoth says in clipped British tones to Adam Klein, one of the three AJWS group leaders, as Okoth tries to teach Klein to saw into a metal rod to create a chisel. Okoth takes the finished chisel over to the church — a red brick structure with a partial roof — being finished by his staff: half a dozen local workers and the AJWS group of 19. Some are already on the roof, using the wires to affix the triangle wood beams they had lifted up onto the roof the previous workday.
It is this sight — not only women working with men, but white, American college students (their Jewishness not necessarily a factor in a country that’s barely heard of the religion) working together with the locals — that makes a difference in the community.
“The people that we help are most often indigenous leaders and people who have stepped forward,” Messinger says, back in New York. “Their leaders are empowered, and we are empowering them further to build society. It’s not charity work — we’re helping them to do more to help themselves.”
While the physical work is a valuable part of the trip, the participants say they are most moved by hearing the locals’ stories and witnessing their lives.
“There was a girl here who couldn’t go to school because she couldn’t see the blackboard,” says Philippa Munitz, a British student at the London School of Economics. “I’ve only seen one person here wearing glasses. My whole family wears glasses. What would happen to them?”
In addition to grappling with disease, poverty, hunger and poor education, students are shocked at the other sorts of issues that they encounter.
“Husbands go off to a job in Kampala [the Ugandan capital] and have another mistress, and he can get AIDS and his wife can’t ask him to wear a condom or they will beat them,” says Natalie Goodis, 20, a feminist studies major at Stanford University who helped facilitate a women-only community meeting between volunteers and the local Ramogi women. Although she studied poverty and gender inequality at university, “it seemed intangible. I was studying it at a meta-level,” she says. But after meeting with the women, “that’s turned these big words into something I can comprehend. I’ve seen it, smelled it, touched it, heard it.”
Not that it’s easy for the participants.
“One time I was on the bus and said, ‘I hate this! I hate seeing how tired they are, how neat they look, how they were born into poverty and the government won’t help and they are ignorant of their own situation,’” says Aaron Kessler, 19, a broadcasting and communications major at Temple University, whose parents — a Reconstructionist rabbi mother and cantor father — suggested he take part in the AJWS program to broaden his horizons. “You have to try to look past it. You have to appreciate the finer things, the smiles and the conversations,” Kessler said.
Indeed, the local community has been very welcoming to the group, from the barefoot children trailing the cars shouting “Muzungo!” (white person) to the shy women somewhat surprised but pleased at these pants-wearing, church-building young women.
“We are happy they are here — we are friends and we share ideas and tell stories; they are very good people,” says Getrude Ochwo, a community leader. “We will feel sad and we will miss them when they are gone,” she says. Yet their influence “cannot last long if they don’t come back,” she adds.
That may be the biggest question: What in the end, is the impact of the AJWS mission?
After six weeks, group members leave the Ramogi Village with a new school and a new church, but they return to the United States, where they have tests to study for, semesters abroad to attend, graduate school to apply to. Will this summer have any long-term effects?
“Our job is to facilitate the experience for participants so that they will come to view the world in a different way and have certain realizations that might affect their long-term decisions,” says group leader Jamie Zimmerman, 25, who was a participant on the program a few years ago, choosing AJWS because of the way the organization ties the experience “spiritually and philosophically” to participants’ real lives back home.
For example, this group is taking part in what’s called a Volunteer Summer, a yearlong program in which participants attend retreats, raise money for AJWS and are encouraged to go on public speaking tours and publish articles about their experiences.
“I don’t want people to feel miserable, but to be more aware,” says Zimmerman, who made a documentary about Congolese refugees and has just started medical school. “They should be aware of their opportunities.”
While AJWS does not have long-term studies following their volunteers, the organization says that many of them end up working with underserved populations in the United States and around the world in fields like medicine, social work, politics, public policy and economic development.
But not everyone is going to work with underprivileged communities. Many participants will continue with their studies in investment banking, music, broadcasting. "That’s OK," Zimmerman says. “They should use this summer to create a positive impact.”
Klein, a group leader who has led other summer tours, as well as Alternative Spring Breaks, and himself has spent two years in Mali with the Peace Corps, added: “If they settle down and get married and raise kids with these good values, then that is enough."