Sometimes the best education happens outside the classroom.
That’s why Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future sent 91 undergraduate students, including three from Toronto, on community-building missions to Israel, Nicaragua, Mexico and the United States last month.
One of these trips, called Jewish Life Coast to Coast, took 20 students to Texas. Among them was Toronto native Elianne Neuman, a graduate of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto who is now a first-year student at YU’s Stern College for Women.
“The trip showed me that a leader can be anybody. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you are doing, where you live – it matters that you have passion and a vision,” said Neuman, 19.
While visiting the Jewish communities in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, Neuman and her peers met with community leaders, rabbis, pastors and business leaders. For her, one visit in particular stood out.
“We met with this young Jewish guy, under 30, with four kids, who is trying to open a Jewish day school all by himself,” she said. “He’s basically our age. Which one of us would think we’d be 28 and opening a Jewish day school by ourselves? But we [got to see] this example in front of us.”
The opportunity to learn about different Jewish leaders was what attracted her to the trip. She said YU wants students not only to succeed academically but also to learn how to become a community leader, which was one of the main goals of these trips. “There’s a real sense of community here on campus, and I think that they want their students to be able to continue that sense of community when they’re off campus,” she said.
And if you’re going to become a Jewish leader, you need to learn about Jewish communities all over the world.
Elyashiv Gemara, who grew up in Toronto, is now studying business management at YU. Gemara, who said she had always heard about these missions, had the opportunity to go on one of YU’s “winter camps” in Israel. At the camp, 39 YU students taught English enrichment through art to 450 students in Jerusalem, Kiryat Malachi and Dimona.
“Every day we had a lesson planned out – a direct educational program and then an art project that had something to do with the lesson given,” said Gemara, 22. “The lesson was given in English, and it was unbelievable to see the improvement in the kids’ English in just one week.”
At the end of the week, the kids all hung up their art projects. “The kids absolutely lit up,” she said. “It was amazing to see that after just one week many of the quiet kids were ecstatic about what they were able to accomplish.”
Daniella Philips, a marketing student at YU’s Stern College for Women, didn’t realize that when she signed up to teach low-income kids in Israel she would be learning a lot herself.
“I really underestimated the job that we were doing. I thought we would go down for a week, teach the students in class and then leave – a one-week mission,” said Philips. “I hadn’t realized the impact and the friendships that were developed over a short week. The students were crying as we said ‘bye’ to them and danced us to the bus.”
She said it opened her eyes to the power of giving back to someone else. “These missions let you experience things you wouldn’t have the chance to otherwise,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to get to know a different Jewish community other than your own and to get to know Jews who live differently than you do. It’s about showing that no matter where you’re from, we’re all Jewish and we’re all connected.”