Ever since she was in ninth grade, Avital Levine, who lives in Springfield, 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,” she said.
This summer, her dream came true. Levine, a biology major at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in Manhattan, spent five weeks in Nairobi, Kenya, with fellow student Chanie Shalmoni of Brooklyn, a business major at YU’s Sy Syms School of Business.
Interning through the university’s Advance Africa program, the pair volunteered in a medical clinic and orphanage, caring for underprivileged children and gaining hands-on medical experience. Busy as they were, the women found time to go on a safari and explore local sights. They also got to connect with the small local Jewish community, including a Kenyan family who recently converted to Judaism.
Levine is the daughter of Wayne and Irene Levine, who are members of Congregation Israel of Springfield. She is a graduate of the Jewish Educational Center’s Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth. In a message posted on her Facebook page, she wrote: “Words cannot describe the enormous amount of gratitude I have for the most incredible five weeks spent in Kenya helping those who unknowingly helped me in return. B”H these opportunities are available to us and I encourage all to chase their dreams. Nothing is impossible.”
The two students 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. On the weeklong trip participants explored the relationship between social justice, service, and Judaism. The experience further fueled Levine’s desire to travel to Africa — a passion shared by Shalmoni.
Despite much skepticism from family members and friends, the two did extensive research into a variety of different programs and volunteer opportunities, and then booked their flights to Nairobi.
“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 said she plans 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.”