Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager
To enhance Jewish educational opportunities, Hillel at UVa created a service-learning fellowship designed for students participating in university alternative break programs. As a result, an increased number of students who exhibited a passion for service more deeply considered the relationship between social justice and Jewish tradition, as well as the way in which Jewish wisdom guides their community involvement. The structure of each discussion session empowered students to read text, confidently analyze the content, and connect the material to their unique experiences. Students who participated in the 5-part discussion series were awarded a $100 stipend toward their hands-on service trip.
To generate conversation relevant to the students’ expressed interests and community involvement, I introduced students to Jewish wisdom regarding social action, personal responsibility, charitable giving and communal obligation. Jewish wisdom concerning these topics provoked students to reflect on how they express these values during their Alternative Spring Break experience, as well as in their daily relationships. Throughout the discussion series, students explored ideas put forth by Maimonides, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rav Kook and Elie Wiesel, in addition to ideas found in the Tanak and Oral Torah. The breadth of sources empowered students to recognize the diversity of ideas present in Jewish tradition. Furthermore, the variety of texts demonstrated how wisdom concerning social justice is ubiquitous in Jewish tradition, firmly woven into our people’s identity and detected not only in dusty books, but also in our lived experiences.
Explicit examples can been seen in the attached PDFs.
The fellowship offered a lens through which students could reflect on their past experiences, relationships, university involvement and decision to participate in an Alternative Spring Break program. Guiding questions and opportunities for reflective writing invited participants to explore how they exhibit Jewish wisdom in their present lives, as well as how it can motivate positive, yet manageable, changes. Following the participants’ immersive service experience, the group attended a Shabbat dinner at the Director of Jewish Engagement’s apartment. During the Friday night meal, students shared impactful moments from their trip, as well as how the idea of “sharing in the burden”— an idea encountered in an earlier conversation— related to their presence in the host communities. During the reflection session students demonstrated a personalization of the texts previously discussed.
This Jewish wisdom program has been in operation for two years. Following the first year’s success, the number of participants increased 16 percent, and 1/3 of the original participants elected to enroll again. Those who did not participate twice had either graduated and, in turn, were not at the university during the program’s second year or were not traveling with a University Alternative Spring Break program and, therefore, not eligible to participate. In total, the program has engaged 22 individuals in a high-impact, educational experience. The retention rate and growth demonstrate the program’s positive impact and value.
The Jewish wisdom explored during the fellowship have impacted students' professional choices, as well. A portion of the participants have chosen internships with Jewish organizations committed to social justice. A two-time participant is currently working with the Religious Action Center's Machon Kaplan Summer Internship Program, and another individual is interning with the JCRC in Greater Washington. These students continue to build upon material learned in the fellowship.
A participant’s testimony further exhibits the significance of the program and shows participants’ application of Jewish wisdom.
“I really enjoyed the discussion series in which I participated. It helped me prepare for my Alternative Spring Break Trip to Asheville, North Carolina, while also helping me look at community service through a Jewish lens. I felt that it was extremely beneficial to talk about why I was going on this trip with other UVa students who were also going on different ASB trips. As a group, we examined how our volunteer projects during spring break tie deeply with the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam because we would be repairing the world through working in partnership with our host communities. Even though I did not doing anything religious or “Jewish” per se on my trip, during the entire time I understood that I was fulfilling a mitzvah.
Our final discussion that took place a week after our return to UVa was probably my favorite discussion because we reflected on our individual trips and how they connected to the different aspects of observing Shabbat, as well as Shabbat as an expression of social justice. We received the Shabbat Manifesto, a list of ten principles connected to the day of rest, and realized that we had demonstrated almost all ten during our week of service. The one that stood out to me the most was nurturing your health. Everyone in our discussion agreed that dedicating ourselves to a week of service, being outside, and engaging in new experiences contributed to a feeling of fulfillment and happiness. It was truly incredible to hear about everyone’s experiences and how our week in a new environment could translate to an expression of tikkun olam and other Jewish values.” – Talia Sion, UVa Class of 2018
Applied Jewish wisdom is the affirmation that “the Torah is not in Heaven,” but rather a guide for interacting with the world in a way that adds intention to our relationships and actions. The recognition that applied Jewish wisdom impacts behavior—in both secular and religious environments—helps students integrate Judaism into all activities in which they participate and, more importantly, recognize their Jewish identity is intrinsically connected to all other identities they acquire.
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