Tzedakah in South America — Hillel students tackle poverty

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Painted across the soup kitchen in the impoverished El Cerro neighborhood on the outskirts of Montevideo, these words were the first thing North American students saw when they arrived at one of the primary sites of their Alternative Spring Break Tzedek Hillel project in Uruguay.

"Alternative Spring Break trips allow students to commit time and money that may have been devoted to Cancun or Miami for a cause that improves community," says Elana Premack, the Jewish Student Life Associate for Hillel at the University of Illinois who accompanied the group on its March trip.

"It's also very valuable for them to see that there is a connection between Judaism and social-justice work," she said.

Three U.S. Hillel chapters recently sent students to take part in the Tzedek Social Justice program, hosted by Hillel of Montevideo. The Illinois trip followed visits from Hillel students from Duke University and the University of Southern California.

Advertised through various clubs, listservs and posters, the program elicited overwhelming enthusiasm.

"The info sessions for this trip were packed," Alison Leon, a USC student, said. "They had to turn so many people away,"

Nearly a third of USC's group was non-Jewish.

"The fact that the group is multiethnic can sometimes be very positive," said the founding director of Hillel Uruguay, Enrique Dreisis. "It can motivate the rest of the group."

Ruth Yomtoubian, president of Hillel at USC, commented on the impact of working for tikkun olam — or healing the world — inside and outside the Jewish community, and with non-Jewish peers.

"It gave me a chance and even forced me to examine my Judaism more carefully and reflect on my own Jewish identity," she said. "It also made me proud."

Of the three groups, USC's tried hardest to link its work in Latin America to Jewish values. A certain amount of time was set aside each day for the study of Jewish texts on tzedakah, or charity.

"By the end of the trip, people were incorporating terminology from our studies more and more," Yomtoubian said. "Even non-Jewish students were quick to identify the level of tzedakah each aspect of our project would qualify as."

Participants in Tzedek in Montevideo, which is generated by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Tzedek Hillel Initiative, help both Jewish and non-Jewish families in need.

Most of the American students were unprepared for the poverty they encountered in El Cerro's El Tobogan community, where unemployment stands at about 80 percent.

"It was a community unlike anything I had ever seen," said Duke student Eric Schwartz. "When we first got there it just looked like a huge trash dump. I wasn't expecting it to be in as bad a shape as it was."

When not in El Tobogan, students worked at the Jewish Home for the Elderly, where the community supports seniors whose families can't afford to care for them.

There the students painted, gardened and spent time visiting and speaking with residents.

"I don't speak a lick of Spanish," said Seth Sokol, a Duke student. "But I was still able to communicate and learn so much about this old man. I think that's pretty amazing."

The students created a fruit and vegetable garden that the home's inhabitants will tend.

While traveling among the Jewish Home for the Elderly, Hillel, El Cerro and various activities planned by the local Hillel, the students discovered that they had a lot to think about.

"We got to see a lot of contrast, and it gave us a wide perspective," said Alia Pera, a junior at USC.

Their experiences also left them with many questions.

Montevideo, Uruguay's capital, is home to approximately 90 percent of the country's 20,000 Jews. Given the city's well-maintained Jewish community center and state-of-the-art Hillel, students wondered whether the poverty statistics were at all relevant to the Jewish community.

They were surprised to learn that in 2001 — the time of the most recent community survey, but before the most traumatic economic plunge last summer — 40 percent of Uruguayan Jewish households were living under the poverty line, and half the Jewish children here were living in economic vulnerability, poverty or indigence.

"It's an often invisible but very deep problem," said Silvana Pedrowicz, director of Tzedek Hillel in Montevideo.

Before each American group left for the airport, students viewed a film produced by Hillel Uruguay. Narrated by a young girl, the film closes: "There is no place like Hillel in our community, and there will be no place like it in the future if we lose the chance we have today.''