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Springing Into Action, by Rabbi Isabel de Koninck

Spring Break is often a time for beach parties and fun in the sun, but for many students on college campuses throughout America, Spring Break is increasingly a time for serving our communities and our earth through immersive service-learning experiences. 

These “Alternative Spring Break” trips take students across the country and the world to volunteer with organizations working for social, economic, and environmental justice.  At their best, these trips are an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in life’s big questions about justice and communal responsibility while also doing concrete hands-on work that gives participants a taste of their own power to affect the future of our world. 

As a Hillel Director, I have the privilege of traveling with a group of students on an Alternative Spring Break, and each year I learn more about what makes these experiences impactful. This year, as I reflect back on our experience I am acutely drawn to the role that ritual plays in transforming these trips from opportunities to do community service to vessels for personal and spiritual growth and containers for meaning-making for each participant.

In March, I traveled with my students from Hillel at Drexel University to Los Angeles on a trip organized in partnership with Jewish Funds for Justice (now Bend the Arc).  Just as in years past, our trip was marked by regular rituals, each serving as an opportunity for students to stop and reflect on their experiences—not in an analytical framework but in a profoundly spiritual one:

·         Each night, at the end of our program or reflection session, we gathered for a brief meditation on the day framed by communal singing.

·         Each morning a different student was charged with the task of offering a kavannah for the day—whether in spoken words, music, or embodied exercise.

·         On Shabbat our students crafted a beautiful Friday evening service that wove together themes of social and environmental justice with the themes of the Shabbat service. 

While all of these rituals were deeply important to the individual experiences of each participant and to the group’s experience of itself as sacred community, this year’s trip featured another ritual, a ritual which not only created an opportunity for intention setting and reflection, but served to transform the work itself from an ordinary act of service to a sacred act of partnership in the stewardship of our earth.

In Los Angeles our primary work partner for the week was an organization called TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit that unites the power of trees, people and technology to grow a sustainable future for Los Angeles.  Our group worked with TreePeople to plant 64 trees in Griffith Park over the course of four days.  What made the work with TreePeople remarkable, was not only the significant impact on the health of the people and climate of Los Angeles, but also TreePeople’s understanding that each single tree and each single planting is a transformative act. 

When we began to plant with TreePeople, Danny Carmichael, our volunteer coordinator, taught us not only how to plant the trees, but also instructed us that at the conclusion of each planting, each tree needed to be given a name through a special ceremony. Over the course of the week, my students began to recognize that these rituals had a deep impact on their relationship to the trees and to their experience of the work:

Rituals are an important part of life.  They provide an outline to new experiences as something familiar in unfamiliar places. Performing a ritual gives meaning and depth to an action by causing you to pause and deeply consider each moment.  On our trip, we became immersed in the ritual of naming each tree that we planted.  This particular ritual was more than merely the final step in the planting process; it acknowledged the beginning of a new life. It caused us to stop and give each individual tree a personality and to hope for it’s future. Coming to an agreement on a name was sometimes the most challenging part of planting, and our group came up with some very interesting ones. Some were ironic, such as Tree Swift; others were classy, such as Cyntharia; some were reflective of our love for food, such as Hamburger; and some were short and sweet, such as our first tree ever, Mark. Regardless of the name however, the process of naming allowed us to feel more personally connected to the trees. The actual name didn’t mean as much as the continuation of the ritual and realization that we were giving something a chance to live. TreePeople’s ritual of tree-naming helps to encourage volunteers to care during the planting process, which provides a greater sense of responsibility and quality in the work that they do.  Hopefully with these rituals our trees will continue to grow and prosper.

—Drexel Students Ava Skolnik (’15) and Rachel McLaughlin (’16)

Watch videos and read more about the Hillel at Drexel Alternative Spring Break experience with Jewish Funds for Justice and TreePeople at http://servingtheland.blogspot.com.

Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, ’10, is the director of Hillel at Drexel University.

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