You could call this CJP PresenTense fellow a fish out of water. As the director of Project CALL and its Interfaith Appalachia program, David Fisher brings together students from Boston and Kentucky for hands-on service projects. I asked David how a vegan Jew from Boston found himself in the middle of coal country.

Give me a sense of Interfaith Appalachia: Who are your participants and what is the application process like? And how do you choose where to perform your community service?

created at: 2013-08-09First, a quick clarification: Our recently re-launched umbrella organization is Project CALL, and Interfaith Appalachia is now our alternative break program. Our key focus is the Community Leadership Intensive (CLI) in the summer.

For Interfaith Appalachia, we partner with colleges and universities. The schools apply, and then we work with a chaplain and one student, who recruits and coordinates a diverse student team. We spend our week working with evangelical ministries in Harlan County, Kentucky, which have been our partners since fall 2010. Once a school applies, we provide an application for students so we can confirm our readiness to take on each student and our ability to meet their specific needs.

For Project CALL’s Community Leadership Intensive, we recruit diverse students from Greater Boston and central Appalachia directly through our program staff in Boston and Kentucky. Our service sites for the pilot last week included leading food justice/community agriculture sites in the Greater Boston area. Our focus is on leadership development, and we look to service partners as providing a chance for students to get their hands dirty. The particular mode of service is not particularly important, but we focus on bringing the students together with a balance of service, dialogue and leadership training.

What does being a PresenTense fellow mean for you and Interfaith Appalachia?

Being a PresenTense fellow is a great blessing to me and to Project CALL. I have most enjoyed the camaraderie. Small group workshops with other passionate Jewish entrepreneurs gave me a chance to more fully understand and articulate how the Jewish community and tradition inspire my work. PresenTense also provided key connections to coaches, partners and funding opportunities that have made this work possible.

You’re originally from Boston and went to school in Ohio. What drew you to Appalachia?

As a third-year environmental studies and Jewish studies major, I began to notice that I wasn’t hearing any perspectives from the folks who would be most immediately affected by environmental policies surrounding coal. I also noticed that coal country is essentially in the Bible Belt, and I had never met an evangelical, conservative Republican. So I worked with classmates at Oberlin College to organize a week-long alternative break partnering with an evangelical community service ministry in coal country. What emerged were powerful friendships, and many students and community members demanding more dialogue and more collaboration. I’ve written about that first trip here.

I read that your vegan diet was inspired by kashrut (dietary laws) and ethics. I’d love to hear more about that and if there was actually food for you to eat on your trips to coal country.

This is one of my favorite topics! On that first trip, not so much; on subsequent trips, very much so. The Cloverlick Freewill Baptist Church has not only adopted me but has become a close organizational partner. Their members host all of our groups for large potluck celebrations, and now they always provide vegan options—in spades!

Amusingly, my full-time summer colleague based in Boston is also a vegan. When we spent two weeks in Kentucky, she was consistently amused and surprised that everyone had prepared vegan options in advance of our arrival. Apparently I had paved the way for her!