Young Judaea Year Course participant heads to Africa

By Cindy Mindell

Zoe Robbin likes to travel – so much so that the Fairfield resident and 2014 graduate of Fairfield Warde High School began her freshman year knowing that she would take a gap year before college in order to do just that.

A Pennsylvania native, Robbin was in third grade when she and her family moved to Fairfield, where they joined Congregation Rodeph Sholom in nearby Bridgeport. Robbin was involved in the RAM BBG chapter of BBYO and served as its president.

After graduating high school, she chose the Young Judaea Year Course partly because of its affordability. The program begins with a semester in Jerusalem, where participants take classes on Zionism and in Hebrew language. The second semester is spent either volunteering or participating in Marva, a model Israel Defense Forces program. Robbin chose to volunteer at Yemin Orde, a youth village for at-risk teens in the northern Carmel region, and considers that experience the most meaningful of her time in Israel.

Last month, she joined eight fellow gap-year participants – four each from the U.S. and UK – to tutor children in English for three weeks at the Agohozo-Shalom Youth Village in southeastern Rwanda. Modeled after Yemin Orde, established in 1953 to care for orphans of the Holocaust, Agohozo-Shalom supports children affected by the 1994 genocide by providing a supportive family unit, structured education, and enriching extracurricular programs.

Robbin chose the mission for several reasons.

Zoe Robbin with Yemin Orde Students

Zoe Robbin (second from left) with her Yemin Orde students.

“Foremost, I believe that the Jewish people have a moral responsibility to the Rwandans after the genocide there in 1994,” she says. “Having been victims of genocide, we have a unique duty to respond to a genocide when it happens, and aid in the recovery when unable to stop it. Whether we always fulfill that responsibility is another question. Furthermore, I find African culture very interesting. I don’t know much about the way people live in the developing world and my experience witnessing the daily lives of many Rwandans was extremely eye-opening.”

Robbin says she was struck by the friendly demeanor and work ethic of every student she encountered there. “I met students who wake up at 4 a.m. and go to sleep at midnight in order to gain extra studying time,” she recalls. “They are devoted to their dreams – and their dreams are not easily accomplished. Many are studying to become doctors, politicians, journalists, or singers. Although many of them desire to attend schools in the United States or abroad, every student I asked said that they would return to Rwanda with their degrees and use their education to benefit the development of the entire nation. This selflessness and determination impressed and inspired me.”

Robbin also took part in the Jerusalem U Oz Fellowship, an elite Israel-advocacy training program for students in various gap-year programs, yeshivas, and seminaries.

“After studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli conflict with the international community, I wanted a chance to delve deeper by living in Israel for the year,” she says. “The fellowship has furthered my understanding of the conflict by giving me opportunities to hear people such as [Peace Now director] Yariv Oppenheimer speak, and organizing a Shabbaton at the Kfar Tapuach settlement in the heart of the West Bank,” she says. “I’ve been able to get a comprehensive understanding of both sides of the spectrum.”

Robbin says that the gap year is what each student makes of it, and she has taken every opportunity and free period to travel within and around Israel with friends, an “extremely worthwhile and amazing” aspect of her year-long adventure.

In September, Robbin will attend Emory University with a major in either anthropology/African Studies or Women’s Studies and a minor in development.


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