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SOCIAL JUSTICE TRIP TO NICARAGUA         (Summary: 2693)
RACHEL MARGOLIS

Goal: Bring our congregational teens into a social justice learning and work experience, hoping to affect and transform lives.

Summary:
The program is a social justice trip to Nicaragua, done in conjunction with a local church. While in Nicaragua, participants are building homes, ecosystems and working on sustainability.

While in Nicaragua, students learn about each other’s faiths and have daily ecumenical scripture (Torah or Prophets) study sessions. This helps the participants learn how our faiths are based on social justice, as well as understand the different texts. Traveling to Nicaragua gives the students the opportunity to learn how 80% of the world lives (i.e., how people get by on $2 a day)—something they likely aren’t seeing in Westchester County, NY.

Participants have “intercambios” while in Nicaragua - this is similar to the mifgash on Israel trips. (A mifgash is an Israeli student exchange program in which a handful of Israeli students or soldiers join each group, say on a NFTY in Israel trip, for a number of days, allowing for a cultural exchange and friendships.) The “intercambios” enable students to learn about Nicaraguan cultures, history and their people. The program is open to high school students, and up to 46 students can participate each year. Before the group travels, they study historical, political and social/economic lessons about Nicaragua. Each participant must pay or fundraise for his/her trip costs. Students also fundraise for the trip so that they are able to donate money to Bridges to Community. Anywhere from $20,000-50,000 goes to Bridges to Community each year – and this is money raised above the cost of the trip.

The synagogue has also been able to build a relationship with the small Jewish community in Nicaragua.

Explain how the program did or did not help you reach your goal:
The program met and exceeded the goals. It has helped to rejuvenate the youth programming at the synagogue (see below), and helped build relationships among and between the local church and synagogue. It has also sparked and sustained teen retention in our youth programs, as well as overall synagogue membership.

Number of potential participants: varies each year
Number of actual participants: 250-300 since 2004

How did you measure success?
This program sparked retention in the school and youth programming because it became a catalyst for students to become more involved. As a result, the synagogue has a large youth program, and students who return from the trip are highly encouraged to participate in it through social action, social and educational opportunities.

Many alumni of the program have gone on to found Bridges to Community chapters at their own colleges. This shows the deep connection and sense of meaning students receive from the trip.

What did you learn from this program?
There have been religious compromises on both sides, from traveling on Shabbat to teaching students how to take this experience seriously.

Did you make any changes after your initial foray into this program? If so, what were they?
There used to be two trips, one in the summer and one in February. Shaaray Tefila stopped the summer trip because it was the wrong season to be in Nicaragua, so now there is just one trip per year.

The trip became so popular that the application process needed to be changed. At first, there was an application—with references, essays, etc. The process became very contentious, and organizers realized the application was very subjective, so they decided to make it an open application, meaning the trip is open to everyone. This allows the synagogue to place “priority” on seniors, or those who have not yet participated in the trip.

In 2008, the synagogue included seven students from the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa. The group did a mifgash together in New York before the trip, and met the students in Haifa after. It was incredibly powerful—not just to meet Israelis, but for the Israelis to have the interfaith experience. It was also very costly; the synagogue paid for the Israelis to participate.

If you could run the program again, what changes would you make?
The synagogue in now encouraging other synagogues to become partners on this project.

Is there anything that would be important for another congregation to know if they were to implement this program or something like it?
No matter a congregation’s size or location, participation in this amazing project is possible at all levels.

How much did it cost the congregation? How much did it cost the participants? There was no cost to the congregation; the program is not within the synagogue’s budget.

Participants raise their own funds, and group leaders’ fees are incorporated into the participants’ fees.

The year the Israeli students joined as a mifgash, the synagogue paid for their fees.

The fundraising was an issue 2-3 years ago. Families were upset that they needed to solicit funds to attend. In response, the synagogue instituted a “pay-back” program: if participants raised a certain amount of additional funds for Bridges to Community, they received up to $600 back from their participation fees.

What were the roles/responsibilities of the people implementing the program?
The synagogue’s youth director plays an integral role (he even serves on the board of Bridges to Community). A staff member who is incredibly competent and can handle logistics is essential. Each year, 5-6 parents go on the trip as well, to staff and chaperone.

The synagogue is always in charge of their groups and staff. Bridges to Community has staff at each village, plus a Nicaragua director, so Bridges handles logistics on site.

This summary is part of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, which endeavors to address the challenges of engaging teens and families post-b’nei mitzvah. To read others like it, search keyword “youth engagement,” and click here for the next one.


For more information about opportunities for social justice (like Adult and Teen Mitzvah Corps), contact Naomi Abelson, URJ’s Social Action Specialist, and visit the URJ’s Social Action “volunteer” web page.
 
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CONTACT SOURCE
TEMPLE SHAARAY TEFILA        812 Households
89 BALDWIN ROAD   BEDFORD CORNERS  NY 10549-4815
914.666.3133    914.666.0112
RABBI JASON NEVAREZ
E-mail: rabbijnevarez@templest.org

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