Rutgers Hillel Alternative Spring Break: Leaving a Piece of Ourselves in Oklahoma
By Ben Weitz, Class of 2016
Written on 3/17/14, the first day of the trip
Right away, we had a great confidence-building experience our first day on site. A man needed his roof inspected and re-shingled, so we left our rooms at 8:30 in the morning and drove about 40 minutes away from Oklahoma University campus where we were staying. On the drive over, many of us were remarking about what a different lifestyle people must have in Oklahoma. Most of us coming from the Northeast, we couldn’t imagine living in an isolated home in the middle of Tornado Alley, having to anticipate disaster every spring. Driving up and down the rolling hills of the Oklahoma prairie definitely set the scene for the work we were about to do, and helped us change our state of mind in order to be focused and better relate to the people in the area.
We stopped briefly at a church about 10 minutes from the site where we were welcomed with coffee and tea and given a short orientation along with students from other universities. Around 10am we divided into two teams, and half of us drove to the roof that needed repair. The house was on a hill in the middle of a rural area, and once we got on top of the roof we had an amazing view stretching for miles. Now it was time to get to work.
We began by using shovels and our hands to strip the roof of its old shingles and inspect the wood underneath. Luckily the side of the roof we worked on today was in pretty good shape, so shortly afterwards we began to put a fresh layer of protection on top of it. During our breaks we kept ourselves occupied by getting to know the family and checking out their animals. They had three dogs, including an adorable 2-week old puppy, horses that liked to roll around in the clay-filed soil beneath them, and a rooster that crowed incessantly. We definitely weren’t in New Jersey anymore.
One of our chaperones, a firefighter from New York City named Jimmy, taught us how to lay tar paper down and re-shingle the house. We definitely did not take having an experienced handyman on site for granted. He showed us how to cut and position the shingles, and how to use a nail gun responsibly. We needed to redo a few pieces, and the strong Oklahoma wind nearly blew our tar paper off the roof once or twice, but we’ve done a great job so far. Tomorrow we will finish putting shingles on that side of the roof and start work on the other.
We drove back to campus around four, tired from the work and the sun’s rays. After some rest, we went to Oklahoma University’s Hillel house, had dinner as a group, and participated in group conversation about the nature of our volunteer work. Ben and Sam, our JDRC leaders, did a great job of making the space a safe and comfortable one where everyone could share their thoughts free of judgment. Discussing our privilege and how to respect the community we are working for brought an important sense of consciousness and sensitivity to us, and having the discussion right after our first day of work was certainly no coincidence. The leaders of our trip are taking strong measures to make sure we see this trip as a community building exercise, both here in Oklahoma and on a national level, between the students and the community members and between the students themselves. Tomorrow we will do our work with a heightened awareness of what our labor really means, changing slightly each day. As one of classmates said, we arrived thinking we were just volunteers. Now we think of ourselves as workers, leaving a piece of ourselves behind in this new community.
Since 2003, Rutgers Hillel has participated in annual Alternative Spring Break (ASB) programs. This blog post from Ben Weitz ’16 offers a first-hand glimpse into what a difference this program makes.
Rutgers Hillel’s involvement in ASB was organized by Greg Yellin, Director of Engagement, and the trip was staffed by Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, the Reform Outreach Initiative Rabbi. This program is one of the cornerstones of Rutgers Hillel’s engagement programming, allowing students to connect to their Jewish identities in a deeper, more immersive way.
Help students like Ben continue to build on their Jewish value of social justice through events like Alternative Spring Break. With your support, our students can continue to build Jewish community and strengthen their Jewish values.