A new twist on spring break in Florida: Volunteering

Participants in Hillel's Alternative Spring Break working on the community service project in Overtown, one of Miami's most violent neighborhoods, March 2010. (Marisa Matluck)

Participants in Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break working on the community service project in Overtown, one of Miami’s most violent neighborhoods, March 2010. (Marisa Matluck)

MIAMI (JTA) — Spending spring break is a tradition of sorts for college students, but rather than partying, 57 Hillel members from seven campuses headed to Miami last week to volunteer at a youth center in the downtrodden Overtown district.

Instead of swimming and sunning on the beach or getting soused in bars, they spent a week engaged in community service projects working with underprivileged communities.

The Overtown Youth center, built by former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning, is located downtown in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. The 20-block area, which was founded as a segregated, black neighborhood because of Jim Crow laws, once was the center of black culture in Miami. Now it is overridden with drugs and has the highest rate of violent crimes rate in the southern Florida city.

Each morning last week, the Hillel students worked in the sun building benches and tables for an outdoor classroom for nearby Dunbar Elementary Schoo. In the afternoons they tutored students at the youth center. And at night they reflected on the work they were doing and the experience of learning up close about what it means to be poor in the United States. (OK, they did have a bit of free time at nights and on Shabbat to actually see Miami and, if they wished, to experience its nightlife — but just a bit.)

The trip to Miami was a part of Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break program, which this year will involve 1,300 college students from around the world spending their vacations engaged in Jewish service learning projects.

Such programs have been attracting increasing philanthropic support from funders who see them as a potentially effective way of building Jewish identity among high school and college students.

It’s a trend that recently drew some stiff criticism from Jack Wertheimer, a professor and former provost at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Writing in Commentary, Wertheimer criticized the idea of focusing more attention and resources on creating service projects aimed at helping non-Jews. He took aim at the multimillion-dollar endeavor Repair the World, a nonprofit that aims to help create a movement around projects such as Alternative Spring Break.

Repair the World shot back that Wertheimer was dead wrong — that, in fact, the organization is spending millions to help build Jewish identity and assist Jews in need, as well as non-Jews.

As for Hillel, the campus organization is working with several Jewish groups — ones that you’d expect, including the American Jewish World Service, Jewish Funds for Justice and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — to send some students overseas and others to New Orleans. But in Miami, Hillel was working with a very untraditional partner — City Year, a non-Jewish nonprofit. The two organizations are teaming up to send a total of 140 students to volunteer in some of the country’s worst neighborhoods not only in Miami, but also in Los Angeles and New York.

Hillel believes that its partnership with City Year, which it piloted last year in Tampa, is the first large-scale partnership between a Jewish and non-Jewish organization to create a Jewish service learning project. The term is used to describe a program, like the one in Miami last week, that combines volunteer work with Jewish learning about why and how community service can be understood as an extension of Jewish values.

Depending on the subsidies each school can raise, the program is a fairly inexpensive way to enjoy what the students say is a meaningful experience. For instance, the students who came to Miami from the University of Virginia each paid about $200 to participate, according to the school’s Hillel director, Jake Rubin.

Most of the students had never spent extended time in such an urban environment. And for many of the participants, it was their first serious introduction to Jewish learning and engagement with Jewish culture.

Ziev Beresh, a freshman at Michigan State University, said growing up in New Paltz, N.Y.,  he really didn’t practice much Jewish ritual aside from lighting Chanukah candles. He said that while he is active with the campus Hillel, it is only a small part of his life — a part he sees primarily as a way to meet people. He has his Jewish circles and his non-Jewish circles.

Beresh, the son of an Israeli mother, said he chose to come to Miami to do something meaningful with his free time. During his week stint, he tutored two kids, a fourth-grader named Adom and a third-grader named Javon. Adom wants to be a doctor, and Javon wants to be a football player.

“I expected them to be sad or upset,” he said of the children, “but they were fun and are great kids.”

Judging from the reactions and comments of many participants, the key question was not the religious or ethnic identity of those being helped. Instead, for many of the Hillel students, the Miami trip to Miami was eye opening because it allowed them to step outside of their relatively privileged settings.

Beresh recounted that it felt dangerous when the group walked from the youth center to Dunbar Elementary.

“People were staring at us because we were white,” he said.

Some 20 Hillel students from Michigan State sitting in a circle at a field outside the youth center expressed a similar sentiment.

Wayne Firestone, Hillel international’s CEO, asked if the students felt they had taken a risk by coming to Miami. Nearly all raised their hands.

Asked by an observer if they would consider coming to a place like this to volunteer alone or with one other person, only three raised their hands.

At the discussion it was clear that most of the students believed that helping the kids in Overtown was a Jewish ideal. At the same time there clearly was a large chasm between the Jewish students in Miami taking part in a one-week highly organized program and the City Year volunteers, who were about the same age but were spending a year of their lives immersed in Overtown.

Firestone — whose largest budget item is immersive Jewish programming, such as the 10-day Birthright Israel and the weeklong Alternative Spring Break — acknowledged the real challenge of helping students see service as a Jewish value to be lived rather than merely experiences on a one-week trip.

After all, many of the scores of students being flown into Miami this month for the project do not volunteer during the rest of the year on their home campuses. And while many Jewish students came from out of town to help out, the Hillel at the University of Miami does not have any involvement with City Year.

Several participants in the Hillel program said that since arriving in Miami, they had started talking about how to create volunteer opportunities on their home campuses. And Firestone said that Hillel would like to make Miami and South Florida a hub for a broader City Year-Hillel partnership that would allow for more opportunities for local students.

So while the debate has been over whether such programs should be focused on helping Jews or non-Jews, some Jewish service learning organizers are beginning to wrestle with a possibly more difficult question: How do you convince students that volunteering to help the less fortunate is a Jewish value that should be pursued all year, not just as a component of a really neat trip?

(This article was adapted from JTA’s philanthropy blog, TheFundermentalist.com.)

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