What better way to spend winter break?!?

This past December a delegation of students from UCLA participated in the first JLIC Alternative Winter Break Trip through Hillel International. These students spent one week in Kilm, Mississippi helping the community rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Hillel International has offered many such “alternative break” trips to students during their winter and spring vacations from University. These trips are designed to enable students to participate in Tzedek work firsthand while helping communities in need. Historically, students have embraced these unique opportunities and have had very positive experiences. This year JLIC at UCLA decided to mobilize the Orthodox student community to participate by arranging a trip that would would be staffed by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, the JLIC rabbi at UCLA, and specifically cater to the needs and sensitivities of Orthodox students. UCLA’s JLIC intern, Jacob Leven, spearheaded the organizational efforts for the JLIC group and was instrumental in streamlining the planning and recruitment efforts, as well as handling a myriad of technical arrangements.

Ten men and two women from UCLA and USC, ranging in age from college sophomores to graduate students, joined fifty other volunteers from across the country for this adventure. Each JLIC participant raised money to pay for a portion of his/her trip, which was also generously subsidized by the Orthodox Union, the Los Angeles Hillel Council and the Jewish Student Union on Campus.

For an entire week these student volunteers slept in bunks outdoors and participated in minyanim in a large tent. They built their own Eruv for Shabbat and enjoyed meals that were prepared under the supervision of a UCLA student Mashgiach who was hired, by Hillel, for the trip.

A typical day for the JLIC students began before many of the other volunteers even woke up, as Minyan took place in the early hours of the morning. After a quick breakfast the volunteers traveled by bus to work sites in damaged areas of Mississippi. There, they finished hammering in external nails that supported the edifice of newly built homes and painted the exterior of these homes. Over the course of the week, the JLIC team completed painting two entire homes for Mississippi residents to enjoy.

Upon returning to the base at the end of the work day the students had dinner and participated in learning Chaburas with Rabbi Kaplan that were specifically designed for trip participants, focusing on the Mitzvah of Tzedaka and helping others. They then had the opportunity to relax, forge new relationships and enjoy the company of other students.

Some highlights of the trip included special trips that were arranged for the volunteers to add more depth and context to the work that was being done. On one memorable evening the students visited Tulane University where they had a chance to meet with the managing editor of a local newspaper and learn about the area’s history. On a different occasion the group was treated to a visit to the shul in New Orleans where they met with the newly hired rabbi who is working to rebuild the community there.

Shabbat in Mississippi was another very special experience. After a week of intense physical labor the students really appreciated the reprieve Shabbat offered and embraced the 24 hour period of rest and rejuvenation. Students gathered for Kabbalat Shababt, dinner and a beautiful Tisch that were punctuated with memorable singing and warm camaraderie between students from the different campuses. Shabbat day was filled with rest and socialization, giving the students one last chance to connect before returning to their respective campuses the next morning.

Three powerful accomplishments linger in the aftermath of the trip:

First and foremost is the work that was accomplished on behalf of the residents of Mississippi. Two homes were completed by UCLA students. Due to the labor of volunteers, it is possible to reconstruct a home in Mississippi for as little as $30,000 and it was very meaningful to be a part of that effort. It was the important nature of the work that initially inspired many students to join the trip (and brave the near freezing temperatures) and it was the deep feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment of work accomplished that made the trip worthwhile.

A second, beautiful byproduct of the trip was the tremendous Kiddish Hashem that was created by the student volunteers. The residents of the newly completed homes were very touched that Jews throughout the country opted to spend their vacation in a remote place helping strangers rebuild their homes. One of the grateful residents even joined the Hillel group for dinner on Friday night and was overwhelmed by the passion of Shabbat that he witnessed and the warmth that he sensed within our Jewish community.

A final, significant milestone of the trip was the presence of a 3x daily minyan throughout the week. Purposefully recruiting 10 “minyan-going men” from UCLA ensured the presence of an active daily minyan and changed the nature of the trip for many participants.

Volunteers were inspired by the community’s ongoing commitment to the rebuilding efforts and are grateful to Hillel and the Orthodox Union for enabling them to leave their fingerprints on this very valuable project.