Inside Uruguay and Argentina: Travel, Heart, Leadership – Entwined

By Nicky Auster

Growing up in a thriving Jewish community in Melbourne, Australia and attending a Jewish day school, being Jewish was always a part of my identity and something that I perhaps took for granted. I have never been comfortable in leadership positions, preferring to focus on the smaller picture. Attending a party in Melbourne back in July last year where one of the Ralph I. Goldman fellows talked about his experience volunteering in the Philippines, I picked up a postcard for the JDC Entwine Young Professionals trips. When I read that the aim of these trips was to “explore JDC programs addressing community needs, meet with local leaders to discuss communal challenges and discover the culture and history,” I was hooked – the trip sounded like a great way to meet like-minded Jews, to see Jewish communities around the globe and reconnect with my Jewish identity. So within a couple of weeks, I applied to join the trip to Uruguay and Argentina, and happily, my application was accepted.

It’s a worldwide challenge for young Jewish adults to retain their Jewish identities once they finish high school and move into the wider community. There was a time when I didn’t think G-d was relevant in my life. I distanced myself from anything religious or “too Jewish”. I had lost interest. I managed to reconnect with G-d and Judaism through a religious friend. My renewed regard for Judaism prompted my interest in participating in this trip.

Fearing that I did not have leadership qualities, I found reassurance in a particular quote about leadership that I read in Laura Dannels’ blog “Life Lessons & Learning in India: Tikkun Olam”: “Being a leader is not about a position or title. Being a leader is about inspiring and engaging others in pursuit of something bigger. It is a mindset and it's woven into every action that person takes.” Participating in the JDC Entwine Inside Jewish Argentina & Uruguay trip certainly bolstered my leadership qualities and application to community needs.

Reading the biographies of other participants before going on the trip was a little intimidating. I doubted my community contributions, assessing them as less valuable by comparison. The other participants on the trip were high achievers with very important-sounding titles who sat on multiple boards in the Jewish community. However, despite everyone’s success “on paper,” it was interesting to learn that a lot of participants deal with similar issues that are common to many people around the world – finding a life partner, struggles about maintaining a healthy work-life balance, how to make a meaningful impact on the Jewish community, finding true happiness and self-fulfilment. Meeting people from all over the world identified the universal need to be valuable and authentic members of a community. Recognising a common Jewish heritage in very different communities gave me a sense of connection and belonging.

This journey is by far one of the most fulfilling trips I have been on, especially given that it was about connecting with other Jewish communities and leaders at local charities, instead of a frivolous trip with no higher purpose besides having fun. A couple of weeks before I went away, I caught up with a friend of mine who had spent 2 years living and working in Argentina and confessed to her that I was a little apprehensive about my trip to South America. Her advice resonated with me – she said, “Just go with an open heart and you will be fine.” Sometimes hearing wise words like this from a close friend is all you need. I discovered some incredible activities on my initial touring, prior to the group tour – a private tour of Montevideo which included a drumming lesson and seeing a lively parade for the International Day of Uruguayan Candombe; a night of symphony at the Solis Theatre; a local rock band at Tractatus Cultural Centre; a night of tango music…and that was just in my first 4 days in South America!

And then, meeting up with the JDC Entwine group, I felt proud to be a part of a community with real "movers and shakers" that focuses on "tikun olam" and setting an example to the wider community. I acknowledged my inner leadership qualities, realising that leadership is not about a position or title, it is about inspiring others to make a difference. I also remember feeling a deep spiritual connection to other Jews around the world even when we couldn't necessarily communicate that easily in words, but connected through the universal language of dance and song. A lot of the highlights of the JDC Entwine trip involved making connections with the elderly Jewish people with whom we interacted. I was moved to tears hearing an elderly resident in the high-needs ward of a Jewish Elders Home in Montevideo break into an impassioned version of Adon Olam in the same tune I learned growing up. It had particular impact on me given that I no longer have any grandparents alive. Another great experience was having lunch with some of the elderly residents at LeDor VaDor Old Age home. The lady at our table, Sofia, had an amazing story and showed us the same tenacity and will-to-live that is so common amongst that generation. Sofia was small in stature but a very tenacious and fun-loving lady. Her English was fluent having spent many years translating texts from Spanish to English and working as a nurse with the Red Cross for 40 years. She was also a very funny lady, particularly when she told me that that I was charming and had nice teeth! Given that she had no family left, Sofia really enjoyed our visit and even followed us out to the bus, crying for us to take her with us, which was very nice to hear but also poignant. Yet another fun experience with the local elderly community was dancing with a group of Jewish elderly ladies at AMIA. I love to dance and connect to the elderly and was particularly moved when I was able speak to some of them using Hebrew as the common language.    

Now, back in Melbourne, Australia, I feel reinvigorated and inspired to start volunteering more regularly in the Jewish community, such as CCare food preparation and deliveries, Jewish aged care home visits and mentoring Jewish high school students from underprivileged backgrounds. Once returned, there were quite a few difficulties to deal with. Friends had health issues, a girlfriend had to deal with the untimely death of her husband. I had to confront the fact that unfortunate things can happen to good people. Throughout these challenges, I was amazed at how supportive and caring our community is. Practical care for other people, cooking for them, raising money and working out rosters to care for someone who is going through a particularly difficult time, is an uplifting way to help. It made me very proud to be part of a caring Jewish community, which is a theme that was very prominent on the JDC Entwine trip.

I would highly recommend the JDC Entwine trips to anyone who is looking to reconnect with their Jewish identity and be inspired to make positive difference to their local communities. This trip was life-changing, life-affirming and definitely one of the best journeys I have undertaken.

 

Written By

February 24, 2016 at 10:52 AM

 

 

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