For YU students, close-up looks at social issues in Israel

Andrea Rabinovitch works with an Israeli student. [photo courtesy of Yeshiva University]

In a year of upheaval for both the American and Israeli Jewish communities, 2011 saw Occupy Wall Street and the tent protests on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard pushing social issues to the forefront of discussion in the media and at the family dinner table.

From Jan. 15 to Jan. 23, Yeshiva University (YU) sent two groups of student volunteers from New York to Israel, 40 people in total, on a mission to participate in solving the problems currently affecting the Jewish homeland.

The two trips, called “Tzedek and Tzedaka” (literally, “justice and charity”) and “Art at ORT,” were designed by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, with the significant financial support from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

“Our goal is creating experiences for our students in which they are able to realize their talents and their ability to be change agents in the world around them,” the center’s dean, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, told JointMedia News Service.

The participants on “Tzedek and Tzedaka” looked at how Israel deals with various social problems, including stops at the Ayalon Prison and the Israeli Supreme Court, and a meeting with residents active in the recent struggle over the Modern Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh.

“Speaking with members of the Supreme Court was the most meaningful part of the trip for me,” Moshe Karp, a 22 year-old YU student originally from Teaneck, New Jersey, said in a phone interview. “It really showed me how halakha and Jewish values could have a place in a secular system. [Talking with members of the Supreme Court] was really important for seeing how it is possible deal with the inherent tensions between halakha and being a religious Jew in a secular society, both in Israel and America.”

The lesson that Dov Lipman, head of the activist Save Beit Shemesh Committee, hoped students on the “Tzedek and Tzedaka” trip would take away with them was the necessity of strong communal leadership.

Lipman said the underlying cause for the harassment against students of the girls’ school in Beit Shemesh was “a lack of leadership” within the Haredi community, giving free rein to the community’s more extreme elements. He stressed, however, that after a concerted effort by Beit Shemesh residents from across the Haredi, national religious and secular spectrum, the school was now functioning without further interference or violence.

“I wanted to show [the YU students] how strong-minded people can get things accomplished in the world,” said Lipman. “Now the schools in Beit Shemesh are totally safe and the problem has been dealt with.”

The other trip, “Art at ORT,” took a more hands-on and experimental approach, with a series of art workshops designed to help address the educational and emotional needs of Israeli schoolchildren. World ORT is a nonprofit whose mission is to seek the advancement of Jewish and other people through training and education, with activities in over 100 countries.

Working with children at the state-funded religious ORT Spanian junior high school in southwestern Jerusalem, 10 YU and Stern College students, under the supervision of veteran art educator Andrea Rabinovitch, worked on simultaneously improving the young Israelis’ artistic abilities, self-confidence and working knowledge of English, using a process known as “contextual learning.”

The culmination of the weeklong series of workshops was a project called “About Me,” where the teenage students were asked to briefly describe several details about themselves, and then to visually transform photos of themselves into superheroes, monsters or any other fantastical creatures they could imagine.

“Most of the kids come from families with several children and the parents are usually working so no one usually asks them to talk about themselves,” Rabinovitch said in an interview. “The kids, they absolutely loved it.”

Rabinovitch, who has eight years of experience running similar programs in schools and youth centers in underprivileged neighborhoods around Israel, added that “people talk about the divisions in Israel, about Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular, but today in Israel there is also really a major divide between those who can speak English and those who can’t.”

“Without English these kids won’t pass their bagruts [matriculation exams] and go on to college or university, and they will even have trouble working in hotels or as taxi drivers because today so much is done in English,” she said.

At the close of their eight days there, the YU students both brought and took away some important experiences in helping Israeli society and their own Jewish communities overcome the issues facing them, continuing a process of developing and renewing grassroots ties between the Jewish State and the Diaspora.

“The basic building block of both of these experiential missions is to always have one foot in the academic world and beit midrash and one foot in real life situations,” according to Brander. “The real life experiences help to shape the way our students grapple with the text and the formal study on these trips helps to illuminate these experiences [in the world outside].”