May 23, 2024
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May 23, 2024
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YU Undergraduate Students Travel to Central America For a Unique Chesed and Learning Experience

Day 1 in Guatemala City: Visiting the largest public Star of David in the Americas.

(Courtesy of YU) Shortly after the spring 2023 semester ended, a cohort of 34 YU undergraduate students participated in the Torat Adam Summer Experience (TASE) with a unique and rewarding trip to Guatemala City and Antigua in Guatemala and Armenia and San Salvador in El Salvador.

The trip was arranged thanks to a partnership between the Shevet Glaubach Center for Career Strategy and Professional Development and YU’s Department of Sociology, as well as the generous support from the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs. It was led by Rabbi Daniel Coleman, assistant director of career advising at the Center, and was part of a sociology course given at the University, Social Determinants of Health in Global Context.

From May 31 through June 12, the students volunteered in various communities in the two countries, some of which are among the poorest in the Americas, and brought thousands of pounds of donated medical and educational supplies to clinics, hospitals and schools. They also visited places of significant Jewish interest, including historic synagogues and emerging Jewish communities. Accompanying the students and Rabbi Coleman was Dr. Jill Katz, chair of Sociology and Archaeology at Stern College for Women; Jon Greenfield, director of government relations; Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies (BRGS) and director of the Schneier Program; Rabbi Shalom Stitou, a BRGS graduate student; and Ilana Drubach, a math professor.

The trip exposed the students, many of whom have only had interactions within the predominantly North American Jewish community, to the daily challenges within communities with far less infrastructure, and broadened their horizons to other ways of life. They also learned about the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the challenges of providing healthcare and education in populations in which poverty and illiteracy are rampant.

YU students Alexandra Hadge and Moshe Gordon play with the children at REKKO San Isidro in Guatemala.

Highlights of the trip included a volcano hike and beach stop on the way, and an amazing Shabbat afternoon experience for the youth in Guatemala City’s beautiful shul, co-led by Schneier Scholar Alexandra Hadge ‘25S and Sydney Hoffman ‘25S, a fascinating walking tour of the city, and creating hundreds of balloon animals at each destination to brighten the lives of local schoolchildren.

The students were selected from across all undergraduate schools, principally those aspiring to careers in public service, medicine, public health, education and non-profit management.

Prior to the trip, they participated in 12 hours of pre-trip orientation and volunteering in the New York City area to prepare for the experience, and collectively raised over $12,000 to help pay for 40 boxes of supplies and much needed safe water supplies they brought to the schools and clinics they visited during the trip.

The students made a deep impression on everyone they met. “I am grateful to our motivated, gifted and resilient students who consistently impressed me and our partners over the course of a very intense schedule of learning, travel and volunteering,” said Rabbi Coleman. “They were exceptional ambassadors for all that YU represents and it was incredible to see how many lives were touched everywhere we went and observe the group’s cohesiveness, personal growth and maturity as we immersed [ourselves] in a foreign culture. Without a doubt, the skills they demonstrated and developed will enable them to excel in their future careers and lives.”

The trip was deeply rooted in YU’s Five Core Torah Values, particularly Torat Adam, which stresses compassionate engagement with all those created B’tzelem Elokim – in God’s image. Throughout the trip, the students studied Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ seminal text, To Heal A Fractured World: The Ethics of Jewish Responsibility, and engaged in daily discussion, reflection and journaling around his, and each student’s, emerging definition of tikkun olam.

“When we arrived at JFK to begin check-in, JetBlue was so impressed by our mission that they asked to take a picture of our group for their corporate magazine,” added Rabbi Coleman. “Countless people were instrumental in making this an impactful trip for our students, including department and university leadership and donors, as well as our many Central American partners.”

Below is a reflection on the trip by Alexandra Hadge:

During the incredible two-week Torat Adam Summer Experience, I traveled to Guatemala and El Salvador along with a group of Yeshiva University students, to tour the local communities, visit hospitals, clinics, schools, houses and towns in both countries, among other things. The time spent there was jam-packed with volunteer work and getting to know the area’s residents. Since many of us did not understand Spanish, there was some concern regarding the language barrier. Nevertheless, we discovered other methods of communicating through hand gestures, eye contact, smiles and laughing, which helped us forge great bonds and relationships with the people there.

Moztei Shabbat with the Jewish community in Guatemala City.

The people of both countries welcomed us with open arms and were eager to share with us their cultures, daily routines, religious views and family histories. Everyone was ready to share with us their life stories and were extremely honest and open with us. We learned about their everyday struggles and how they do their best to survive on days when they do not have access to adequate food or water. The trip was inspiring, motivating, educational and none of us returned the same as we had arrived.

Some of the most rewarding experiences of the trip involved spending time with the children in both countries. We traveled to different schools in Guatemala and set up different tables stationed for different science experiments that the students could partake in. The kids enjoyed every minute and had a blast with us learning about science in a fun, but educational way. At every school we visited, we played sports with the students, whether it was basketball, catch, or the most popular, soccer. One night the Yeshiva University guys played a soccer match against a group of young men who resided in El Salvador. Even though Yeshiva University faced a terrible defeat, it was a fun evening for us and the community, filled with lots of suspense, laughter and cheering from the stands.

Another amazing part was creating friendship bracelets, blowing bubbles and making balloon animals for children when visiting them in hospitals and clinics. All of us could tell by the expressions on their faces how much it meant to them that we were there to be with them for a little while and how much joy we brought into their life for the day, an hour, or even just for a few minutes. Every day we were on the move to a new destination with different supplies we brought from America in an effort to make their lives better in any way we could.

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