Alex Kitsburg is a typical 17-year-old. A Jewish student in his final year of A-levels, he has just filled out his university applications. But despite his age, he is a changed person, as he’s also not long back from Africa, where he was one of 20 Tribe Ghana participants. They spent 10 days helping to run a day camp in a village near Tamale, a mostly-Muslim city in the north of the country, and it has changed the way they think.
For the Volunteering and Leadership Experience, run by Tribe, the youth arm of the United Synagogue, in conjunction with anti-poverty charity Tzedek, sixth-formers like Kitsburg dived into a new world, requiring months of training, to prepare them for life in Africa.
Tribe fieldworker Sam Cohen said the trip would help to show them “the importance of contributing to society outside our own communities”, adding that it was “something new, inspiring and life-changing”.
Kitsburg agrees. “It was a huge culture shock upon arriving in Ghana,” he says. “Although we were told about the poverty before we went, it’s something you can’t really prepare for. It’s so different from our life in London.”
The group flew into the slightly richer south before heading to Tamale, Ghana’s third-largest city and 70 percent Muslim. The 100 youngsters at the oversubscribed day camp were “curious” about these strange Jewish people who had come to see them from England, he says.
“When we arrived, they were trying to find similarities by comparing and discussing. Religion is a big part of their lives and of our lives, so it came up as a natural topic of conversation. We were the first Jewish people they’d ever met, so they learned things from us.
“For some of the children, we were the first white people they’d ever seen. It was as if we were a spectacle, something novel. Kids would be running alongside the bus to get a look at us.”
Did it all go swimmingly? Not at first. “It was slightly problematic at the beginning,” Kitsburg explains. “The idea was for us to help the Ghanaian youth workers, or madrichim [guides]. Instead, it was as if the white man had turned up with his plans and now he’s going to do it. After a few days, we got that collaboration going. The Ghanaian madrichim started to use our ideas and ran the camp really well.”
Was wealth an issue? “I’m not sure they know the lifestyle we have,” says Kitsburg, adding that most had never left their village. “I think they’d be shocked to see the contrast. We were shocked. It definitely made us appreciate what we have a lot more. You can see a photo or read a statistic but it’s different from seeing it for yourself, seeing some people’s lives compared to what you were moaning about a week before.”
He recalls arriving at the school “There were basic stone buildings with wooden benches as classrooms, one television for the whole school… just nothing there. When you compare that to home, when you see how many kids pack into each of their classrooms, it’s both astounding and upsetting.”
But poverty doesn’t necessarily mean sadness, he explains happily. “We were shocked at just how happy these children were. We weren’t sure whether it was because they didn’t know what they don’t have. Then, on our last day, half the kids burst into tears, trying to stop us leaving. It was then we realised what an impact we’d made on them.
Finally, what does Jewish social responsibility mean to him now? “A lot more after Ghana,” he says. “While I can’t solve poverty in Africa, I realise I’ve a duty to do whatever I can to help.”
He quotes the group’s helping hand, Ilana Epstein, rebbetzin of Cockfosters and North Southgate Synagogue, who says: “One of the lessons we try to instil in the participants is that social responsibility is a core Jewish value.”
Kitsburg agrees. “It’s not about our responsibility when in Ghana, or Africa; it’s about our responsibilities as Jews. It could equally mean volunteering in London. That’s something we’ve all learned. It’s changed the way we think.”