For the second time in two years, 13 Boston University students applied to participate in BU Hillel’s Alternative Spring Break trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. Giving up their vacation to perform community service? Trading in the beaches on Cancun for the dirt and sweat of the Pluma Hidalgo mountains in Southern Mexico? Believe it or not, it happened. Ten were accepted, and as many hearts and minds were forever changed.
Positioning an ASB trip as altruistic and magnanimous may be the reason why these students, and so many on campus, are interested in spending their seven-day mid-semester hiatus focusing on social justice work (in fact, hundreds of Boston University students completed ASB experiences this year, most managed through the University’s Community Service Center). Additionally, the attraction of working alongside post-IDF Israelis, who are on three month service terms themselves, was an aspect particularly attractive to both affiliated and unaffiliated Jewish students that applied; however, still, wouldn’t these individuals rather go on a tropical vacation than a trip through Hillel?
The fact is that nine Jews and one Catholic, two males and eight females, three graduates and seven undergraduates challenged themselves to reach a new plateau of self-actualization this spring break. So many Hillel programs across the country (and at BU) focus on the ideas of Tzedakah, Mitzvot and Tikkun Olam, or repairing of the world, but few rarely have a pervasive impact that transforms students’ lives in a significant manner. Consequently, Jewish campus professionals and leaders are left pondering what it takes to invigorate the Jewish souls and spirits in each college student.
What I witnessed as the trip’s 26-year-old leader was beyond change or impact, it was a true commencement of the evolution of an approach to these students’ lives. Suddenly, a myriad of seemingly important life problems were put in better perspective; gratitude and appreciation swept through our team like a kid at the candy store. Among the back-breaking agricultural work, tireless health campaigning and multi-faceted educational lessons were intimate and potent conversations occurring among the Boston University group, and between the BU Terriers and Israeli cohort. Partnering with Project Ten, a branch of The Jewish Agency for Israel, this trip was designed not to teach the definition of Tikkun Olam, but rather to let students experience it for themselves. Coupled with the labor were Jewish service learning sessions held each evening, highlighting themes of Jewish identity, Israel-American relationships and Mexican culture. Nothing was definite, nothing exact; the daily dialogue was as unplanned as the sounds in the Mexican jungle where we resided. Our seemingly untraditional Shabbat practice of meditating, sporadic song singing and silent internal reflection was as pervasive for these students as a Birthright trip to Israel. Bonds were formed, and connections made, but the light in the eyes of this Boston University group was unlike any I’ve seen before in my eight plus years working on campus.
Hillels across the country and world can continue to focus on Friday night service attendance and minyan vivacity (which, as a Hillel professional, I can say are still important), or they can realize that it is the relationships between Jewish students that are formed on immersive educational trips like these that will be the determining factor for success and vitality of Jewish campus communities in the years to come. Taking American (and in our trip’s case, a German student, as well) Jewish students outside of their microcosms and utopias and into a less polished and more raw part of the world (yes with internet and even electricity limited at times) innately forced them to examine the most internal and intimate parts of themselves – their hopes, dreams, insecurities and multi-layered identities.
What seemed like the only appropriate way to end a Mexican spring break on the beaches of Puerto Escondido turned a perfect sunset view and relaxation session into a blessing circle. These students gave offerings for themselves and for their companions, or in more appropriate terms, their loving amigos. This experience of actively participating in acts of Tikkun Olam was perhaps the most Jewish that any of these students have ever felt. Trying to give back was a more resonating religious act than attending a Passover Seder or Rosh Hashanah service might have been. Such assertions might be challenged by many Jewish leaders, but instead they should be welcomed. In my view, Jewish professionals on campus, and moreover those in student affairs more broadly, must embrace innovative and untraditional ways of engaging our students. To have them stay involved and be active shapers of our future world, students must be challenged and provoked. I can assure you that by traveling to Mexico, and helping change the lives of others, these students’ lives were changed as well, and surely for the betterment of the Jewish world, now and in years to come.