Asalaamalekum! That’s how we say “hello” here in Senegal where I have had the privilege of spending my summer. My name is Gabby Posner, and I am a rising third year in the Batten school, studying Public Policy and Economics. I ventured to Senegal this summer to co-lead a research project with my friend and research partner, Grace Wood. Together, we are qualitatively researching poverty as it affects female-headed households in Senegal. Our research aims to discover if, as claimed, female-headed households are less poor, and, if so, what economic, social, and political factors could account for this. Our daily routine involves taxiing to an interview spot for the day where we then conduct individual interviews and focus groups. At the start of next semester, Grace and I will analyze our data under the advice of our faculty advisor, Professor Jeanine Braithwaite, to prepare to present our findings at the Southern Economic Association conference in November!
Aside from the academic side of my experience in Senegal, I have found a deep appreciation for the Senegalese people and culture. In preparation for my trip, I went through countless measures to find a Jewish community in Senegal. As nerdy as it is, I always remembered the song from Hebrew school that says, “wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish!” Well, I can assure you that the song is unfortunately mistaken. I have been unsuccessful in my search, which included contacting the rabbi of the Chabad of Central Africa, meeting with past Jewish Fulbright scholars, and asking around in the local population. For the first time in my life, I am the only Jew in my neighborhood — maybe even in the country — as Senegal is about 95% Muslim.
I can genuinely say that this experience has only further benefited my ability to immerse myself in the culture, while also reflecting on my Jewish identity internally. I live with a Muslim host family, with whom I often discuss (to the best of my French-speaking ability) the close similarities between Judaism and Islam. As the first Jew they have ever met, I have the great responsibility of accurately portraying my own community of Jews back at home, in the rest of the diaspora, and in Israel. For example, when I first told my family that I am Jewish, they did not understand how I could be Jewish and American (as in not Israeli). Even as a Jew, I find immense value in participating in the Islamic traditions practiced by my host family. During Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan, I spent the entire day celebrating with my host family while wearing the traditional Senegalese dress that I had purchased with my host aunt the day prior. No matter where I go in this world, my Jewish identity will always come along with me. This unique quality is a true gift and a source of pride for me. It has allowed me to build a relationship with Senegal, not only as a researcher, an American, and a UVA student but as a Jew and most importantly a WaJew!
The Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia, is the focal point in a renaissance of Jewish life for the 1,000 Jewish students on Grounds.