Over Spring Break, a group of 10 students from Hopkins and 11 students from Princeton University traveled to Argentina to engage in community outreach and cultural immersion.
Hopkins Hillel, which has organized past trips to Miami and Uruguay, sponsored the excursion, during which students traveled to the Argentine cities of Buenos Aires and Rosario.
“The overall purpose of the trip was to visit Jewish communities in the cities of Rosario and Buenos Aires to perform community service and to learn about Jewish life and culture in Argentina,” sophomore Asia Coladner said.
Students worked at the Jewish Community Center in Rosario, Argentina’s third most populous city with a Jewish population of around 9,000. The Community Center, known as the Argentine Zionist Union of Rosario (USAR), has provided social, cultural and recreational activities for members since its founding in 1983.
“[At the USAR] we spent our mornings rehabilitating the Jewish Community Center by repainting classrooms and the gymnasium. In smaller groups, we were given the opportunity to go on home visits to Jewish community members in Rosario whose lives had been impacted by the Joint Distribution Committee and its efforts,” Colander said.
The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) provides relief to Jews and non-Jews around the world in over 70 countries. In Argentina, the Latin American country with the largest Jewish population, the JDC works to provide relief services to aid those devastated by the 2001 economic crisis.
The JDC works to strengthen the Jewish community through a variety of programs and initiatives, providing food services, job training and placement, business loans and daycare services. The JDC also revitalizes Jewish community life, establishing and planning cultural celebrations and events.
Students not only participated in restoration efforts at the JDC and home visits in Rosario, but also traveled throughout Buenos Aires touring Jewish cultural and educational sites.
“One of these [sites] was the AMIA building, the central Jewish Community Center in Argentina, which was attacked by terrorists in 1994,” said Coladner.
The group was also involved in preparing a daycare for passover.
“We also volunteered at Baby Help, a daycare center for underprivileged Jewish families,” Coladner said.
Along with direct contributions to the Jewish community of Rosario through improvements to the USAR, students contributed through the morale they generated.
“The goal was to inspire the people we were working with. This group of Americans are coming down to help you and the Americans are not just in to help themselves but are there to help the people of the world. I think it’s a really powerful message when Argentinians see Americans who they don’t know helping to work in the USAR” Jon Falk, Program Director for Hillel, said.
Hopkins students left its mark in more permanent ways as well.
“We remodeled the day-care room and painted beautiful murals, one of which featured a Hopkins Blue Jay along with a Princeton Tiger. We also gave Hopkins apparel as gifts to the local leaders in each community we visited, as well as to those who helped run our trip,” sophomore Yonah Rebak said.
The trip not only benefited the Argentinians but also affected both the students and group leaders.
“I was impacted by the students; how they grew on the trip, how they learned about communities around the world, both culturally and how these communities live. The work was very rewarding and it was a true cultural immersion experience, meaning that the students really got to interact with their peers,” Falk said.
Coladner expressed similar sentiment and gained a greater appreciation for the circumstances of Jewish Americans due to her experiences.
“My main takeaway from this trip is that the Jewish community in the United States is very fortunate. After the attack on AMIA in 1994, which had been preceded by a bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, extensive security measures were put in place. Still today, concrete barriers and armed security guards surround all Jewish buildings in Argentina,” Colander said.
Rebak was also surprised by the number of security precautions necessary to practice Judaism.
“It was eye-opening to see Jewish communities functioning in such a different part of the world, replete with its own unique successes and challenges. I think the biggest thing I came away with was an appreciation for how easy it is to be Jewish — or practice any religious belief — in America,” Rebak said.
Students seemed to enjoy the service and social aspects of the trip. Many felt like they were making a difference in the community, learning new things and socially integrating with local Argentinians. There seemed to be a consensus that these types of programs should continue.
“There's no question that I would like to see more of these opportunities offered in the future, both by Hopkins Hillel and Hopkins at large. Probably the greatest intangible that we all came away with was better friendships. Though we more or less knew each other going into the trip, the Hopkins group really bonded and it's great coming back from spring break with those connections,” Rebak said.