This blog post was written by Sean Epstein.
Today was Friday, and it was our last day volunteering at Petersfield Primary & Infant School. I took a risk and volunteered myself to help out with the infants. I had worked with young kids in the past in my temple during Sunday school, but that was only for two hours once a week. This was a whole new level, as I was with three year olds for about five hours. We reviewed the letters of the alphabet, days of the week, and simple shapes. During the afternoon, we painted and created art. To my surprise, they allowed to me to keep all of the art work that we worked on as a class as a thank you gift. Throughout the day, I had flashbacks to my own time in preschool, which was a nice distraction from the work that is building for me when I return to UVa.
The school presented the group with multiple thank you gifts as a send off. Both grade 5 and 6 classes wrote personalized thank you notes to us, and we received a thank you from a group of students that we befriended throughout the week.
After four days at the school, I can say that our work was beneficial, but I also questioned if I personally was helpful. Yes I helped paint the wall outside the school and interacted with the students. But oftentimes I felt when I was teaching math to grade 4 or doing practice tests with grade 6, if my presence was more of a hindrance than help. In the math room on Monday, I was unsure if my teaching was getting across to the children because I felt they were more distracted with a foreigner being inches from them than trying learning math. On Thursday, I attempted to help grade 6 with a practice science GSAT test, but I am horrible at science and for a few questions I didn’t know I tried to guess, but I knew the students knew I didn’t know the answers. Regardless, I felt my most important contribution was just being there with the students and interacting with them on a human-to-human level, rather than a teacher-student level.
In the evening we had Shabbat services and dinner. We studied passages from Exodus for Torah study and had a small Shabbat service before devouring a beautiful feast prepared by each of our host mothers. The table was filled with chicken, salad, wine, potato salad and, of course, rice and beans. After Shabbat, the group chilled at Mama J’s house for the evening, where we all mentally prepared ourselves for going to Negril and relaxing at the beach during our last full day here.
Today’s blog post is courtesy of David Magat.
After our first day off in Westmoreland, we started the morning off with breakfast with our host family before leaving for our third day at the primary school. At this point, we have all gotten a chance to experience different parts of the school and got to choose where we would assist. Sama and Michael worked alongside the infant school while Sophie and Sean assisted the 6th graders who are preparing for their GSAT (high school entrance exam). Meanwhile, Colton, Matt, and myself continued to paint the wall a beautiful shade of blue and gold.
After our day at the primary school, two great things occurred. First, we were informed of our win against Louisville #GoHoos! Secondly, we were told that we were allowed to go to the local pool. Unlike pools in America, this manmade pool was filled with fresh spring water that was constantly flowing. There was a rope swing attached which allowed for endless fun and taught us that some are not as strong as others.
Following the pool, we went back to our host families for dinner followed by a game of soccer with some of the kids in the neighborhood. Lastly, we went back to the AOC for the Petersfield town meeting where we got to share with the community our experience so far on this trip. I think I can speak for everyone when I say I have had a blast on this trip but am sad to leave in a few days.
Today's post is from second year Birthright Intern Colton Sheehan.
Today we took a slight hiatus from working at the school and instead went on a few excursions. We got to sleep in a little before heading off to Bluefields Organic Fruit Farm, where we received a tour from the owner himself. For anyone skeptical of the powers of organic food, the man was 54 but looked half his age and had the nimbleness of an alley cat. He showed us around his garden, which seemed to be chaotic compared to the well ordered farms we are used to, with different plants strewn about haphazardly. He explained that this was a way of resembling nature, a common theme his farming strategy. As we walked among the trees and bushes, he pointed out some of the crops we may never have seen before, such as the nasberry or the Jamaican Apple. We got to try many of these fruits, as well as a coconut fresh off the tree and sugar cane cut from the stalk. To finish the tour, he showed us the view from the top of the hill, an incredible spectacle and the most common draw of tourists to Bluefields. Check out the organic farms Facebook page here:https://www.facebook.com/bluefieldsorganicfruitfarmtours/
We spent the next few hours of the day lounging at Bluefields beach, a local beach that is seldom visited by tourists. The weather was immaculate, the water was marvelously blue, and the sand was perfectly white. It honestly looked like a scene from a postcard. Unfortunately, barely anyone was able to escape the harmful rays of the sun, so we all look a bit more red than we did yesterday. Luckily some still had aloe Vera stalk from the organic farm to rub on their sunburn.
While at the beach, we had a long conversation about the idea of “voluntourism” and our definitions of service. For those who may not know, voluntourism is the intersection of volunteering and tourism, in which participants spend their vacation completing volunteer activities while also engaging in tourism (such as going to the beach). There has often been debates about whether or not voluntourism is beneficial, as it takes jobs away from locals and replaces them with potentially unqualified tourists. Objectively, our trip is considered voluntourism, so we had a debate amongst ourselves to determine whether or not we believed we were having the most positive impact we could on the community in which we’re volunteering. And honestly, we generally felt like we really aren’t benefitting the school in the greatest way possible by entering their classrooms and taking over for teachers, which is what we have been told to do. However, I personally feel that what we bring isn’t just the physical manpower, but rather the cultural exchange that comes with immersion. That is a large part of the service we are providing and it has a large impact on the young impressionable kids that probably do not meet many Americans. Even a small interaction can make a big difference.
After the beach we went back to have dinner with our host families. We had some down time which I spent playing soccer in the street with some locals. Then we went to a presentation about Rastafari, a religion practiced by some Jamaicans that originated from an Ethiopian King. Finally we ended the night with a culinary arts demonstration, as many of the host mothers taught us how to make the dinners we’ve been receiving over the past few nights. Of course, this involves more eating, as the food we made had to be consumed. Afterwards we went home for the night and prepared to go back in the classrooms the next morning.
Thanks for reading and we’ll be back tomorrow with another blog post! Lata!
Today's post is from Sophie Dornfeld.
I think everyone would agree that today was the first day we really felt comfortable. This was no longer a day of firsts, in the sense that we knew where we were doing our service and generally what to expect from our host families. But still, this was a very exciting day.
We started out marching with the students for the Peace March, which falls on Jamaica’s Peace Day. Although we were in the back and couldn’t fully hear, we all understood the impact this would have on the greater community. Witnessing elementary schoolers advocate for peace for their schools, homes, and communities, hit surprisingly close to home considering the school shooting that recently devastated America. It was an admirable display of their commitment to and desire for peace.
At the elementary school, Michael, Matt, Sean and I painted the wall. I could sense that the leader organizing the painting process was doubtful of us, possibly because I’m a girl or possibly just because we were all a little scrawny and clueless, but I think we showed him that we were still competent. We made do, even though we quickly ran out of paint. We certainly set a strong framework for the following day and made considerable progress.
The highlight for me, though, was engaging with the 6th graders who were picking up trash near the wall. At first I felt bad for talking with them instead of painting the wall, but then I realized that this form of “service” was perhaps just as impactful as painting the wall. I came to the conclusion that I can still be successful even if a particular task (like painting the wall) is not accomplished. I believe I still had a “successful” day by befriending those students, hopefully empowering them and bringing a little brightness to their days. I also decided that I might be of better use in the classroom.
After lunch we visited the library/special education classroom to provide extra assistance to those struggling with reading. I was relieved to see that these students were getting the extra help they needed, which made me think about all the students in underprivileged areas who are not being taught in the way they need, simply due to a lack of resources. I spent most of this time walking around from classroom to classroom and playing soccer with the 6th graders from before. I made a promise to the students I met yesterday that I would see them today and I intended to keep my promise. I felt fortunate that I was able to follow through and show them that I am invested in their success and care about their wellbeing, even if my way of showing this was just walking around to say hi and play “futbol.”
We then debriefed about our experiences on a soccer pitch. We thought we would get to spectate a soccer game, but later learned that the game was cancelled because the security detail fell through, not because there were goats on the field, and yes, there really were goats roaming the field.
Following school and debriefing, Mama J (best host mother ever) took us on a field trip to the grocery store so we could experience it first hand. We were surprised to see an abundance of American products, but rest assured, there were still authentic Jamaican groceries scattered throughout. From fresh fruit, to their own ice cream brand, to Jamaican rum, there was no shortage of authenticity.
After a delicious jerk chicken dinner, we joined the rest of our group and the other visiting group at reggae night. We learned about Jamaica’s music history and then learned some modern Jamaican dance. Even though I’m the worst dancer, I still had fun letting loose and taking in Jamaica.
Upon arrival at the school, we were promptly greeted by the energetic schoolchildren and put to work by the school staff. Two teams were assembled, the “artist” team of Colton, David and myself, and the teacher team of Sophie, Sean, Michael, and Sama. Over the next couple of hours we proceeded with our tasks, one group beautifying the walls of the school and the other instructing the kids in Math, Spanish, and French.
We had an orientation to go over the itinerary, which got us very excited for the trip. Jenna kept being referred to as the "smallest group leader ever!"
After orientation, we got to meet our host families, and my host mother’s name is Mama K. She was very kind to us, and we got to meet her dog, Ben. We also had the opportunity to try local bananas, which are slightly sweeter than the ones at home, and we got to hear about her past students that she’s hosted from all around the country.
My favorite part of the day was getting to meet an Olympic gold medalist curler at the BWI airport and getting to see scenery as we drove through Jamaica.
When I was a student at UVA, Hillel helped me out so much. From helping me find a spiritual community on grounds, to free meals with Shabbat dinners and bagels on the lawn, and even letting me use the building as a location for tutoring students! Jake even let me have my engagement party there after I proposed to my fiance this past August. For all of these reasons and many more, I will always have a special place in my heart for the Brody Jewish Center and will continue to give back to the organization that helped me so much as a student.
I give monthly to Hillel for many reasons. First off, it's a lot easier for me to give a little steadily throughout the year than to give a large sum of money once a year. I can plan giving into my budget so that it doesn't take a large chunk out of my bank account once a year. I also know that organizations like Hillel love to have monthly donations because it helps them plan their activities knowing they will have a steady stream of revenue coming in. Think of it like would you rather have a paycheck you get twice a month, or have a much smaller chance of getting a larger sum of money? I know I would rather have the steady paycheck for peace of mind!
I hope reading this helped you see why I give to Hillel and has inspired you to give back too!
- Ben Edgar '15
This summer I was a Hillel Summer Intern at the Schusterman International Center in D.C. My specific internship was as a Jewish Experience Intern through the Meyerhoff Jewish Education Center, and it was focused a lot on Jewish education in Hillel programming.
Myself and the other Jewish Experience Intern did a lot of work going through education archives to determine what was still useful/could be worked on for further use, and what was no longer extremely relevant to the Jewish young adult. We also started work on a Pilot program for Jewish Holiday education on campuses, and helped with Webinar programs to train staff on using new programs and materials.
Towards the end of the summer I was part of the logistics team for Institute, the Hillel International Conference in St. Louis for new professionals and engagement interns. I was responsible for planning the Body&Soul programming for the mornings so that people could exercise their bodies and minds before the busy day. I also helped with day to day logistics during the conference- anything from working registration to driving people and large items in golf carts around campus (Which was a major highlight for me)
Hillel International also set up opportunities for myself and the other interns to participate in professional development classes and to network with a variety of staff within the SIC during the summer. I was able to meet so many amazing professionals who are currently in a field I some day hope to work in, which was so valuable to me. I feel so lucky to have worked with Hillel International this summer and I am excited to bring back my knowledge to UVA this year and our own Hillel programming!
- Annie Weinberg
It was after a long day of packing, driving, and moving in that I got the news that the Alt-Right was coming to Grounds. It was that night that I stood truly terrified for my livelihood, alone in my new room, looking through a worn peephole and heard the chants, “Jews will not replace us,” as a mass of flames flowed up the Lawn. When my pavilion neighbor came to get me, I ripped off my Jewish jewelry and hid my painting with Israeli flags, but there was no way to remove the physical indicators from my body. Everything about who I am felt like a threat. They hated me, and here I was in this room. I sprinted terrified into the pavilion a couple doors down, just mere feet from hundreds of people carrying weapons and wearing shirts with symbols that clearly communicated they wanted me dead—while some had these same symbols tattooed proudly to their skin.
I can never go back to the way I was before that night. I cannot look at torches, swastikas, or even the Lawn the same way. I am traumatized by what happened and immediately following that night, everything felt like a threat. I started to count the number of Jews in my classes. I changed the way I walked so I didn’t have to cross the Lawn after the sun went down. I slept with ear plugs so I knew when the chants were coming from outside my door or inside my head. I honestly felt like I was going crazy. After that experience, my world fundamentally changed. The way I thought, the way I engaged (or disengaged), and the way I felt was different.
Living through and experiencing one of the greatest demonstrations of anti-Semitism in the past half century was an aggressive reminder of my Judaism. Something so personal and integral to who I am made me feel scared for my life. I have never felt more Jewish than in that moment and in the months that followed, and I felt comforted to know that fellow Jews felt the same. I found a sense of safety and security in other Jews and found myself turning to my Jewish friends and Hillel staff as my greatest source of support. I am eternally grateful that I had these relationships to fall back on because they are truly what got me through each day last fall.
As much as I hate to give my experience with literal Nazis a silver lining, it was that experience that brought me closer to my Jewish friends and showed me the tremendous strength and resilience of our Jewish community. I can’t quite describe how important it was to be to be able to walk into Hillel and be surrounded by people who just “got it” or feel the support from fellow Jews when the rest of my world seemed to be crumbling. Despite the terror and trauma, this place still means the world to me. Our University, our country, and our world are far from perfect, but the power of the Jewish people to be there for each other when we need it most is what assures me that we can make it through.
-- Diane, 4th Year Student
Unlike many of my peers on our Alternative Spring Break trip to Berlin, I didn’t have many personal connections to Germany or even the Holocaust. All of my grandparents were born and raised safely in the United States by the time World War II came, so thinking about the Holocaust has always been one-step removed. I have also been fortunate enough to spend time on other trips diving deeper into Holocaust education and remembrance, including a week in Poland touring Auschwitz and the other infamous death camps.
Because of all of this, my experience in Berlin was perhaps different than someone who lost a relative during the Holocaust or who had never previously come into physical contact with relics of the atrocity that occurred. Maybe I thought I would feel more distant from the history, but leaving Germany, I could not have felt more differently.
If you glimpse at the past hundred years of German history, you’re immediately forced to grapple with stark changes in national identity. After WWI, Germany was meeting modernity, yet unsure of what it meant to be German. During WWII, Germany had a narrow definition of its national identity and sought to persecute all who did not fit within it. After WWII, Germany was split and forced into two vastly different schools of politics and thought. And finally, after reunification, about 5 years before I was born, Germany was given a bunch of broken pieces and a goal for a modern Western democracy. Coming into contact with all of these points of identity change forced me to think about how volatile identity is in the world we live in.
As humans, we seek continuity, especially in our identities, so I empathized with how Germans and especially German Jews were forced to continually readdress their own identities as the history of the world marched forward.
Just as German identity has continued to shift over time, I have realized that Jewish identity, too, must continually be reflected upon and not merely something taken for granted. Identity isn’t static, it responds to the experiences around us and transforms as we process the people, places, and things with which we come into contact.
Although I didn’t expect it, I think I was one of many students whose understanding of my Jewish identity evolved over the course of my time in Berlin. Throughout my life, I have come into contact with various Jewish communities, studied and socialized in different schools, and have participated as a citizen in many different political climates. With each change, I am forced to recapitulate what being Jewish means in the here and now that I experience. For one German Jew, every decade, every year brought new challenges and opportunities for understanding national and religious identity.
While in Germany, I was forced to reflect upon my role as a citizen, as a member of a faith community, and as someone who has one foot in each community: the secular and the religious. I was reminded of all of the Jewish people who, over the past hundred years, have sustained themselves through the tumultuous history of the world and have adapted to make sense of it all.
So perhaps I did not arrive to Germany with an immediate connection to the narrative shared with us, but it did not take long for me to understand the volatile history of identity transformation in the country and how I was far from immune from that process of transformation, as well.
-- Michaela Brown
Class of 2017
The Brody Jewish Center, Hillel at the University of Virginia, is the focal point in a renaissance of Jewish life for the 1,800 Jewish students on Grounds.