By Rebecca Weinstock
After I graduated from Brandeis University in the spring of 2002, I replaced my cap and gown with hiking boots and overalls and hopped on a plane to Honduras with 14 other young Jews. We represented a cross section of North American Jewry – from unaffiliated to Hasidic and everything in between. We all had our own reasons for coming, although none of us knew entirely what we would be doing. We were excited – excited to learn, excited to travel, and excited to make the world a better place.
We were all participants in what is now called Volunteer Summer, a program of American Jewish World Service. Among the many things I learned that summer was the extraordinary power that volunteer service can have to forge partnerships and build community. My peers and I lived in a rural village called Santa Ana where we spent our mornings working alongside men from the community to dig a ditch and lay piping for a potable water system. In the afternoon we studied and debated Jewish texts, discussed leadership and Jewish identity and played with the children in the village. The women took turns helping us prepare our meals, telling us about their lives as they taught us how to make tortillas. Despite language barriers, we bonded with smiles and songs, nonverbal offers of assistance when the manual labor was too difficult and the translation help of those in the group who were more fluent in Spanish. As I prepared to leave the village five weeks after our arrival, I realized that while we had not finished the water system, we had transformed ourselves and contributed to the Santa Ana community in a way that would not soon be forgotten.
This experience solidified my career aspirations: to work in a Jewish context on issues of cross-cultural understanding, Jewish identity and social justice. In my new role at THE ASSOCIATED, I look forward to working closely with Sigal Ariely and Einav Koren at the Ashkelon Volunteer Center to create volunteer experiences that continue to strengthen the partnership between our two cities. Although I have only been part of the Baltimore Jewish community for a short time, I have already been deeply impressed by the commitment to our sister city in Ashkelon. There is still much work to be done to help those less fortunate in both our cities. As you think about your next vacation or trip to Israel, please consider including a volunteer experience in Ashkelon. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot, “It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”