Picture spring break, specifically spring break in Miami. What comes to mind? Lots of drinking, partying, beaches, and overall chaos, right? What if I were to tell you I spent my spring break in Miami this year…doing volunteer work? Might you change your mind? It’s not exactly typical I know, but don’t write me off just yet. Going on an alternative break might be just the thing if you’re looking for a way to travel, help a community in need, and have fun, all at the same time.
Before I get too far into my post, I want to clarify that I spent my alternative spring break with Hillel, a Jewish organization. However, Hillel is also not the only group that offers alternative spring break programs. The University of Rochester provides a multitude of different options. Groups such as Students Helping Honduras, Habitat for Humanity, and the Catholic Newman Community have all also organized trips to Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Honduras, and more. I will be talking about my experience, which has strong Jewish connections, which is why I chose it. However, if you’re looking for a different kind of trip, I’m sure you could find something to fit you.
Seven of us arrived in Miami on a Sunday afternoon, greeted by palm trees and sunshine. We partnered with a group called “Repair the World” that works to help support local communities throughout Miami. We did a variety of different service activities throughout the week. We worked unloading food at a Kosher food bank, did arts and crafts projects with kids at two different homeless shelters, weeded a community garden in a food desert, and helped kids at an after school program. We got to visit the Historic All-Black Police Precinct, and in twist of fate, got to meet their first black chief of police. We also sorted clothes and other donations at Project Upstart, a program that gives out food, clothing, and specifically prom attire for homeless students. Some of these activities aren’t the most “glamorous” perhaps, where you’re not getting to interact with kids or stuck doing grunt work just moving boxes back and forth. But they’re important. If you have volunteers doing these kinds of work, that frees up supervisors to connect with donors about funding, or do other important work only they can do.
Everything we did always tied into the principles of Judaism. For each activity we did, we looked at how it could be connected to a teaching from the Torah or Talmud (Jewish texts). For example, we talked about how in those texts, it was required that every Jewish community have a teacher, so that the next generation can be educated. Or how it used to be a rule that the corners of every field were to be left to be gathered by people who didn’t have enough food to feed themselves. Even now, a Jewish practice that a lot of people follow is setting aside a portion, 10%, of one’s income to give to charity. This is not supposed to be thought of as money that you’re giving away though—it’s money that was earned to serve the purposes of the community.
If you’re worrying that all we did was hard labor all week, fear not. As they say, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We also had plenty of time to explore the rest of Miami. We spent one of our mornings in Little Havannah, going to sights such as Domino Park and La Casa de Los Trucos. We saw cigars being made by hand, and heard live music at the historic Ball and/& Chain, a restaurant that once boasted performers like Ella Fitzgerald. We tried pastelitos, Cuban coffee (which led to the worst caffeine crash of my LIFE), sugar cane juice, and in my case, café con leche ice cream with oreos. We also spent time in Wynwood, a district in Miami that is covered top to bottom in beautiful works of street art. There were also opportunities to try go into the galleries there, and we also got to stop in at the Jewish History Museum of Florida. And of course, you can’t go to Miami without stopping by the beach at least once. Living in Rochester for most of the year, I take any chance I can get for blue skies, sand and sun.
My friends Adam and James both went on the trip with me, and they both really enjoyed it. James told me, “It was a really cool experience to do service in a place I’m unfamiliar with,” instead of just working with the same community you live in, where you know the dynamics of the area. Adam was really surprised at the quality of the places we visited. “If you didn’t tell me it was a homeless shelter, I wouldn’t have known,” and I agree. We all have this preconceived notion of what people who are homeless look like—their clothes or their living situations. I think it’s important that we challenge our those ideas, and recognize that outward appearance doesn’t mean anything about how someone may be struggling.
Now you may be thinking, why would I spend my time on spring break volunteering in Miami (or another location) when I could just go there on my own? I would say that fun and games for a full week can get old. By spending most of my time during spring break helping others, I had a more meaningful experience.
Was it quite as relaxing as if I had chosen to go somewhere with friends, or even just home by myself? No. But it was really special and unique, and it made me feel like I was doing some good by helping out. I do want to avoid the whole white savoir complex here. I don’t think that by spending a few days in underfunded schools or homeless shelters that I personally, or even as a group, can change the entire world. But if it can help the teachers out for a few days, if it gives the kids something fun and exciting to do, if we can help in a way that makes it a better experience for everyone involved, then I think it’s worth pursuing.