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A Break With Spring Break

For many college students, spring break is a time to lie on a beach. But in 1999, Stephanie Fingeroth, assistant director of outreach and education at the American Jewish World Service, discovered that many Jewish students were looking for more. In response, the AJWS, together with Hillel, created the “Alternative Spring Break” program.

Participants in the spring program this year spent one week assisting with the projects of La Coordinadora in El Salvador, an AJWS partner that promotes sustainable economic development in a region plagued by poverty, civil war, and natural disasters. In addition to the physical labor involved in building houses and farming, the week-long program included daily Jewish text study as well as a shabbat celebration.

“For a week or two after I got back, I was just glowing,” says Dana Blecher, a graduate student at the Columbia School of Social Work who was in El Salvador in March. “It feels good to see that your work is making a difference and to know that it is really appreciated.” She also points out that the program enabled students to connect to their Judaism in a context outside of synagogue.

Students from Barnard and Columbia who participated in this year’s program followed up by selling Mother’s Day gift certificates to raise money for “The Chicken Project,” which combats malnutrition by helping low-income El Salvadorians breed poultry. The certificates read: “Dear Mom . . . Just as you have always watched out for my needs, so will the donation of a chicken to the people of El Salvador help a mother take care of the needs of her family and children.”