For the first time, a dozen Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto students have taken part in a social justice trip to Ecuador, organized by Me to We.
This was also the first time Me to We – a for-profit organization founded in 2008 by Thornhill brothers Craig and Mark Kielburger that offers volunteer trips to developing countries – tailored a mission to accommodate a kosher and shomer Shabbat cohort.
Zev Steinfeld, department head of Jewish thought at TanenbaumCHAT’s Kimel campus in Vaughan, who spoke with The CJN in advance of the Nov 20-28 trip, explained that it was his colleague’s experience on a similar tour that inspired the student trip.
Jamie Cohen, an English teacher at TanenbaumCHAT, had just returned from Ecuador on an educator’s mission organized by Me to We.
“He wanted to take our existing chesed trip, an annual bus trip to West Virginia on a Habitat for Humanity build, and replace it with this trip to Ecuador. He needed my help to make it Shabbat- and kosher-friendly, something Me to We had never done,” Steinfeld said.
“The final piece of the challenge was whether we could tailor the trip in a specific way to appeal to the Judaic cohort.”
After meeting with Me to We representatives, they worked to make sure the needs of the Orthodox students would be met.
Twelve students from grades 9 to 12 signed on for the eight-day trip, which took them to Ecuador’s capital, Quito to visit an old synagogue before heading to Chimborazo, a rural area in the Andes, to work with indigenous people on a sustainable project.
“They added a couple components including going to visit an ancient shul in Quito, so that is something they wouldn’t normally put on the tour, but because this is a Jewish experience, that was part of the plan,” Steinfeld said.
Jordana Ansel, a 16-year-old, Grade 11 student who travelled to Ecuador with her TanenbaumCHAT peers, said she was very excited to be part of the trip.
“My whole life I’ve always wanted to volunteer abroad in a developing country, but I could never find a program that accommodated me as a Jewish, Orthodox teen. I love volunteering and I wanted to find an opportunity to expand my horizons and volunteer outside of my local community,” Ansel said in the days before she departed.
“I am most looking forward to volunteering in the local communities, whether it’s laying the bricks for the foundation of a school or going on a ‘water walk’ with community members. I think seeing these communities in action and being able to work alongside them and see their daily lives will have the biggest impact on my life.”
Steinfeld explained that he wasn’t informed in advance of the trip what project they would be working on, because the choice of projects depends on what the community needs are.
“The way it works is that they will have a need like a water filtration plant, or they’ll need a school, or an orphanage, or something like that, and they start the project with local workers as well, and then we will build for the time that we’re there. The next group will come in and continue building, and the next trip will continue building. So it’s not just that TanenbaumCHAT goes in and we build for a week and leave a half-finished building, and that’s the end of it,” he said.
Steinfeld praised the Me to We organization for promoting sustainability projects, social justice and social action in countries all over the world.
“They are very adamant that this is not a charity where they hand stuff out to people, but really the idea is to work with the indigenous population… and look at their needs and tailor the experience to their needs. What comes out of that for the participants is a sense of social awareness, a sense of social justice and global citizenship.”