By Catherine Sheffo
January provides students with a break from classes and assignments, but community service doesn’t have to take a back seat during the holiday season.
The winter holidays are often the hardest time of the year for those in need. Thankfully, there are plenty of Jewish-related community service opportunities over the break to keep caring students involved and engaged in helping communities when they need it the most.
“We have lots of local volunteer opportunities and just because it’s winter break doesn’t mean it needs to stop,” said Amy Weiss, the director of service learning initiatives at the University of Maryland’s Hillel, “we could always use students who want to be involved.”
While a few of Hillel’s community service programs do pause over the holidays, several others such as working with elementary school students after school or volunteering with family crisis centers in Prince George’s County will continue.
Dena Lehmann, a senior biochemistry major, is planning several volunteer initiatives through a service fellowship at Hillel ranging from recruiting more volunteers at the crisis center to building a greenhouse at a nearby high school.
Lehmann said that while her projects aren’t set it stone yet, she’ll be working steadily over the break and hopes that they’ll be up and running regularly by the start of spring semester.
“My vision is to have UMD students help out regularly for both of these,” Lehmann said, “There are a lot of opportunities for students to get involved because they both need a lot of help to get off the ground.”
Student volunteers organize transportation and carpooling informally, but according to Weiss, if the interest is there, there’ll be a way to move the students.
Some programs, like one involving trips through the Jewish Disaster Response Corps, only run during winter and spring breaks and provide opportunities for interested students to forge new connections with the national Jewish community while helping respond to natural disasters.
Maryland Hillel will be part of a trip to Oklahoma from Jan. 12 to Jan. 19 that is still recruiting volunteers. Students who sign on will help repair broken homes and spirits in towns devastated by tornados last May.
The program does come with a participation fee and students must pay their own airfare to the volunteer site. Samantha Kanofsky, a program director at JDRC, said that students who can’t afford the trip should still try to get involved in their local and college communities.
“I think something local communities are always appreciative of is when students cross that barrier and see what’s going on in their own backyard,” she said.
Weiss also stressed that students don’t need to be staying on campus or involved in Hillel to serve the community over the holidays.
Students who won’t be spending their break in College Park can find service organizations in their hometowns or through their home Synagogues to volunteer with, as well as simply visiting and assisting a neighbor.
Student volunteers can work directly with those who are less fortunate by staffing homeless shelters, organizing and inventorying at the food pantry, or visiting patients in the hospital.
Equally important are those opportunities that allow service organizations to run smoothly such as doing office work, collecting signatures for petitions, or lobbying city counsels or state representatives.
Regardless of how students decide to spend their time off, Weiss encouraged any student interested in volunteering to think about their options, but most importantly, to just get involved.
“It’s about figuring out what you care about and what you’re passionate about and then where’ll you’ll be over break and the issues facing that community,” said Weiss, “There’s plenty of work to be done in the world, it’s just finding your connection to it.”