Ever since she was in ninth grade, Avital Levine, a biology major at Stern College for Women, dreamed of traveling to Africa. “I got hooked after watching a documentary about HIV/AIDS and, from then on, I was determined to go there.”
This summer, Levine’s dream came true when she spent five weeks in Nairobi, Kenya, with fellow student Chanie Shalmoni, a business major at Sy Syms School of Business.
Interning through the Advance Africa program, the pair enjoyed a unique opportunity to volunteer in a medical clinic and orphanage, caring for underprivileged children and gaining hands-on medical experience. The women also had a chance to go on a safari and explore the local sites, in addition to connecting with the small Jewish community nearby, including an African family that had recently converted to Judaism.
Levine, of Springfield, NJ, and Shalmoni, from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, first met last January as participants on the Center for the Jewish Future’s humanitarian mission to Nicaragua, where they assisted with the construction of a public library. The weeklong trip allowed the students to explore the relationship between social justice, service, and Judaism, and further fueled Levine’s desire to travel to Africa and try to make a difference—a passion shared by Shalmoni as well.
“Our trip to Nicaragua was like an appetizer; it gave us a little taste of what volunteering was all about, but we wanted the whole meal, dessert included,” said Levine, who aspires to treat children as a nurse practitioner one day. “It was amazing how we were able to communicate with the kids we met, even though we didn’t speak the same language.”
“It was emotionally taxing, but we left wanting more,” said Shalmoni. “We learned about poverty, cultures, family dynamics, and community and wanted to have another chance to experience that, so we decided to take the leap.”
After extensive research into a variety of different programs and volunteer opportunities, the two booked their flights to Nairobi, despite much skepticism from family members and friends.
“Everyone thought we were crazy and didn’t believe that we would end up going, but we proved them all wrong and had an amazing time,” said Shalmoni.
Some of their preparations for the trip included receiving an array of immunizations, taking anti-malaria pills, and figuring out how to pack enough kosher food to last them through the duration of the trip. They also brought along mezuzahs and Shabbat candles, in addition to five weeks’ worth of clothing, since laundry could only be done by hand.
Though the beginning of their trip was overwhelming, arriving Friday afternoon right before Shabbat, Levine and Shalmoni soon settled into a routine. They got accustomed to their daily diet of oatmeal, tea, coffee, protein bars, pasta, and rice, and became experts at traveling on the local matatu, an overcrowded 15-seater bus that bumped along the area’s unpaved roads. They also formed close friendships with their fellow college-aged volunteers, who hailed from France, Germany, Holland, and Spain.
“All the volunteers lived together in a big house and we had an unexpected closeness with them, sharing our experiences and bonding over our passion for this kind of work,” said Shalmoni. “Most of them had never met a Jewish person before, and we had nice, open dialogues with them. Once they were able to overlook our differences, they could appreciate the similarities we shared.”
“Even though there was no Chabad house in the area, we were like shluchim [Chabad emissaries] in Africa,” said Levine. “Everyone was interested in learning all about Judaism and was very respectful of our religious practices.”
The pair spent several weekends with members of the local Nairobi Jewish community, comprising about 50 mostly Israeli families who are largely unaffiliated but traditional in their Jewish observance.
A highlight of the students’ trip was working in a clinic where they performed basic observations; took blood pressure, heart rate, and pulse; learned how to stitch; provided physical therapy; and tested patients for multiple diseases, including malaria, HIV, syphilis, and typhoid.
“I felt like I was really making a difference,” said Levine, who tended to many patients, including pregnant women and people suffering from post-op infections, and even made house calls with one of the doctors.
The women also volunteered at a Christian orphanage, where they played with the babies and children, washed dishes and shoes, and prepared ugali, an African meal made of water, corn, and lentils, for the children each day.
“You need to know how to give and how to help,” said Shalmoni. “In Nicaragua, the CJF gave us the tools and knowledge, and the guidelines on how to volunteer and educate properly, and we were able to put that into practice in Kenya.”
“It was really a life-changing experience,” Shalmoni added. “I would go back there in a heartbeat.” v