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Ukraine Trip Cancelled, CJF Revamps Israel Trips

In news that will disappoint students hoping to spend their short winter breaks volunteering with diaspora Jewry, the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) will not be running its trip to Kharkov, Ukraine. A number of factors came together to make the trip unfeasible.

[caption id="attachment_1507" align="alignleft" width="576"] Ukrainians welcome YU students to Project: Kharkov 2012[/caption]

“The JDC trip is very expensive,” said Shuki Taylor, the Director of the Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education at YU.  “While American Jewish World Service [AJWS] trips to Nicaragua and Mexico trips cost YU around $30,000 each (because it is co-sponsored by AJWS), the Kharkov trip costs YU over $60,000”. The JDC trips were financed by a two-year grant that helped keep the trips affordable. However, the grant has not been renewed.  As has been the policy of the university, only funds raised for Service Learning Programs are used for these experiences and no tuition dollars are expended.

Furthermore, the JDC indicated that the Jewish community of Kharkov expressed a need to restructure their volunteer programs. During their hiatus, the Kharkov community hopes to rethink how volunteers can be most productive in the short time they spend in their community.  However, Aliza Abrams, the Assistant Director of Service Learning and Experiential Education, said “We still want to be active in the former Soviet Union, and we are committed to providing students with opportunities to volunteer there in the future.” To that end, the CJF has expressed interest in running a service mission to the former Soviet Union in the beginning of the summer and are currently in conversation with the JDC.

Major shifts have taken place in the field of Jewish Service Learning over the past four years. There has been a substantial decrease in service-learning trips across the Jewish philanthropic world and the remaining service-learning trips are being geared toward a different demographic. The JDC, for example, has been gearing many trips to young professionals, not students. More importantly, however, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the trips for both the communities they serve and the long-term contributions of the participants. Cost-benefit analysis has not shown substantial changes, leading many Jewish organizations to shift their focus.

The CJF, however, does see this lack of substantial changes occurring. “We run these trips because we know they are a central and transformative experience for young Jewish adults,” said Taylor. “We have been sending service learning trips for 7 years—and we know they are effective.” A long-term study of the CJF programs in Israel and around the world—conducted independent of the CJF—supported Taylor’s statements.

While service-learning trips have taken a severe downturn in much of the country—Hillel Foundation, for instance has dropped over 60 percent of its trips—the CJF remains undaunted. While American Jewish World Service is running only 12 winter trips around the country, the CJF has managed to stay committed to partnering with AJWS to continue its two popular trips to Nicaragua and Mexico. “We are and will continue to be committed to offering universalistic experiences through the prism of Torah values,” Taylor said.

In addition to trips to Nicaragua and Mexico, the CJF will be running its “Jewish Life Coast-to-Coast” program in Texas. The program will expose students to emerging Jewish communities, Jewish educators and Jewish entrepreneurs in the south. “Limmud New York,” a short program that offers students the opportunity to participate in a limited number of classes, prayer experiences and workshops at the Limmud New York Conference will be offered February 15-17.

In all, the CJF will accommodate around 106 students for its five winter break trips—a 11.6 percent reduction since last year. In the last academic year, the CJF offered seven winter missions, a Haiti and Germany mission right after graduation and a 70-student Counterpoint Israel program in the summer.  While the JDC trip to Haiti was a one-time experience, the CJF hopes to partner with the JDC to send students to volunteer in the summer in an effort to replace the winter trip that has been cancelled.

The CJF is focusing more than ever before in its Counterpoint Israel programs. Much of this follows demand, which “will always be high,” said Taylor, because it is “close to home and demonstrates the ability for Diaspora college students to effect change in Israel.” The winter and summer trips to Israel are fully run by Yeshiva University, not with a partnership organization. Because of the internal nature of the Israel trips, cupped with the additional security demands when running a program in a developing country, the CJF’s Counterpoint programs are substantially less expensive and are “much easier to organize,” Taylor said, “because we have YU employees in Israel, on location, who are able to work with communities directly.” Because staff members are on the ground throughout the year, the CJF can also ensure much smoother logistics before and during trips. The ultimate goal is to open up the possibility of service learning programs for the greatest number of YU students.

The always-popular Counterpoint trips to Israel will again offer three volunteer trips in the winter and five in the summer. The CJF is also revamping its Israel trips after a longitudinal study revealed where the programs impacted communities the most. The 7-year study of service learning trips in Israeli development towns like Dimona showed a substantial impact on Israeli teens in the towns. Reinvigorated by this new data, the CJF has created “Counterpoint: Winter Camp 2013” in Dimona, Kiryat Malachi and Jerusalem’s impoverished community of Pat. This abridged version of its five-week counterpoint program will have students running English workshops for underprivileged teens in their schools. The long-term vision for Counterpoint is to create a year-long fellowship program in developing towns through a partnership with the YU students on the S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program to create cross-cultural service learning opportunities for gap-year students.