Hillel students put new spin on spring break in Florida

miami  |  Spending spring break in Florida is a tradition of sorts for college students, but rather than partying, 57 Hillel members from seven campuses headed to Miami last month to volunteer at a youth center in the city’s 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, 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 city’s highest rate of violent crime.

Each morning, the Hillel students worked in the sun building benches and tables for an outdoor classroom for a nearby elementary school. 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 see Miami and, if they wished, to experience its nightlife — but just a bit.)

Participants in Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break work on a community service project in Overtown, one of Miami’s most violent neighborhoods, in March. photo/jta/marisa matluck

The trip to Miami was part of Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break program, which this year involved 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 in high school and college students.

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

Writing in Commentary magazine, 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 worked with several Jewish groups — 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 worked with an untraditional partner — City Year, a non-Jewish nonprofit. The two organizations teamed up to send 140 students to volunteer in some of the 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, 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 recent one in Miami, 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 raised, the program is a fairly inexpensive way to enjoy what the students say is a meaningful experience. For instance, 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, 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.”

For many of the Hillel students, the trip to Miami was eye-opening because it allowed them to step outside of their relatively privileged settings.

Hillel’s largest budget item these days is immersive Jewish programming, including the Alternative Spring Break and the 10-day Birthright Israel.

Wayne Firestone, Hillel international’s CEO,  acknowledged that it’s often challenging to help students see their spring break service as a Jewish value to be lived; often, they just see it as some heady life experiences during a one-week period.

Several participants in the Hillel program said they had started talking about how to create volunteer opportunities on their home campuses. And Firestone said Hillel would like to make Miami and South Florida a hub for a broader City Year–Hillel partnership.

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.