Thirty-six YU students are raising funds for critical supplies like mezuzahs, toothbrushes/pastes and OTC medications to bring with them to communities and clinics in Central America right after Shavuot. You can view their wish-list here: www.amzn.to/3H7FQ2D
Sydney Hoffman (SH), a YU Torat Adam Summer Experience (TASE) participant, interviews mission leader Rabbi Daniel Coleman (RDC) about their upcoming trip.
SH: Where shall we begin?
RDC: It started with Dansdeals advertising an opportunity to escape the New York winter for under $200. El Salvador was hosting the international surfing championships and had recently been ranked Central America’s safest country. It was an incredible trip: I took my 7-year-old, did some voluntouring, met a large percentage of the country’s Jews, shared some Torah along the way, and distributed 200 pounds of supplies that we brought with us—including a few Chromebooks and spare pairs of tefillin donated by members of my shul. It’s amazing what people have unused at home and will give you when you ask!
The community there can’t afford a rabbi or even to make a kiddush when there’s a bar/bat mitzvah. But they are rich in their passion for Yahadus. I started thinking about ways to help the Jewish and general community if I returned, and how that could be magnified if I came with a group. With the help of wonderful students like yourself—and hopefully readers of this interview—who are asking friends and relatives for tefillin, medication, toothbrushes, etc., we’ll be able to make a huge difference. Since Yom Ha’atzmaut is in the air, it seems a propos to quote Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
SH: Why is this program called the Torat Adam Summer Experience (aka TASE)?
RDC: Last year our [career center] team initiated a process aligning all our programming with at least one of YU’s five Torot. (You can view them all @ yu.edu/values.) It’s not hard to guess that our signature summer internship program in Israel is aligned with Torat Zion. TASE, at its core, is about giving curious students the opportunity to explore adam—the humanity—in others, whose cultural background and lot in life is so very different to their own. One of our goals is to invite students to see the blessing in diversity, and develop and articulate their unique strengths.
SH: Did any of the other “Torot” make your shortlist?
RDC: No. When I served on the admissions committee of another very prestigious university, I got an intimate look at how important diversity was viewed, and this is consistently echoed by everyone I know at all levels of admissions, and by employers around the country. Whereas a decade ago the trend was to look for candidates with leadership experience and potential, now the primary factor everyone looks for is DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and allyship. This closely aligns with Torat adam, appreciating that we’re all created in God’s image, and reflect unique aspects of the Divine.
SH: How is this trip different from all other YU trips?
RDC: This trip leverages the unique expertise and synergy of many YU departments and centers. It’s also one of the most affordable two-week programs anywhere in the Jewish world at under $3,000 before scholarships. It’s specially designed to teach and reinforce the eight national career competencies, and it combines a for-credit learning experience with an immersive and experiential component that includes a strong focus on learning and chesed in clinics, schools and Jewish communities.
SH: Why El Salvador and Guatemala?
RDC: Both are beautiful; adventure abounds; people are friendly and welcoming; and Jewish life survives—even thrives—without the kind of infrastructure we are familiar with. The two countries combined have just one Jewish physician … some of our students have more than that in their own family! And many of us had more Jews in our high schools than the entire Jewish population of these countries. The two Orthodox shuls in El Salvador are Sefardi and among the poorest in the Americas. Membership is $5/month for those families who are able to pay. Central America is a fascinating study in contrasts and a relatively affordable place for students—especially those like yourself who are interested in healthcare—to spend time outside of our comfort zones and to explore health disparities. Both nations are very friendly to Jews and Israel.
(SH: Guatemala was first to follow America’s lead in relocating their capital to Jerusalem and has over 30 streets named Jerusalem.)
SH: What’s in it for my Sy Syms School of Business peers that will be participating?
RDC: Apart from the DEI component and earning three credits, the course is entitled “The Social Determinants of Health: Global Context.” Even if you aren’t a pre-health student who needs to demonstrate familiarity with this concept, it’s important for everyone to recognize that many factors determine our overall health, some of which make an even bigger impact than genetics or access to healthcare. A classic example is poverty, which is rampant in some of the areas we’ll visit and is highly correlated with poorer health outcomes and higher risk of premature death. So while I envisage having some fun buying coffee with cryptocurrency while we’re in El Salvador, I’m hoping that all participants—regardless of whether they’re in Syms or not—will begin to appreciate and evaluate the far-reaching ramifications of the country’s investment in Bitcoin.
SH: Is it true that one of the course assignments will require ChatGPT?
RDC: It’s not a secret that I’ve begun suggesting to students that they experiment with generating highly tailored cover letters using AI … for the most part, the results are surprisingly good.
SH: How can readers help make this an even bigger success?
RDC: Fill our 70 suitcases with much-needed supplies by spreading the crowdfunding link to family and friends: www.yu.edu/support/CentralAmericaTrip.
They can ask their shuls and friends/relatives for spare pairs of tefillin or mezuzahs and email [email protected] to connect me with contacts in the medical supplies industry so we can obtain and deliver life-saving equipment. We’re also looking for:
Dentists to contribute toothbrushes and/or toothpaste;
Complete chemistry, STEM or chess sets;
Spare Chromebooks and tablets to help connect students and families to educational and career opportunities.
All these items can be forwarded via a YU student or staff member to the Shevet Glaubach Center on either the Wilf or Beren campus.
RDC: Before we finish, tell us about yourself.
SH: I’m a biology major at Stern College and an aspiring physician. I’m excited to support those we encounter and look forward to learning about new cultures, applying my knowledge, and continuing to develop my skills. I am thankful for this opportunity.
By Sydney Hoffman