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Members of Jewish Service Corps Head Abroad with Sense of Mission

June 6, 2002
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As Robin Wehl listens to an Austrian radio station streamed over the Internet, she understands bits and pieces of the German that her father, who left the country on the eve of World War II, spoke when Wehl was a child.

But Wehl, 31, isn’t idly reminiscing — she is preparing for a year of community service in Vienna as part of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps program.

The JDC, the main foreign relief agency funded by North American Jewry, provides the volunteers with round trip travel fare, housing and health care, as well as a monthly stipend for living expenses.

More than 70 volunteers, mainly in their 20s, have participated in the program so far, in countries ranging from Morocco to Hungary.

The Service Corps has been sending volunteers abroad since 1987. After a highly selective annual application process, participants convene in New York for two days of orientation before leaving at different times from June through September.

Participants recruit and train local activists in order to enrich and develop Jewish culture. Specific goals vary from site to site, ranging from basic humanitarian aid to Jewish education and Hebrew lessons.

Wehl, whose father was a “transmigrant” in Shanghai — where he lived for 10 years after fleeing Germany and before arriving in the United States — will teach English in Vienna to Jewish transmigrants who live temporarily in Austria en route to America.

She and the other five students on the program come from different backgrounds, and have different strengths and talents. But they share a desire to help their fellow Jews around the world.

The program is “my opportunity to make an impact,” Wehl says.

For many of the participants, the program is not the first time they have lived abroad.

Having studied abroad in the Ukraine, Nimrod Pitsker wanted to return to Eastern Europe, and decided to spend his year in Poland to build a strong Jewish community.

“Hopefully, we can foster lifelong Jewish education, we can kindle Jewish souls that unfortunately, because of where they came from, didn’t get the chance to have what we had,” Pitsker says.

Zvi Kresch is heading to Ethiopia. The 21-year-old, who studied religion and pre-medical courses at the University of Michigan, will help a doctor who runs medical and welfare programs for residents — Jews and non-Jews alike — of Addis Ababa.

Kresch, who studied for a summer in Tibet, explains how the experience affected his view of the shopping malls and high rise buildings of America.

“You get to see things, to be in a totally different world,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling how there is another world coexisting with ours that is so sharply different.”

Two volunteers, Shayna Skarf and Ronin Glimer, are going to Istanbul. For Skarf, it will be her second time as a Jewish Service Corps volunteer.

Robert Socolof, a JDC spokesman, speculated about the program’s impact after participants return to the United States. Nearly forty percent of the program’s alumni pursued careers in the Jewish community, while others have applied what they learned to other careers.

“Social change is a powerful dynamic, and it’s amazing how rapid and far reaching that change can be,” he says.

This year is no different. Kresch, for example, hopes to use his experience to decide whether he wants to go to medical school, while Orin Hasson hopes to work in international development after his service in the Jewish community of Izmir, Turkey.

The dangers of the post-Sept. 11 world and the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe add to the challenges the volunteers will face.

But members of the group say they remain undeterred by political fears.

Pitsker balances a positive outlook with the need for awareness. He’ll remain alert to possible danger, he says, but after a year studying in Israel, working in Poland “feels safer by comparison.”

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