Around this time last year, I was puzzled with the prospect of finding a worthwhile, resume worthy summer job. I am a student at the University of Connecticut studying Urban Youth and Families. I wanted to make a difference. I was not interested in just earning money. I am driven to impact people and learn from my work. My passion lies in service and I thrive off of the fact that change is possible. I’m determined and inspired by the prospect of our world becoming a better place. Retail wasn’t an option for me, I needed something bigger.

That’s how AJWS Volunteer Summer came into the picture!

After searching long and hard I could not find a job. This is probably how many college students feel each year. I called my mom and said, “Well I can’t find work. So, can I go to Africa instead?” As I expected that did not go over too well. Issues of finance and safety were discussed and with much persuasion and generous scholarship on behalf of AJWS the worries were out of the way and I was sending in a visa application on my way to a summer in Uganda. I couldn’t have been happier. I was getting to travel, serve and learn! It was the opportunity I was looking for. AND…

It was the best decision I could have ever made!

created at: 2012-11-27I spend my summer with eighteen peers who motivated me to want to learn so much more. I served with the NGO Friends of Orphans and before my eyes we contributed to the building of a radio station. I never expected I would be able to help and do the required physical labor with such ease. Although the work was strenuous it was amazing! We were motivated to work harder each day and the difficulty of the work passed as our conversations grew deeper with our new friends.  I spent five days a week for seven weeks working alongside Ugandan youth and workers learning about their stories and their histories. I was stunned when I heard of their past and listened as they outlined their hopes for the future: school, work, family, financial stability to name a few. 

I shopped at the local market and participated in home visits. As we became comfortable in the town of Pader, we were trusted and accepted. It was a warm feeling to walk around and know people, we had friends! This culture is so outstanding and I am forever grateful to the friends who took me shopping and showed me to cook. Who shared their homes with us and their stories, the bad but mostly the good.

created at: 2012-11-27We also traveled to the Abayudaya, the Ugandan Jewish community, and joined in joyful praise during the Kabbalat Shabbat service. This Shabbat was one of the most surreal things I have ever been a part of. Across the world we were all Jews together and that is what made Uganda really feel like home. The tunes and prayers were so fervently sung out loud. Everyone sang together regardless of which language and when I realized Judaism connects people all over the world, the only thing that I wanted to was call my mom. She introduced me to a song once the main lyric is “Where you go, there’s always someone Jewish”. It sounded in my head so loudly and when we walked for an hour on Shabbat afternoon to meet a local high school student, Rachel’s, family it was unbelievable that in the middle of Uganda we were preparing for Havdallah and singing Jewish songs together, we were truly connected by Judaism and it was so special.

My travels led me to interests in international development, government aid, international education and history. After seven weeks I was sure it had not been enough. We all left with many unanswered questions and bursting at the seams to make a difference. We discussed how we would share the stories, experiences, sights, and service with people when we got back and it seemed almost impossible. Everything we saw and learned changed me and motivated me. I got home and immediately jumped on and tried to get involved in EVERYTHING! Uganda left me feeling inspired to make a difference and I will be doing that this coming semester in South Africa. I will be participating in a study abroad human rights and activist program. I cannot wait to develop an activist project and work in an internship placement when I can learn and grow and become even more fascinated. 

Traveling is the best gift I could have ever asked for. It gave me a chance to learn and grow but most of all to ask questions. I am fortunate for the people and experiences I have had and I hope that by sharing my passion many others who are ready to make a difference and create change the world will follow in my path. 

See pictures from my summer in my Picasa gallery.

I would love to answer any questions or come to your synagogue or school and do a presentation. Please contact me at or visit the AJWS volunteer summer webpage.

There are so many ways to make a difference. Please consider stepping up for service and donate your time to making a difference this year!

Melissa Lovitz

Powered by service, motivated by change!

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