A Passover Story
Before Passover of 2015, Sam’s family hadn’t hosted a seder since the passing of her great grandparents. They passed when she was twelve, and it wasn’t until she moved from Long Island to Charlottesville for her first year at UVa that Sam really began cultivating a relationship with her Judaism again.
By her second year at UVa, she’d become a regular at weekly Shabbat dinners and services. She’d gotten involved with Israel-advocacy, and had made a close circle of Jewish friends within the community at Hillel.
“I was the one in my family to really start reviving those traditions,” she said. “I felt like some of my family’s Jewish identity died when my great grandparents did.”
That’s why during Passover of 2015, Sam decided to bring her dad and brother to the Brody Jewish Center’s first night seder. She wanted them to see firsthand the relationship she’d been building with her Judaism and with the Jewish community.
And when thinking back on that seder, Sam remembers watching it click for her dad, and remembers how affected he was by the experience. “During that seder, I think his life really changed,” she said. “After the seder, he said to me ‘I get it, now.’ He understood why I embraced this lifestyle.”
“Hillel brought Judaism back to my dad,” Sam said. “It was possible because of this beautiful, warm community. He felt welcome and comfortable.”
Three years later, Sam says she and her dad light candles when they’re together Friday nights. They’re going together on his first trip to Israel, and she’s celebrating Passover with other Hillel at UVa alum in D.C. She says her dad is on his own path with exploring Judaism now, and is grateful that Hillel at UVa could help build that bridge.
Day 7: Saying Goodbye
We then headed to Negril and first stopped at an overpriced souvenir shop. I found a Jamaican Red Sox hat, so I was satisfied. Our next stop was Margaritaville. The drinks were unsurprisingly overpriced, but Sophie and David each managed to win a free margarita. The water was a bit chilly as the weather was overcast. After a couple hours we headed to a local restaurant for lunch. Sean was brave enough to order curried goat while the rest of us opted for more familiar meals. He described the goat as "chewy." Sophie also asked that I mention her fish was served whole including the head and spine.
Once lunch ended we headed to the self-proclaimed world famous Ricks Cafe. Not only were the drinks overpriced, but they were also poorly mixed. David again won a prize for knowing Red Stripe Beer's motto: what's good. Unfortunately, this prize was not a free drink. The cafe also has a few cliff jumping spots, with the highest one topping out roughly forty feet. Only Matt, David, and I took the plunge from this height. I landed firmly in my butt on the first jump and even after ten hours it still hurts. For the next few hours, we passed the time relaxing, eating, swimming, and half-heartedly dancing. Throughout the course of the trip, it has become evident that I'm clearly the best dancer.
Anyways, we stayed at Rick's for the "world famous" sunset, which was tremendously underwhelming. We then raced out of the cafe to beat the masses of people leaving as well. The day ended with a going away party hosted by Mr. Brown and the host families at the Association of clubs. We discussed our favorite moments of the trip and ended the night with singing and dancing. It was a memorable way to end our stay in Jamaica.
Day 6: Our last day of volunteering
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.
Day 5: In the swing of things
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.
Day 4: Thinking about voluntourism
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!
Day 3: Getting comfortable
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.
Hello from Jamaica!
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.
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.