West Hartford native Miri Kassow is learning how one person can make a difference in the world. Last summer, after her freshman year in college, she spent seven weeks in eastern Uganda with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Volunteer Summer. The program places Jewish young adults, ages 16 to 24, with AJWS partner grass-roots non-governmental organizations in rural areas of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Participants work side-by-side with community members on projects that help build infrastructure and sustainability, exploring the relationship between social justice, service, and Judaism. As part of their experience, the group gathers each day to study social justice and international development-related topics through a Jewish lens. At the end of each week, the group plans and celebrates a pluralistic Shabbat together.
After the summer overseas, participants return to their communities prepared to advocate for social change at home. The program continues throughout the year with retreats and opportunities for public speaking, writing, advocacy, and volunteer service.
Kassow says she became interested in AJWS as a freshman at Hall High School in West Hartford, when the organization’s president, Ruth Messinger, spoke at a rally on Darfur. At Muhlenberg, where she is a sophomore, Kassow took a course that explored the effects of the HIV epidemic on her generation, furthering her interest in community service. She decided to take action.
“I wanted to get out of West Hartford for the summer and do community service and international work,” she says.
Kassow was placed with Uganda Orphans Rural Development Program (UORDP), an indigenous rural organization based in Tororo, a district ranked as having the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in eastern Uganda. UORDP works to promote and support the health, nutrition, income, and education of orphaned children, their caregivers, widows and widowers, and other marginalized groups, especially women affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS.
Kassow and her group worked with the NGO on several projects. They prepared an elementary-school classroom block for roofing, and constructed a market stall for women merchants. Four AJWS volunteers also took part in a community exchange, each pairing up with a member of the local community to discuss their respective cultures, families, and day-to-day lives.
Kassow learned from the Ugandans about the challenges they face in accessing adequate healthcare, sanitary water, and quality education. “They were very interested in our religion because we were all Jewish,” Kassow says. “They were also curious about all aspects of our lives. People couldn’t fathom how extreme the comparative wealth is that we live in. I realized that it’s excessive and that we don’t need everything we have, while a lot of people we spoke with are very happy with the little they have.”
Kassow says that she learned to live with less. “Bathing in one bucket of cold water is completely doable,” she says. “You don’t have to take a 20-minute hot shower.” As a result, Kassow says she experienced some culture shock upon her return to the U.S.
Once back in West Hartford, Kassow held an educational presentation at her parents’ home. She has launched fundraising efforts in West Hartford and at Muhlenberg, and is planning an AJWS Global Hunger Shabbat awareness program on campus.
“The value of being aware of other people and not only focusing on ourselves and our own needs has always been important to my family,” she says. Her mother, Lisa, is director of Hillel at Trinity College, where her father, Samuel, is a professor of history. “My parents have always been so influential in the community, and that’s had a huge impact on me,” Kassow says. “They both help other people, and the fact that they’re so inspirational makes me want to do something that will also change the world.”
Kassow also credits her rabbi, Yitzchok Adler of Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford, as a role model. “Rabbi Adler always talks about how important tikkun olam and tzedek are, and leads through example,” she says. “Just this past year, three girls from my Beth David community went on similar volunteer trips to mine, and that’s partly attributed to the way he provides a model for us.”
Her summer experience has taught her about the power of a single individual to effect change. “At first, when I came back, I felt like I couldn’t do a lot as one person,” she says. “You just have to start by talking to one person at a time, and now I know I can make a difference.” Kassow, who is majoring in international studies with a concentration in conflict and peace studies, hopes to work for an NGO or grass-roots organization after college.
“We didn’t go in and tell people what they needed, but we learned from them, asked questions, and worked together in solidarity,” she says. “I learned that the local people know what’s best for themselves.”
For more information on AJWS Volunteer Summer: www.ajws.org