From Israel to Rwanda, pursuing social justice

 
By Rachel Olstein, Hebrew University of Jerusalem MA in Community Leadership & Philanthropy Studies, Boston
 
It was only as an adult, working in the non-profit sector, that I at last discovered my real place in the Jewish community – a place that combines my passion for social justice with my love of Jewish values and the State of Israel.
 
Three years ago, fueled by a desire to arm myself with management skills for this career, I enrolled in an Israel-based Masters program in Community Leadership & Philanthropy Studies. Today, I am the Director of Volunteer Services at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda.
 
Growing up in a large Jewish community outside of Boston, Judaism was a significant part of my life. In college, however, my commitment wavered as I became disillusioned with what I saw as the insularity of the community; I turned my energies to poverty and education. As a student at Vassar College, where I majored in urban education, I became active in social justice causes and prepared for a teaching career. I wanted to follow the wisdom I had learned in AmeriCorps and leave the world better than I had found it. I spent two years teaching second grade in an underserved neighborhood in Connecticut.
But something was missing.
 
I took on the challenge of a second job, directing a local USY chapter. There, I learned about the Teva Learning Center, a Jewish environmental education center where I found a community of active and engaged Jews dedicated to tikkun olam and educating youth, and each other, through radical amazement.
 
I left the formal classroom to work at Teva, where Israel was a popular topic of conversation. For thousands of years, Jews have wanted to be in Israel; not only did I feel privileged to be born into an era when it was possible to visit Israel – I felt obligated to spend an extended period of time there. I enrolled in the Masa Israel-accredited M.A. program at Hebrew University.
 
From the moment I landed in Israel, not a day passed when I did not want to be there. Once again, I found Jewish peers who believed in the importance of social responsibility that extends beyond one’s own community. While I spent the weeks gaining valuable skills for the nonprofit world, on weekends I traveled the country with a hiking group. On treks that took me to the Judean Desert and the wadis of the Negev, from Mount Hermon to the Kinneret, I met my husband.
 
Meanwhile, at Hebrew U, I decided to focus my studies on organizations that pursue social justice from a Jewish perspective, but work to help populations beyond the Jewish community. I believe that Israel needs positive ambassadors and that such globally-minded programs can leave communities around the world with a positive impression about Judaism and Israel. I believe that Jews have a social responsibility that extends beyond their own world and, to me, there’s something intrinsically Jewish about helping people, regardless of their race, religion or culture.
 
Today in my work as the Director of Volunteer Services for the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, I am able to help young Jewish volunteers make a similar impact and be part of a revolutionary development initiative in Africa. The village, which was modeled after Yemin Orde and other Israeli youth villages created for orphans after the Holocaust, provides a nurturing, safe and structured environment designed to enable orphaned youth to realize their maximum potential.
 
We offer housing, holistic health care, innovative education and extracurricular activities for 250 Rwandan teenagers, most of whom were orphaned during the 1994 genocide. I coordinate volunteer opportunities and programming in North America, Israel and at the village in Rwanda. I also lead groups of Jewish and interfaith volunteers from North America and Israel who come to the village for a few weeks at a time to help promote the future sustainability of the village.
 
Every day I am able to not only live the knowledge I gained in my Hebrew University Master’s program, but also apply it in a way that I find meaningful. I urge other young adults to spend an extended period of time on a Masa program, developing their connection to Israel, and perhaps even discovering a clear path they want their lives to take.
 

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