The words “spring” and “break,” innocuous when separate, become volatile when joined together. “Spring break” typically evokes the Bahamas and the debauchery of Girls Gone Wild. In the past few years, however, a new spring break movement has been gaining traction. Most noticeably since Hurricane Katrina, college students have organized alternative spring break trips that emphasize community service and multicultural understanding.
During February, March and part of April, six campus Hillel foundations have promoted this alternative tradition by organizing interfaith trips to New Orleans. About 200 Jewish, Christian and Muslim students from the University at Albany, the University of Southern California, New York University, California State University Northridge, and Yale and Columbia universities used their college vacations to help rebuild the hurricane-devastated city. Each campus Hillel determined program specifics independent of the national office in Washington, D.C., so no two trips were exactly alike. Yet the assumption behind each trip was the same: Communal work facilitates inter-community dialogue. By all accounts, that assumption was proved true.
Megan Goldman, a Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow who organized the Yale trip, said that many students were at first too shy to discuss their personal religious views. After a few days of manual labor, however, they opened up. For the final night of the trip, Goldman planned a brief question-and-answer session during which each student would describe his or her approach to faith and then field questions. “I figured it would take about 45 minutes,” she said, “but I was way off. The questions were really in depth, so we talked late into the night and then resumed the session early the next morning.” As a result of positive feedback from students, Goldman said, Yale Hillel is trying to amass a permanent budget for an annual interfaith service trip.
The NYU trip had two components: During the course of a month, students met once a week for a “learning program” and then traveled to New Orleans to engage in relief work. Erica Dobin, an NYU sophomore, said that the trip participants eased into discussions about the Middle East slowly. “During the learning program,” Dobin recalled, “no one spoke much. After a couple days in New Orleans, we talked about the hurricane, racial politics and the government’s response to the hurricane. Then we felt comfortable enough to talk about Israel.”
“It know it sounds funny,” Dobin added, “but after you’ve put up drywall with someone, you come to respect them, and suddenly it’s not so hard to talk about serious issues.”
Sam Kretzman, special programs coordinator for NYU’s Edgar M. Bronfman Center, thinks the New Orleans trip will improve Muslim-Jewish relations at the university significantly. “There wasn’t really any negative energy between the two groups before the trip,” he said, “but there wasn’t much communication, either. That’s changing now.”
“In New Orleans,” Kretzman said, “we discussed the fact that the Muslim chaplaincy [at NYU] is more or less a volunteer position. Now that all the students are back, they’re trying to make the position permanent by writing letters to [NYU President] John Sexton.”
According to Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s associate vice president of communications, Hillel will have supported more than 1,600 students in their rebuilding efforts by the summer. Last year, Hillel students constituted the largest volunteer force in the Gulf, with 800 participants working in New Orleans and in Biloxi, Miss. Juliet Lapidos is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.