First-Ever OU NextGen/Justifi Trip Takes Jewish Social Justice to Thailand
By Cheryl Geliebter
Cheryl Geliebter is a graduate student from Brooklyn, earning an MFA in creative writing from the New School. She attended the Shulamith School for Girls in Flatbush,and then Brooklyn College for her undergraduate degree in creative writing and Judaic studies. Cheryl volunteered in Peru this past January with a different organization, but stated, “I am really excited about being on a Shomer Shabbat/kosher trip this time in Thailand.” Here is her story.
The program was sponsored by the OU NextGen Division, which includes alumni of NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Heart to Heart and the Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program.
Note: For the protection of the Thai children, the policy of Justifi does not allow for them to be photographed. All photos were taken by Deena Klein.
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Day 1, Tuesday
Khaosan Road bustled with activity as a group of 20-something-year-old Jews pushed through the eclectic bazaar stalls. I was one of those Jews, a creative writing Masters Degree student from New York and seasoned traveler, but none of us were your ordinary tourists. We were participants of the first-ever OU NextGen/Justifi trip, led by Rabbi Gideon Black, rabbi of the Orthodox Union Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program at NYU. We came to Thailand not as just visitors, but as movers and shakers, prepared to learn about human trafficking, a major issue in Thailand, and to take a stand against it.
Rabbi Jamie Cowland, founder of Justifi, inspired us by saying, “Judaism believes in the genius of every Jew. It's our job in life to bring out our individual genius and use it for the betterment of the Jewish people and, onwards from there, for the betterment of all mankind.”
Rabbi Jamie has run eleven Justifi trips in the past three years, but what makes the Orthodox Union trip unique is that the participants have a higher standard of Jewish observance. Serena, a participant, said, “I went on a pluralistic program last summer that didn't really cater to an Orthodox level of kashrut and Shabbat.This program really reflects my values as a Modern Orthodox Jew.”
And so, braving flights that never seemed to end, we arrived in Bangkok, as put by Steve Marcinuk, Justifi trips director, “to volunteer from our hearts, heads and hands.” Bring it on!
Day 2, Wednesday
It's no secret that Thailand has a huge human trafficking problem, but many of us on this trip knew next to nothing about it till today. This morning we headed to the Home for New Beginnings, a center that helps very young women recover from lives of abuse and prostitution. Bonita Thompson, founder, described in detail the religious, cultural and economic factors that combine to push these girls into an unspeakably difficult life. Dina, one of the trip's participants, described the home as “full of love for those that are without love.” The beginning of the trip was focused on intellectual orientation to the issues here. The rest of the trip will be spent up north, the starting point of much of human trafficking in Thailand. We will be working hands-on with rural children, teaching them English and skills that will hopefully prepare them for a successful life free of trafficking.
Day 3, Thursday
When I first heard that I would be working with children on this trip I never thought it would include “burning rubber” with them. This afternoon we went go-karting with a group of teens who are being helped by a groundbreaking NGO that assists high-risk street kids. Arielle, a trip participant, said, “It was inspiring to see the kids' reactions to us at the beginning and at the end of the day; from distance to comfort and laughter.” The teens had a great time and so did we. Who knew doing chesed could be so fun?
Day 4, Friday
I can't remember the last time I thought about the games of my childhood. But that's exactly what I was expected to do today. We all headed over to a beautiful lake to relax, have fun and conjure memories of childhood games. Next week we will start interacting with school children, and we all know that the best way to learn is by having fun. Heather said, “When planning for next week I thought about the games that would have engaged me when I was young, ones that wouldn't have bored me.” There is so much potential to help the kids through these games and we are all excited for the week to come.
Day 5, Shabbat
It's no surprise that our group stands out in this country. We pretty much scream “America!” whenever we walk down the street, and to those who might look a bit harder, we scream “Jews!” But on Shabbat we finally fit in. Sitting around the tables at the Chabad house in Chiang Mai, surrounded by Jews from around the world, we felt at home. We davened together with other Jewish travelers, we all answered amen to the rabbi’s kiddush and hamotzi, and sang zemirot and Birkat Hamazon in unison. The most beautiful part was that we did it with Jews from all walks of life, an experience most of us are generally unable to have back home. Dekel, a participant, commented, “At Chabad we met people you wouldn't assume were Jewish. But we all came together to have Shabbat.” We were no longer the odd face in the crowd. We were part of a family.
Day 6, Sunday
Today we traveled via bus to the northernmost point on our trip, Chiang Rai, where we will be based for the rest of the week. The kingdom of Myanmar is a car ride away, so several of us took advantage of the opportunity and crossed the border. Once we were on the other side we went on a quick tour of the sights, fully expecting the excursion to be solely pleasure. But then Dave, one of the participants, noticed a group of boys not unlike the ones we spent time with on Thursday. They were hanging around a table in a public space, and soon we joined them there. These kids were not on our itinerary—no one asked us to engage them in English conversation, but mitzvah goreret mitzvah (literally, one good deed leads to another). As Dave put it, “It's easy to mistrust, but when a given a chance, people will surprise you.”
Day 7, Monday
Today we visited our first school in rural northern Thailand. We split into groups and took over elementary school classrooms for an hour, engaging the kids in the games we planned on Friday. Despite the language barrier they responded very well; they learn basic English in school. After a series of relay races that helped us further bond with the kids, Shelbi led a yoga class for all. She told me, “I've never taught yoga before, but I think this trip showed that I can teach yoga to kids for the rest of my life. Body language is universal.”
Day 8, Tuesday
Rural Thailand is rife with poverty, and many students don't finish high school, either because their families can't afford the cost of uniforms and textbooks, or because there are no high schools in their villages. Today we led an English day camp at a rural school that serves both middle and high school students. We spent a good part of the day helping kids practice their English in a fun, non-threatening setting. Today was also the 17th of Tammuz, and while many of us chose to fast, no one opted to hang back at the hotel. We put our hearts and souls into helping children, ignoring our own physical discomfort. Josh, one of those fasting, said, "I didn't notice that I was fasting because I was so focused on helping the kids."
Day 9, Wednesday
Education is not limited to the classroom. Today we helped out at an after-school center that is run by an organization that provides scholarships to keep poor children in school. We worked on beautifying the grounds during school hours, and once the children arrived we played games with them. The center is a wonderful place with a fantastic mission, but the most amazing part is that it was started by an American. If we had any doubt that we, as foreigners, are capable of making a difference, today we were shown otherwise.
Day 10, Thursday
Most of the past ten days were spent getting to know the people and social issues of Thailand. Today we got to appreciate the land itself. We spent our last morning exploring the beautiful countryside, cruising past rice paddies on riverboats, riding on the backs of elephants, and soaking up the spray of a secluded waterfall. We spent out last morning together as a team, enjoying both the scenery and each others’ company, reminiscing about the past ten days. Rabbi Black said, “The Justifi/JLIC trip to Thailand was a remarkable and transformative experience for everyone involved. The group started out as a band of individuals who hadn't met one another and ended as a tight knit family. We worked together as a team; we pushed each other to stretch out of our comfort zones; we laughed and we cried together.”
Summing Things Up:
Ten days seemed like a long time when I signed up for this trip. But now that it’s over I can’t believe how fast it went. But I also can’t believe how much we accomplished in that time. When asked to sum up the trip, Rabbi Gideon said it best. “We were in Thailand to change lives. We taught underprivileged children English, self-confidence and even some fresh dance moves! We built a roof for an after-school center. We bought and painted furniture for the center so its children could learn while sitting on chairs instead of the floor. We took at-risk teens out for activities like go-karting in a safe, nurturing environment. We gave young people role models where they have none. But the lives we changed most were our own. Faced with the realities of human trafficking and child prostitution we were forced to confront true darkness in our world. We had to ask ourselves, “How are we going to shine our light to combat injustice globally while brightening our internal universe? How are we going to be better Jews and lift our communities with us?’"
As observant Jews we grew up learning about Tikkun Olam, our obligation to make the world a better place. We know that it’s a core value of Judaism, but not many people get to live the experience the way we did. I’ll forever be grateful to Justifi for enabling me to step out of my comfort zone and perform this mitzvah in such a unique way.
Our acts of chesed were just drops in a bucket. It’s hard to sense that we made any difference in the lives of schoolchildren when we were just with them for a few hours. But each Justifi group that comes to Thailand visits those children and helps reinforce the same lessons. And the school administrations and after-school centers let us know what an impact our volunteerism does make. So while we may have left the trip without tangible results in front of our eyes, we feel with our hearts that the future of these children was bettered because of our actions.
Once we leave Thailand the experience is not over. Justifi ensures that its participants remain a part of the family, with opportunities ranging from personal growth programming, to Shabbatonim, to personal assistance with building our own non-profits. And Justifi participants are eligible to undergo training to lead future trips as educators. I am grateful to the Orthodox Union and to Justifi for making this memorable trip possible.
Hanging out. (Cheryl Geliebter is in the green shirt).
Enjoying fresh juice from some of Thailand’s ubiquitous coconuts.
Enjoying a view of Thailand from a different vantage point. (Cheryl is at far left.)
The JLIC-Justifi gang and our freshly-painted mural at an after school center. (Cheryl is in the first row, second from right.)
Making an after-school center a more cheerful -- and educational -- place.
We’re surely not in New York anymore!
Cruising around Thailand in a songthaew, a Thai passenger vehicle. (Cheryl is second from the right.)
This view is worth the jetlag!