By Rabbi Benji Levy
In February, prior to the launch of Shalom Corps, I joined a service trip to Lesbos, Greece, to witness the incredible work being done by our partner, IsraAID, at the Moria Refugee Camp firsthand.
Serving as the makeshift home for more than 5,000 refugees, Moria is overcrowded and often dangerous, and the streets flow with waste and filth. Its inhabitants come from some of the most dangerous places in the world, including Afghanistan, Syria and The People’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, and huddle in tents, often waiting months to receive asylum on the mainland where their lives can finally start anew.
Upon my arrival, a frigid wind blew down a family’s tent, their only shelter. In solidarity, a crowd of people braved the cold to help the family repair the tent. The scene was simultaneously beautiful, inspiring and heartbreaking.
Soon thereafter, I was led into a classroom at the School for Peace filled with young children of different nationalities. Though they all lived in this seemingly hopeless situation, I was astonished to see that their faces were filled with hope. When I asked who among them loved school, all of their hands shot up. They were simply delighted to have the opportunity to receive an education and were eager to talk and listen.
Their ability to remain focused and excited about learning while living in one of the most miserable places on earth made it clear to me that it is possible to break the cycle of poverty and make a difference no matter how dire the circumstances. In my many years as an educator, I had never seen such a rundown facility – but then I had never seen that kind of passion for education either.
Service experiences challenge us to see the world differently. An economic downturn or natural disaster can be the difference between relative prosperity and poverty. The simplest necessities can be taken from us in the blink of an eye.
In 2017, Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria, which tore through the island and destroyed much of its infrastructure. As of this writing, it has still not been fully restored. Most notably, clean drinking water and electricity are not readily available. On another IsraAID service tour to Puerto Rico, I was struck by how I had never really considered what life would be like without these “luxuries.”
Thankfully, devoted volunteers have stepped forward to build a filtering system to provide safe drinking water for residents impacted by the hurricane. Some of the IsraAID volunteers studied water and agriculture in the deserts of Israel and are using what they learned in places like Puerto Rico that are struggling with water scarcity issues. In our efforts to “make the desert bloom,” we have developed technologies that can save countless lives around the world.
I returned from these two humbling and enlightening service experiences with a strengthened resolve to ensure the success of the Shalom Corps. Service is powerful. It provides us with the opportunity think, feel, learn and experience differently, to open our eyes and become the very best versions of ourselves. In doing so, it strengthens our humanity and empowers us to heal the world.