This past spring break, university students from across the state were given the opportunity to fundraise and assist impoverished Jewish communities in Argentina.
Five UH students — Tanya Kazansky, Jake Levy, Nina Vysotskaya, Zhenya Gelman and myself — participated in this alternative spring break sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. JDC is an international relief organization that offers assistance to Jewish communities all over the world.
JDC’s program in Argentina has been active since the country’s 2001 economic disaster, which sent much of the Jewish middle class into a state of poverty.
We did not know a great deal about this organization before the trip, nor did we understand the true meaning of taking such an expensive and seemingly inefficient route to community service.
The trip was a puzzle with missing pieces, in constant assembly.
As each puzzle piece was placed, we gained an additional piece of enlightenment about what the trip and our entire experience was truly about.
We were part of the JDC’s investment into educating Jewish students about other Jewish communities around the world, and encouraging and inspiring a philanthropic mentality and a desire to do service for the Jewish comminutes both at home and abroad.
Prior to the trip, we raised several thousands of dollars and collected children’s essentials to take with us on the trip. When we arrived in Buenos Aires, we took a 5-hour bus ride to Basavillbaso. Originally settled by Jewish immigrants, Baso now has a very small population of Jews, many of whom live in poverty.
Our first project was to paint an old Synagogue that was in a dire need of restoration. During this time, we got to truly know the friendly and inspirational community that surrounded us. The experience was absolutely unreal.
During our breaks, we often visited locals in their homes. The Houston group of students visited a local woman named Rachel, an elderly recipient of the assistance JDC offers.
Our meetings with her were eye opening. The conditions that she and her family lived in were below any kind of standard we could relate to.
But despite the apparent difficulty of her situation, she was extremely inspirational with her optimism and good spirits.
This experience made all of us realize that this was more than just a trip to “help out.” This was a first-hand look into the pressing issue of poverty. We were completely caught off guard, and saw the puzzle pieces of this trip come together a bit more.
After Buenos Aires, we traveled to Lador Vador, a Jewish retirement center funded by the JDC that had a day care for needy children five and under. At the Baby Help Center we were able to stock the shelves with supplies we had brought with us from Texas. No amount of material worth could ever equal the intrinsic reward we felt when looking at those little smiles. We also visited with the residents at the retirement home and ate dinner with various philanthropists from the world over.
The amount of negligence and poverty that strangled this community was almost unbearable to see. Fortunately, there was relief like this soup kitchen that the JDC provided for anyone there. Along with helping communities, the JDC also helped create jobs by building a kosher factory that makes Argentine cookies called Alfajores.
We also enjoyed Argentine sightseeing, the night life, the incredible cuisine and of course each other’s company.
Gelman said she was amazed by how everyone came together and became friends.
“We did not all know each other in the beginning, but by the end we were already planning road trips to each other’s schools,” she said.
By the end we understood that this trip was more than just having students like ourselves, volunteer in a foreign country. It was an investment, a token of faith that we would remember the experience and use as a catalyst to living a life that includes community service, philanthropy and education.