Nicole Lopez and Kelsea Mensh spent their summer education rural Puerto Ricans about water safety with an IsraAid fellowship.
Nicole Lopez and Kelsea Mensh spent their summer education rural Puerto Ricans about water safety with an IsraAid fellowship.

With IsraAid, local students serve in Puerto Rico and Berlin

Aliza Herzberg had an intense summer, one that’s a little tricky to talk about.

“I’m struggling with it, because how do you drop a story that heavy in a conversation?” said the 21-year-old from San Carlos, a senior at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

Herzberg spent the summer helping Middle East refugees in Germany as part of the IsraAid Humanitarian Fellowship, where she worked with families and children that the Israeli-based aid organization is helping after traumatic journeys from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I met children who experienced the worst things a child can experience,” said Herzberg, who was based in Berlin.

She heard stories of traumas like kidnappings, or a child’s finger being severed. But by assisting the organization’s art therapist as part of a slew of psychological and social support services provided by IsraAid, she also saw a new side of the refugee crisis — a human side.

“They’re just people like us in America,” she said. “They’re just trying to live a happy life.”

IsraAid’s Humanitarian Fellowships give undergraduates a summer in the field and a year of networking in return for U.S. and campus outreach. It’s a bid for the agency, which opened a Palo Alto office in 2017, to expand its reach and show young adults how inspiring and transformative helping others can be.

“It really was an amazing experience,” said Nicole Lopez, a junior at San Jose State University, who spent the summer in Puerto Rico helping educate people in remote regions about water safety.

The fellowship gives college students two months in one of 20 countries. The students also do outreach through the upcoming school year to raise awareness of the work.

“It’s a great opportunity for undergrads to have this experience abroad,” said Niv Rabino, director of outreach and programs for IsraAid.

It’s competitive, too. The first year, nine fellows were picked from 150 applicants. In year two, only 14 (including four from the Bay Area) were selected out of 160. “It was a really hard task, actually, selecting such a small group,” Rabino said.

The chosen few were sent to eight different countries for two-month internships in humanitarian aid and development programs. The fellowship is supported by the Schusterman Family Foundation and the S.F.-based Koret Foundation, and applications for next year are due in December.

Aliza Herzberg was an IsraAid fellow in Berlin.
Aliza Herzberg was an IsraAid fellow in Berlin.

Lopez, a political science major with minors in Spanish and humanitarian aid, thinks she was chosen because of her interest in aid work and global issues. But Rabino said it’s also about picking students who will become prominent in their fields.

“We want to see some leadership, some proven demonstration,” he said.

Lopez’s fellowship landed her in Puerto Rico, where IsraAid is working in the small town of Barrio Real to set up a gravitational water filtration system. Lopez assisted in getting the word out about water sanitation in an area where residents have been forced to turn to unsafe water sources after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The campaign tackles water-borne diseases and how to prevent them, and addresses common misconceptions about the water purification process.

Lopez, who is from San Jose, also wrote a report for her local supervisor recommending psychological and social services. That’s the kind of forward thinking that IsraAid loves to see from its fellows.

“[They] don’t just follow orders, but take [it upon] themselves to think out of the box,” Rabino said.

Germany may not be a place that comes to mind in terms of humanitarian aid, but IsraAid has made a commitment to helping the refugee and migrant community there over the long term.

“The reason why I like IsraAid so much is they don’t just go to a place right after a disaster, then leave,” said Herzberg, who is studying anthropology and geography with a concentration in international development at Cal Poly (where she was president of Mustangs United for Israel last school year and also was included in “30 under 30,” a compilation of the Cal Poly Women in Business Association of the school’s “most influential womxn”).

In Berlin, she saw how the refugees, even the lucky ones who have reached a stable country, still need support both material and psychological.

“Once you’re there and you’re with the people, it’s really shocking,” she said. “And it’s crazy that they’re still so resilient and motivated to change their lives for the better.”

Taking these lessons back to their campuses and communities will be the fellows’ next step.

The rest of this school year, Lopez and Herzberg will be expected to talk about their time abroad and IsraAid. The focus, Rabino said, is on aid, not on Israel or Judaism, although he did say the organization is run “in the spirit of our Israeli values.” And he added that student outreach has the added benefit of demonstrating just what an Israel-based organization can do.

“It’s showing another side we don’t usually see,” Rabino said. “Especially [on college] campuses.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.