By Lauren Gross and Darren Rabinowitz
About an hour outside of Kigali, twenty minutes off the main road, lies an oasis for the orphaned and vulnerable youth of Rwanda called the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV). While there, these teens learn English, math, science and other subjects that make up a traditional school curriculum. But there is something else they learn, something unique to the Village – lessons in tikkun olam, repairing the world.
And they apply it to all that they do.
Anne Heyman, the beloved founder of ASYV, admired the concept of students giving back, but she preferred they pay it forward. Therefore, little acts of kindness are contagious at ASYV and big initiatives to provide healing and care are requirements.
As an example, the sophomore students I work with were recently partnered with an organization called EarthEnable that supplies healthier flooring options for poor, vulnerable people who are often forced to use rudimentary construction supplies for their homes.
But rather than simply focus on providing enough flooring for two Rwandan genocide survivors in need, they went the extra mile. They took seriously a call to help their neighbors, who perhaps, like them, had lost family in the 1994 genocide. They decided to challenge their fellow students to join them in the raising of extra funds for this project.
At first, Village staff was wary to let the students try to raise the money from their peers, as many of these youth come from some of the poorest areas of Rwanda. However, the student leaders in charge of the project were adamant that other students donate.
“If our classmates can spend their money on amandazi (wheat flour fritters) and chapatti (pan-fried flat bread), we believe they can open their hearts and give a few Rwandan Francs to others. They are lucky enough to attend ASYV – now it is time they help other people in need,” they said.
With that, Village staff was sold. The students did more than raise a few Rwandan Francs that could be given to a family in need. They raised almost the entire cost of two cement floors, which was then matched by the Village, providing four floors to four families who had survived the genocide.
In this act, they came together as one and fulfilled Anne’s dream by ensuring that not only were their lives improved, but that they had been able to make someone else’s home safe and healthy.
I think a lot about those sophomores and how they set an example for us all. If orphaned young Rwandans can find ways to raise money for a good cause, doesn’t that motivate us to do the same? I believe there is motivation in each of us to give, whether it is to your school, congregation, a charity of your choosing, or a person who is down on their luck, all of us have that same motivation my young sophomores did.
At the end of the day, a full heart with slightly emptier pockets is always the path to choose.
Throughout high school, I couldn’t wait for the end of the day, but not for the reason you probably think.
It wasn’t to get home to my video games or the refrigerator stocked with hummus and chips (though, let’s be honest, snacks were also a huge draw).
Rather, I spent the days anticipating the moment when I could launch myself onto the bed and take a small unassuming notebook from beneath my mattress and write.
It hadn’t always been that way. When I was young, writing felt like a chore, a never-ending source of pain. I remember sitting at the dining room table, with my mother’s hand on my back encouraging me to write the first sentence of my 5th grade school essay.
I disdained writing because the pressure to write something perfect was daunting and I felt my writing was always judged. I feared the moment when I would get papers back from Mrs. Bryant covered in red ink with phrases like ‘not correct,’ ‘new paragraph,’ ‘where’s your comma.’ Looking down at my paper, I remember there were more tear stains than words.
These frustrations continued until sophomore year of high school when I met my friend Gila as a participant in the Diller Teen Fellowship. Gila’s father suggested I keep a journal during my trip to Europe that summer. I heeded the advice and chronicled my trip each day through words. Writing in Europe no longer felt like a trudge into the unknown, it provided a space where my feelings were valid and immune to the harsh red pen of past teachers.
What started as a way to document my trip turned into passion for creative writing that has stayed with me for the past 11 years. The next time I ate at Gila’s house was during her father’s shiva. I never had a chance to say thank you for his simple suggestion that liberated my voice from fear.
As a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow at ASYV, I work with students who struggle with English. While I have never faced the hardships of my students – challenges like food insecurity, having to miss school for domestic farm duties, or being head of a household as a child – I often find myself empathizing with the students’ struggle to express themselves.
The kid too scared to raise his hand, the one who would choose the back corner seat in class – these are the students that need the most. So I made it my task to seek them out.
At the beginning of the second term, I put together a group of these students and called our ensemble the ‘One Acts Project.’ During our first meeting I gave them each their own journal as a token of gratitude for agreeing to this journey together.
We agreed that the group would be a place to revel in our failures, where we will try new things, and where the strange will be accepted. Stepping into the powerful Rwandan sun after that first class, it struck me how lucky I was to be the person in my students’ lives who could offer them a place to practice, try, fail, and succeed together without fear or repercussions.
Striving to be the person in someone else’s life you wished you had in your own is not only the bliss of being a teacher but, to me, is the essence of tikkun olam.
When I think about Gila’s father and my students, there is this remarkable connection. I believe that the only way of saying thank you to those who changed your life is to change someone else’s.
Lauren Gross and Darren Rabinowitz served as 2016-17 JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellows at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.