Yael Kolett got goosebumps when elderly Uruguayan Jews at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Montevideo sang Hava Nagila with her, tapping the table with their spoons.
Ashley Goldberg nearly cried when a thin girl held her hand at Ieladeinu, a Buenos Aires home for Jewish children at risk.
Rachael Kansas remembered what she had been taught about Jewish values when one man gave back a donated pot of powdered milk, thinking someone else might need it more.
All three encounters took place last month during spring break trips to Argentina and Uruguay organized by Hillel: The Coalition for Jewish Campus Life.
Kolett and Kansas, both from Texas, and Goldberg, who is from Delaware, were part of five student groups who came for the one-week experience. In all, 85 students and their coordinators came from Central Florida Hillel, Texas Hillel, Hillel Around Chicago, Hillel at the University of Delaware and Hillel of Silicon Valley.
“The content of these trips is half volunteer social work, one fourth visiting a new place and one fourth meeting with local Jews and their problems and making a connection to local Hillel peers,” Gabriel Trajtenberg, executive director of the local South American Hillel, told JTA.
Each group received Hillel support and also raised funds at home to pay for the trip and the donations they brought.
Every group set a different schedule, but many students had to do daily volunteer work in such tasks as painting a synagogue. Most also visited Jewish institutions and some non-Jewish organizations, toured a bit, took a tango lesson, cooked for a Jewish school and shared evenings with local Hillel students.
The Texas Hillel group, which was the result of a new program in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and sponsored by the Howard and Leslie Schultz Family Foundation of Dallas, took a slightly different tack: The students mixed a mission-style trip with volunteer work.
Not tied to a daily volunteer routine, the Texas students visited welfare centers were they distributed medicine and clothes and put together packages for mothers and babies from a JDC Baby Help program. They also served meals at three soup kitchens.
“This is a pilot program for JDC and we are very hopeful and encouraged that it will be replicated in the future,” Will Recant, JDC’s Latin American desk director, told JTA.
The Silicon Valley group included non-Jewish students, and every group participated in some non-religious activities, such as visiting a shantytown or a non-Jewish school.
On their return to the United States, the students are to discuss their experiences in their home communities and develop projects to support some of the programs they learned about.
Shira and Addie Butler of San Antonio were to give a speech about the trip at the local federation, where their father Steve is president.
Shira Butler said she was surprised to find similarities between Austin and Montevideo.
“All I knew was that Montevideo was in a Third World country. But I felt we have so much in common,” she said.
Kolett, 21, is an education student at the University of Texas and a teacher at the Agudas Achim Sunday school. She was thinking about what to tell her students about the trip.
“If they’re lucky, children from Austin might have traveled to Israel. But it’s really hard for them to understand that there are Jews everywhere,” she said.
For many of the Americans, meeting local kids was among the more emotional parts of the trip.
One day, the Texas group attended English, Hebrew and music classes at the Scholem Aleijem school. Seated in a circle in an English class, the American students took questions from 12-year-olds.
“Do you speak English?” one blond boy named Diego asked. Everybody laughed: Diego had been so nervous that, meaning to ask if the visiting Americans spoke Spanish, he had mixed up the question.
A few faltering questions followed, asking if the Americans liked McDonald’s, Disneyworld and Emanuel Ginobili, an Argentine basketball player with the San Antonio Spurs.
On another trip, 38 students from several schools in the Chicago area — De Paul University, University of Chicago, Northwestern University — and the University of Delaware spent time with local children, spent a few hours each day painting the Adat Israel synagogue and brought challahs they had made to a Jewish school.
Northwestern student Barry Goldberg, 20, said the trip had taught him about the Jewish world — not just in South America, but also in Illinois.
“This trip is helping me to learn about how Jews are in the Chicago area,” he said.
But Goldberg said he wished the group had had more time to “to really absorb the local Jewish and general habits.”
“I wish we could have attended more welfare institutes,” agreed Amy Wilson, 19, a biology student at De Paul.
Kansas, 21, who studies corporate communications at Texas, was raised in New Orleans, where her parents are active members of the Jewish Federation.
“In America either you don’t have or you don’t see Jews in trouble. The efforts are centered on trying to fight against assimilation and having more Jews involved in the community,” she said. “But here I learned you have bigger problems.”
“It makes me glad my parents give money and time to federations,” she added. “I’ll tell them, ‘You know, all your efforts are being well spent.’ “
Kansas and Shira Butler said the trip had inspired them to pursue careers in the Jewish world: Kansas said she wanted to work for a Jewish cause, while Butler said she had decided to work for a non-profit organization helping Jews abroad.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.