Posted by: ajsssummer | August 14, 2013

Understanding Our Role

By Adam Gerber

DSCN7008AJSS Portland’s 25 Days of Change had another productive week serving the Portland community. While some participants framed a house for Habitat for Humanity, others helped build a playground for the Friendly House. Each passing six-hour workday definitely brought us closer together.

But this week, we also examined what our role is in Portland. Do we represent the Jewish community? Are we helping them? Or are we stereotypical high school volunteers who sometimes help, but who are often just in the way? Well, a member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland joined us for lunch one day, and helped answer those questions. He familiarized us with his organization, and helped us better understand exactly how our efforts are helping people in the Portland community. He explained why it’s so important for Jewish communities and organizations, like AJSS, to reach out to places across the country, especially in towns where Judaism is very scarce. And the best way for community outreach is through immersive service projects, like ours, that actually have an impact on the community.

By reaching out to local organizations, Jewish volunteers are able to leave their mark on a community in a positive, lasting way. Sometimes we’re not sure how locals are going to receive us as a group of outsiders coming to help out their community. But the truth is, everyone who worked for Habitat, Friendly House, PCUN and every other organization we’ve volunteered with were extremely friendly and interested in talking to us and learning what AJSS is all about! Getting a chance to talk to locals gave us a sense of what Portland is really like, and made us feel truly welcome.

Posted by: ajsssummer | August 9, 2013

Our New, Weird Home

By Jonny Rasch

Portland is weird. And I’m not the only one who thinks that. Portland’s #1 selling bumper sticker says, “Keep Portland Weird.” Portland is the only city I can think of think of that has more nicknames than fast food restaurants.

IMG_2942My first impression of Portland came as my flight descended into Portland International Airport. I looked out the airplane window and saw the magnificent Mt.Hood only a few hundred feet away from me. Even though the temperature outside was reaching the 90s, the top of the mountain was covered in snow. At that point, I knew Portland was going to unlike any other city I had seen.

Even though Portland is the biggest city in Oregon, it still has that “small town” feel (probably because Portland is split up into five quadrants). While Portland does have its large buildings and tourist traps, they’re removed from the residential and shopping areas.

Speaking of shops, one of the weirdest parts of Portland could be the abundance of shops that make you stop and think, “Why would anybody need that?” For example, Portland has not one, not two, but THREE(!) different clog stores. Also, the Saturday Morning Market has more clothing stores for dogs than for humans.

When not buying clogs or clothes for their dogs, Portland residents are incredibly eco friendly. The city is full of people who ride their bikes instead of driving, but noticeably absent is the lack of litter present in most other major cities. Portland is home to a number of musicians, all of whom are VERY interested in you coming out and listening to their band. All in all, Portlandians are friendly and sweet people.

But, what really makes Portland stand apart from any other city is the view you get driving across one of Portland’s many bridges that span the Willamette. A glimpse out the left window reveals the snowy mountaintops of Mt.Hood. It’s breathtaking.

When I look back on my 25 days in Portland, I don’t know if I’ll always remember what the crazy stores sold or my favorite streets to walk down. But I know I’ll never forget the one word I’ll always use to describe this city: Weird.

I hope they keep it that way.

Posted by: ajsssummer | August 2, 2013

Work Hard, Relax, Work Harder, Repeat

By Orly Mintz

It’s hard to believe we’re going into our last week of the Kavanah trip. We have been so busy these past few weeks, and the time has just flown by!

On July 19th, two weekends ago, we went camping at Diamond Lake. We took the scenic route there and stopped along the way to hike four mesmerizing waterfalls. When we got to the campsite, we pitched our tents (we did some practice runs earlier that week) and set up camp. Although it definitely was not the Ritz Carlton, we made the best of the situation and all bonded around the campfire as we roasted marshmallows and reflected on the trip so far.

On Saturday morning we went on a nature walk and had Shabbat services in the wilderness. It was really nice praying while being cognizant of the wonders of nature that surrounded us.

On Sunday morning we drove down to Crater Lake and embarked on a 3.5 mile hike, raising a thousand feet in elevation. After the first five minutes I was exhausted and out of breath, but turning around was not an option. I powered through and eventually we all made it to the top. Looking out onto crater lake everyone could agree that the hike was well worth it; the view from the top was indescribable. Later that day we drove back home, only to find that the showers at the YMCA were closed. Since we hadn’t showered all weekend, the only viable solution was a very soapy slip and slide in our backyard!

This week we did a lot of volunteering at a house on Pine Street in need of major repairs. We repainted the fence, cleaned up debris, and scraped all of the old paint off the house. The owner of the house, a 79-year-old woman with two mentally disabled sons, was really grateful for all of our help.

On Thursday half of the group went to work at the wildlife safari while the other half went to work with Habitat for Humanity. At the Habitat site (where I was), we got to lay down and nail together the flooring for what will be the second story of a house. We also toured the Swanson Mill, a lumberyard, and got to see how a tree trunk can turn into the 2x4s used to build  the Habitat homes.

We had time for one final tour before we left for our weekend trip to Portland: The Umpqua Dairy. Once we were decked out in lab coats and shoe covers, we were finally allowed to set foot in the factory. It was awesome seeing the production process for the milk we drink everyday, but getting to sample some freshly made Umpqua Dairy ice cream was even sweeter.

On the drive to Portland, we stopped in Eugene for lunch. On Friday night, after we arrived in Portland and got settled in, we attended the outdoor services at Congregation Beth Israel, the synagogue which hosted us for the weekend. We also prayed there on Saturday morning. The synagogue was beautiful, with stained glass windows and a high ceiling with chandeliers hanging down from it.

In the afternoon we walked to the International Rose Test Garden, where we took the time to walk around and see the flowers, play sports, read, and just hung out. That night after Havdallah we went to downtown Portland and got to visit Powell’s, the biggest bookstore in the country.

On Sunday we met up with the AJSS group that is stationed in Portland. After getting to know each other we were split up into groups and rode Surrey (six-passenger) bikes around a lake in downtown Portland. For lunch we got to walk around and buy food from the different vendors and food carts set up in the park. It was really interesting to spend time with other kids who share our same goals for the summer. We had a lot of fun sharing and comparing our different experiences in Portland and Roseburg.

On Monday we returned to work at the house on Pine Street, scraping and preparing the house to be repainted. We were also interviewed for the local newspaper about the work that we have been doing in Roseburg and why we chose to spend our summer doing community service.

I am so glad that this is how I chose to spend my summer, making new friends and doing work that is really benefiting the community that I have come to know and love.

Posted by: ajsssummer | August 2, 2013

A Warm Welcome

By Talia Myers

I was one of the last people to land in Portland so when I first arrived at Shaarie Torah, I didn’t know what to expect. But when I walked in, I felt an instant sense of relief, because everyone was so inviting and friendly. When I didn’t know where to sit, one of the girls sensed my hesitation and right away yelled out for me to come sit next to her. I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to AJSS Portland.

Attaching roofsThe next morning was our first day of work, and we spent the day constructing and setting up rain beds at a Habitat for Humanity site. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty hot and tiring doing all that lifting, but in the end, our hard work paid off and we got the job done. Of course, we should’ve taken a few more breaks from our hard labor to reapply sunscreen, because by the end of the day most of us got sunburned. At least we all worked through the pain together!

And that’s how we worked through our entire first week: Together. It’s hard to believe we’ve only been in Portland for one week, because I already feel so close to everyone in the group and am really happy to be here.

Even though I didn’t know anyone when I first arrived, the group connected really quickly because we all had something in common: Judaism. Personally, I feel more connected to Judaism culturally than religiously. At home, I don’t celebrate Shabbat or keep Kosher, yet on AJSS I do both. AJSS has already made me feel connected to Judaism in a more spiritual way than ever before. I love the feeling of coming together as a community to celebrate Shabbat.

And when it’s not Shabbat, we’re coming together as one community to help another. The work that we’re doing on AJSS will benefit so many people and actually change lives. I’m proud to be Jewish and making a difference in Portland through the values of Tikkun Olam.  Or, should I say, “Tikkun Portland!”

Posted by: ajsssummer | July 30, 2013

Jewish Society Teens Grateful

By Noah Sadaka and Jamie Starr

(Originally posted by St. Vincent de Paul, one of the oldest social service organizations in Louisville. SVDP Louisville provides compassion and hope for people struggling to overcome barriers to self-sufficiency.) 

Today will be our third and final time working with the children at the St. Vincent de Paul’s summer program. We are 17 teens from all over the U.S., Canada, and even the Dominican Republic, coming together for six weeks this summer with the American Jewish Society for Service (AJSS).

jamie_and_noah_ajsssDuring our time in Louisville, our group has been helping out wherever we can, from painting homes to working at soup kitchens and helping out at community gardens. We’ve been working at St. Vincent de Paul to brighten the days of the children in the summer program, and to help the teachers who work with them.

In the past three visits with St. Vincent de Paul’s summer program, we helped the kids with reading, counting, participating, and having fun. We’ve had a great time and have made many new little friends. We’re very sad to say goodbye, but we’re grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them and hopefully make a difference in their lives.

St. Vincent de Paul has been an incredible experience for all of us. Working with these children has made us happy, knowing who these children are (and the hardships they may have faced) and what we are doing for them.

We also learned about the other facets of St. Vincent de Paul, and we are overjoyed to be working with such an amazing organization.

Thanks for letting us help!

Noah and Jamie

Posted by: ajsssummer | July 25, 2013

A Week in the Life of Kavanah

By Spencer

After a leisurely Shabbat, we drove to Glendale and spent the day playing paintball – an awesome way to start an amazing week, including fulfilling service projects and a weekend away at a summer camp.

Photo Jul 09, 10 25 20 AMAt the beginning of the week, we helped out at the Phoenix School garden, assisting the AmeriCorps volunteers already hard at work. We not only cleared and built a few new paths around the garden, but we also helped get rid of harmful insects and introduce helpful ones to the plants.

We spent one day visiting the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, who are indigenous to Douglas County. They spoke to us about their history, what their tribe is like now, and how they are adapting to modern society. It was actually a really interesting presentation. The next day we went to one of their gardens and assisted them with their crops. We helped weed and trellis their bean plants, and once we were done, they allowed us to pick some strawberries to eat.

One of the coolest things we did during the week was volunteer with Habitat For Humanity. The day before the main project, we went to a site and helped some of the coordinators load a trailer full of building materials. It was a lot of work, but it was rewarding to see the trailer fully loaded, and our project completed. The following day, our group split into two, with half of us going to a work site to help build a house, and the other half working to de-shingle a roof. Both projects required a lot of hard physical labor, but we did well, and the roof group successfully de-shingled the roof in just one day. The group that worked on the house not only helped build its final framework, but they also spent the afternoon working with a different organization called NeighborWorks Umpqua, which is conducting surveys and compiling data to improve living conditions in Roseburg. We went door-to-door in neighborhoods, asking the residents questions; their answers will be used to help their communities.

On Friday afternoon, instead of preparing for Shabbat in the school, we got into the minivans and drove up to the B’nai B’rith Camp near Portland. Even though the drive up was long, we took a short break halfway through to explore Eugene, a really cool city. When we arrived at the camp, we were immediately welcomed by David Zimmerman (camp director and former assistant director of Camp Mountain Chai). After settling into our cabin, we joined the campers for Shabbat. It was amazing to see how similar their prayers and evening rituals are to ours, even though we live thousands of miles away from each other. They made us feel right at home; we heavily participated in the service, and even enjoyed ourselves at the song session and Israeli dancing that broke out after dinner.

On Saturday, we were able to choose a fun activity to do during the day – football, arts and crafts, “chilling on the hill” (i.e. hanging around the camp’s main hill and making new friends). After our first activity, we all donned our swimsuits and headed for the docks. Split up onto two boats, we took turns riding on the inner tube that was hanging off the back of each. Except for the occasional head bump while sharing the inner tube, we all had a really good time.

After showering and getting dressed, we ate dinner and headed to the amphitheater for skit night, where each cabin had to make and present a skit to the entire camp. Considering we had minimal time to plan, we had a pretty impressive rendition of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” A lot of the skits were entertaining, but we still think ours was one of the best. We concluded the evening with Havdallah, which was different from our services at home, but was still a really nice end to Shabbat. Afterward, we headed back to the cabin and packed our things for the ride back to Roseburg.

When morning came around, we finished packing our things and went to the mess hall for a quick breakfast. The we got into the car and started the long drive back to the Phoenix School.

And so we began a new week, ready for more crazy adventures ahead.

Posted by: ajsssummer | July 23, 2013

Meeting Muhammad Ali: Two Perspectives, One Legend

By Ariel Bergman

After cooking lunch and serving food at the local soup kitchen, it seemed fitting to spend our afternoon at the Muhammad Ali Center, an exhibition dedicated to a man who only wanted goodness in the world.

As we toured the fourth and fifth levels of the center, we witnessed Mr. Ali’s hard work and dedication to two of the most important thing in his life: Boxing and equality. It was amazing to see one man so passionate and devoted. As we wound through the museum, we saw him fighting for victories; victories inside the ring, and victories for equal rights.

The most inspiring part of this visit was watching a clip of Muhammad Ali refusing to go into the army. “America has done nothing for me,” he said, “Why should I do anything for them?” He took a stand against what he believed was wrong and never faltered. Little did I know, a few moments later I would meet the man behind the legend, himself. I was in awe.

Muhammad Ali

By Sam Parven

Last year my dad took me to the MLB All-Star Game in Kansas City, KS. Before the game, he took me to the NLBM. It was there I saw Matt Kemp. It was incredible! Having that opportunity was a once in a lifetime moment, or so I thought.

My AJSS group and I took a trip to see the Muhammad Ali Center. Apparently, the woman at the front desk told Danny and Meredith (our project directors) to hurry the group up to the fifth level of the center, because they had a special visitor. Not knowing the reason for being herded up there, we were just sort of hanging around when all of a sudden Danny comes up to us and says, “Hey, look guys, it’s Muhammad Ali.” We turned, expecting to see a fit man walking around, confused when we couldn’t find him. Someone finally pointed out a man in a wheelchair being pushed around by his family. Seeing Mr. Ali in a wheelchair definitely took many of us by surprise. In fact, there was a lot of conflicting emotions as we met and took a group photo with him, waiting while a family member moved his hands into a posed position, with two fists in the air as if he were in a match.

Throughout this entire process, Muhammad Ali was silent, yet seemed to be aware of everything around him. And though his silence is caused by Parkinson’s, I found it inspiring. I don’t remember seeing him shake when I met him, he just seemed very calm. So I tried silence for a day, and I feel calmer and more aware than ever before; I even feel more in control over the symptoms caused by my own Tourette Syndrome.

Muhammad Ali is a…is MY hero.

Posted by: ajsssummer | July 18, 2013

Building Communities

By Tamar Palgon and Elliot Bromberg

(Written following the conclusion of week 1)

During our first week on AJSS, our group worked with City Repair to help build mini libraries. IMG_3001The libraries were constructed  out of recycled wood and windows, and contained shelves in which books will be placed for people of different communities to enjoy and share. Anyone can take or leave a book in these boxes, and the hope is that these libraries will help facilitate interaction among neighbors, helping turn neighborhoods into communities.

Photo Jun 28, 1 36 27 PMAfter we built the libraries, we set them up on people’s lawns, giving us the chance to speak with many of the residents who had requested the libraries. One man created didgeridoos (wind instruments made from wood) for a living and played them for us. Most of us had never heard a didgeridoo before, and were surprised that the sound was similar to electronic music.

While it was great to meet the people benefiting from these libraries, it was also really interesting to see how something small, like these libraries, can have a huge impact.IMG_2945 One community we visited, Sellwood, gathers each year to paint a mural on the road at an intersection. This was the first community out of many to do so in Portland. When they first painted the road, it was illegal, but in breaking the law, they actually brought about positive change in the community. And now it’s a beautiful tradition.

Spending our days working on our various projects this week was a lot of fun, but this weekend is when we really started coming together as a unit. By hanging out off the work site, we had more time to bond and it’s how we all truly became friends. Together we hiked at the Columbia River Gorge National Park, swam in the enormous Columbia River and took in the sights and sounds of Multnomah Falls. The views were unreal.IMG_3080

We also took time to strengthen our own, small AJSS community. On Shabbat we shared with each other the items most important to us that we brought on the trip. And every night during the week we have a ritual in which we share something (song, poem, quote, video, etc) with the group. It’s a special way to end each day.

Knowing all of this happened in just one week, it’s crazy to think how strong our community will be by the end of the trip. And we can’t wait.

Posted by: ajsssummer | July 17, 2013

Making the Most of Every Moment

By Lily Grier (originally written July 3)

It’s strange to think that we’ve all been on this trip for only one week. The connections made and the friendships formed seem to transcend that small amount of time. Somehow, together, we manage to turn every moment (working on a job site or even killing time in traffic) into a memorable experience. And that’s exactly what happened today.

photo 19 Jul 11This morning got off to a bit of an unusual start. In honor of Bonnie’s birthday, we all greeted her with hugs and singing as soon as we awoke. But then we had to take a break from the celebrations to head off for a full day’s work.

Or so we thought.

On the way to the work site, the car that I was in, along with five other participants and a staff member, got a flat tire. We made ourselves useful – checking the air pressure and chugging some Slurpees – until, serendipitously, a kind stranger came along and helped get us on our way.

Instead of reporting to the YouthBuild headquarters as per our usual schedule, we went to the People’s Garden, a community garden in Louisville. photo 1 Jul 11We weeded, harvested and mulched all day long. Even though the work was hard and it was hot, we didn’t mind because we knew that our work would be directly helping others to get fresh and healthy food in one of the nation’s food deserts (as we learned the other day). We even got to take some of the collard greens back to the synagogue with us, and we prepared them with our celebratory pseudo-homemade pizzas (in honor of Bonnie’s birthday).

photo 15 Jul 11After dinner, we went to a Louisville Bats’ (AAA League, whatever that means) game. While I don’t understand the first thing about baseball, it didn’t matter, because we all had a great time sharing the experience together. We even stayed after the game to watch a fireworks show as part of an early Independence Day celebration. By the time the fireworks ended, it was late and we needed to get home.

After making our way back to the parking structure, we realized there was positively no hope of getting out of there in the foreseeable future. So we did the only logical thing we could think to do: We got out of our vans and proceeded to partake in an impromptu sing-off against a group of native Louisville teenagers. The experience was spontaneous, confusing and awesome. The lot was still completely clogged after we finished battling it out, so we walked around and got a midnight snack together. Six hours from our departure from the synagogue, we finally returned and promptly crashed on our air mattresses.

I’d say it was a productive, impactful, surprising and overall wonderful day. And now I must sleep.

Signing off,


Posted by: ajsssummer | July 15, 2013

AJSS Portland: A Group United

A Recap of 25 Days of Change (Portland), July 1-7

By Daniel Barondes

This week AJSS changed its focus from working with City Repair (during which we built and delivered mobile libraries to various locations in Portland) and teamed up with  Habitat for Humanity, the Sigma Project and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN). For those readers who struggle with languages (myself, included) PCUN  translates to the Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United. PCUN essentially lends a hand to undocumented migrant workers who find themselves at a loss when it comes to their fight for better wages, housing, and overall treatment.

Facing New Realities Together

We began our time with this agency by viewing the homes in which the workers live. However, we soon came to the conclusion that calling these living arrangements a “home” is quite misleading. Some workers stay in cramped two-bedroom shacks where one will often find a total occupancy of ten or more residents. Air conditioning is completely out of the question and we quickly realized that it’s not only the farmworkers who live in these disturbing conditions, their children do, as well. It is upsetting to imagine the hardships that these people, who are not treated as such, face on a daily basis. A normal day for a farmworker consists of extremely long hours, backbreaking physical labor, and little rest; some do not even eat.

One might ask why these farmworkers do not simply demand proper treatment, or perhaps stage a strike. Our visit led us to ask an important question, one that has been pivotal in PCUN’s endeavors–should migrant farmworkers, most of whom live in this country illegally, possess the “inalienable rights” enjoyed by American citizens? Recent events have shown that reactions to this debate are overwhelmingly against the workers. In addition, those farmworkers who are, in fact, citizens of the United States are still hampered by the fact that the rights of farmers to organize and initiate collective bargaining is interestingly left out of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

Overall, we were shocked by the injustices farmworkers (migrant and stationary, alike) face. Unfortunately, it is difficult for either side to concede, because many of these migrant workers are here illegally in the first place. It is an issue that remained at the heart of our discussions throughout our time working with PCUN, and one which we will likely continue to struggle with during our last week in Portland, and even after we return home.

Working Together

While volunteering with PCUN, we assisted with various on-site construction projects  that included building a bioswale to regulate water runoff, constructing a shed for tools, painting a handicapped ramp, planting flora on top of a green roof, and installing a new fence to surround PCUN’s headquarters. A big part of PCUN’s ideology is sustainability and this value can be seen by their CAPACES Leadership Institute, a building that is 100% GREEN and totally self-sufficient.

Later on in the week we spent time with Habitat for Humanity where the AJSS ‘Rip City Crew’ (our group’s nickname, credits to Professor Josh Sklar) taped virtually every door frame, window, and corner for painting. The house we were working on was located in Southeast Portland and was part of Habitat for Humanity’s revitalization project. Although the paint fumes may have smelled somewhat offensive, the work was still gratifying.

We also became acquainted with Jesse, aka Sigma, founder of the Sigma Project. This project “was founded to grow sustainable local produce for the disadvantaged community while creating independence through the teaching process.” Some of the work we performed included removing the sod from a future garden, landscaping work, and planting seeds.

Growing Together

And while we’ve worked hard, we’re also taking advantage of our three short weeks in Portland. Last Tuesday, to celebrate the birthdays of Elliot and Tobin, the counselors surprised us with a trip to Voodoo Doughnuts, a locale which features a wild assortment of doughnuts, from fruit loops to maple syrup with bacon. On July 4th we took advantage of our day off and slept in late (a.k.a. 9 a.m.) had a breakfast of delicious pancakes. We visited the biggest urban park in the United States, walked a couple trails and spent the rest of the day at a popular Blues Festival, where we listened to some “killer” jams. As July 4th came to a close we viewed a firework display over the Willamette River before heading for home.

On Friday, the crew prepped for our camping trip, and at around 3 o’clock we packed up our belongings and headed for Oxbow Regional Park. AJSS spent three days and two nights at Oxbow and it was a major bonding experience. On Saturday we played Truth-Truth-Lie, a game where we were divided into groups of three. Two people came up with a truth, while the other stated a lie. It was the job of the other groups to determine who is telling the lie. This game was not only fun, but also revealed a great deal about ourselves and our lives.

On Sunday we discussed, in groups of five, the importance of religion in marriage and everyone shared his or her opinion on the matter. I personally feel that we arrived at the park as a group of volunteers – with some knowing certain people better than others – but left as an inseparable family. We shared Shabbat and Havdallah together, meals by the campfire, nights  under the stars, a little karaoke singing, and most importantly, our thoughts, feelings and values (some quite personal). This week has served as a crucial discovery stage for everyone on AJSS Portland. I can only imagine what the next two weeks have in store.

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