Last January, 14 students from Yeshiva University traveled to Honduras during their winter break. But they weren’t there to snorkel or sunbathe or swim in the Caribbean; they spent their “vacation” in a mountain village without heat, electricity or plumbing, building a school for a community of Evangelical Christians.
The trip to Honduras, organized by the American Jewish World Service, is just one example of Y.U. students taking a broader view than before of tikkun olam — healing the world. This campus trend has grown concurrently with President Richard Joel’s flagship Presidential Fellowship, inaugurated in 2004 to promote leadership among the university’s top graduates.
“This is a time of renewed activism among young people,” Joel told the Forward. “The university administration is encouraging of these actions.”
In addition to the trip to Honduras, activities by Presidential Fellows and socially active students include organizing the May 8, 2005, rally for Darfur in Central Park, attended by approximately 1,000 people; arranging for more than 350 Y.U. students to participate in the April 30, 2006, Save Darfur rally in Washington, D.C.; starting an in-school tutoring program at Norman Thomas High School, in midtown Manhattan, and helping with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Y.U. students cited many reasons for their increased awareness of humanitarian issues beyond the Jewish community — everything from the movie “Hotel Rwanda” to the intifada, as well as the Jewish imperative to be a light unto nations. But conversations on the subject with students and administrators alike always turned to one person: 23-year-old Rebecca Stone.
As a Y.U. senior, the New Jersey native and her friend Cindy Bernstein, then a junior, organized the May 2005 Central Park rally after learning about Darfur at a national Hillel public-policy conference.
“It doesn’t matter what ethnicity they are, or what religion they are,” Stone said. “Genocide is genocide. It is our job as Jews, more than anybody else, to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Because we know first-hand what it’s like to be betrayed by the rest of the world.” Stone’s efforts were rewarded after graduation, when she was granted the Presidential Fellowship for the 2005-2006 school year. “As part of my fellowship this year I decided that I really wanted to be able to mobilize students more to take part in social-justice initiatives,” she said.
Knowing first-hand how difficult organizing such activities is for already busy Y.U. students — they usually have a double load, or 30 hours of classes a week — she wanted to be “a point of support.”
With Bernstein’s help, Stone promoted a number of programs, including sending students to speak about Darfur at Jewish day and high schools, organizing the Y.U. contingent of the Washington rally and arranging the winter-break trip to Honduras.
Stone’s work encouraged 18-year-old Rachel Grunau, a Honduras-trip attendee, to become a student leader herself.
A fashion-marketing major starting her sophomore year, Grunau said her global social consciousness developed from family vacations, which always included charitable work for orphanages or poor communities. Now, Grunau passes her awareness on to her classmates. Before sending tutors to the primarily black Norman Thomas High School, Grunau held an information session about poverty in the United States. Taking over Y.U.’s Darfur efforts, she posted signs on both campuses advertising savedarfur.org. After staying with coffee farmers in Honduras, she pushed for the cafeteria to start serving fair-trade coffee, a program that will start next semester. In the coming year, Grunau said that she hopes to expand the number of Norman Thomas tutors to 35 from 25, continue raising awareness about Darfur and schedule another alternative break with the AJWS.
“There are plenty of organizations at Yeshiva University that help Jews,” Grunau said. “There was nothing for everybody else. By doing what we’re doing, we’re just trying to ignite a certain responsibility as Jews and as human beings.”