Jews and Global Community Service Trips
At age 23, my mom was allowed to leave home in the Bronx to go help her sister, my aunt Charlotte, with her new baby in Seattle. But the Jewish guys in Seattle met all the new girls “fresh off the boat” and she was quickly snatched up by my dad. When my mom decided to marry him soon afterwards and stay in Seattle, her father, my Grandpa Sam, put a curse on her saying her children would “scatter across the globe”.
This was strangely prophetic because my siblings and I somehow ended up living in countries as diverse as Israel, France, Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Japan. Like so many other Jewish youth, we also sought out international travel and community service as young adults. For me this was combined with a deep interest in Jewish culture abroad and a fascination for those stories involving Jewish families starting in one country with one generation, say Iraq, then the family moving to India and ending up in Berkeley or going from Syria to Argentina to Israel and ending up with names like Yoko Birnbaum, Ester Rabkin or Uri Santos. Clearly the phrase “Wandering Jew” did not apply only to a plant species.
While we were “cursed” (or “blessed”) to wander, also in our destiny was political awareness and activism, sniffing out injustice in the world and giving to the community. The obligation, as a previously oppressed people to fight injustice as opposed to contribute to it, was intrinsically part of the values I grew up with and certainly the brand of Judaism I was exposed to at Habonim Camp – Machaneh Miriam on Gabriola Island in Canada. I was part of a “Chavarah” heading for Kibbutz and following a set trajectory: camp, leadership-training and then “workshop”– a year on Kibbutz. Learning to “give what you can and take what you need” and the belief in a kind of socialism went hand-in-hand with the protest marches I went on with my parents. I was not surprised, therefore, to find that international programs for high school students, emphasizing community service and leadership training, such as the one we went on this winter break in the Dominican Republic with Global Leadership Adventures (GLA www.experiencegla.com) are heavily attended by Jewish youth.
My son, Gabe and I traveled to the Dominican Republic to assist with rebuilding a home in one of the worst slums in the area and visited a Haitian refugee camp, playing soccer with the kids there. I spent a day after everyone left, bent on visiting Sosua, where a Jewish community—one of the only groups let in from Germany—settled by invitation of Trujillo, one of the worst dictators of all times. There are various theories as to why Trujillo did this, chief among them was he wanted to bring intellectuals and scientists to the country or that he wanted to make the Dominicanos lighter and believed that all Jews were these things — white, scientists and intellectuals. While there, they formed a community similar to a kibbutz.
After this recent adventure, when Gabe left the Haitian refugee camp telling me “this is the most amazing experience I’ve ever had” I’m quite certain that more such trips will be in his future. (At present, hormones coursing through his 15 year old body, his current priority is girls and friends at home.) However, it made me think about what it is that leads so many young Jewish students to sign up to study and volunteer abroad? Global Leadership Adventures reports that close to 25% of its participants identify themselves as Jewish. Considering that Jews make up 3% of the national population, this number is worth analyzing. Is it a commitment to Tikkun Olam, social justice—repairing the world or community service that drives this high rate of participation? Is it Jewish families’ international orientation that sends them traveling and volunteering in less fortunate communities abroad? Or does it simply reflect a wider trend of summer camp attendance that is common among Jewish kids?
One student told me it felt natural for him as the trilingual son of a Cuban (convert to Judaism) mother and American Jewish father to travel around the world and do community work. Similarly, he feels an obligation to contribute at home in the Jewish community as well as with other organizations serving those in need. This also happens to be a primary emphasis with GLA – to learn leadership skills, find out what is needed from local leaders, bring those skills back home and apply them to their own community.
Over and over I have heard repeated alternatively a sense of belonging and finding community around the world by virtue of being Jewish from China to Brazil. At the same time, for most of my life I have been asked what country I was from, unidentifiable as being one nationality or another. “They just want to know if you are Jewish” my mom would insist.
As for my son, Gabe, who is an “Afro-Jew” (African American and Jewish, two cultures that by their very history invite a confusing answer to “what country are you REALLY from?”) with a lesbian mom and a Latina step-sister from an “unblended marriage”, he never felt like he belonged as much as at his recent bar-mitzvah. He stood in front of a crowd of around 200 family, community and friends, many who were African American and Latino; a number of his classmates asked to have their own “bro-mitzvahs.” He read poetry and in his sermon, and as I did with my Torah portion many years ago, pulled out a message imbued with social justice. In my case, I called out for an end to the Vietnam War and peace in the Middle East. In Gabe’s case he took a brutal Torah passage about what to do when your wife is unfaithful and distilled messages of trust and vulnerability for his sermon, talking about teen prostitution and Bernie Maddoff.
A reporter from La Opinion (http://www.hispanicla.com/gabriel-el-de-los-angeles-2633), who attended with his stepson, wrote a column about “the real LA” which included a family like ours (and like his). He was born in Argentina, spent part of his childhood on a kibbutz, has a blended family that includes a son in Italy, two with a Chilean mom raised in the US and a stepson with an American Jewish woman whose biological dad is from El Salvador. A typical Jewish family.