Written by: Darren Rabinowitz, JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in Rwanda
Welcome to Rwanda!
It has been three weeks since the four JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellows, Shayna, Lauren, MC, and Darren (me) have arrived in Rwanda. As our minds and bodies (and stomachs) acclimate, I find myself fascinated and inspired. Life takes time here. There is no rush. The pace at which people work and go about their daily tasks is slower. In Western cultures time is money and if things take longer, revenue is lost - but in Rwanda it is just the way things are. Rwandans enjoy their time together, allow conversation over milk to flood an afternoon and invite everyone to breathe in the views that are constantly around. Coming off of living in Washington D.C. for 4 years, one can imagine the immense difference in lifestyles. It has been a stark difference living amongst the wealthiest and most influential people in America, to working with the most vulnerable people in the Rwanda (to say the least).
I write to you from the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. ASYV or the Village for short, is organized in a way to restore the rhythm of life for Rwanda's most vulnerable youth. The Village is rooted in the Jewish values of Tikkun Halev and Tikkun Olam. During my interview process for my JDC placement, I did not know where in the world I could lend my skills, being an arts educator. I pictured myself in Europe or in Latin America engaging Jewish commutes via the arts but I quickly found out that there was a different plan for me. I still remember receiving the email stating I was being considered for Rwanda. One can imagine the initial shock and then internalizing this news. It took time but I am glad that JDC Entwine placed me in the most appropriate position for my skills at ASYV.
My specific role is working on Village-wide programming. I coordinate enrichment programs including sports and arts, as well as Village Time which is allocated every Friday for students to showcase their talents. I am constantly amazed at the raw talent the students possess, and their desire to share these gifts. In Rwanda, your talent is who you are and how you connect to others. Culturally, it is unacceptable to not share your talent for they bring light to the world.
I am also a ‘cousin’. The role of a cousin means that I have been inducted into a family of 24 (freshman year) boys in addition to two big brothers (graduates of ASYV) and a mama (a Rwandan woman who plays a maternal role in the family).
On the day to day, I forget that my boys don’t come from the easiest of lives. I do not know all of their stories, nor do I feel I should. Some have shared, while others keep it to themselves. As educators, what we do know is that most of our students have lost either one parent or both. Many are heads of households, often supporting several brothers or sisters. Most students come from backgrounds of neglect, abuse, and almost certainly made to grow up too quickly.
It often overwhelms me that, despite the hardships they have faced, the students have an incredible passion to learn, to try new things and to instantly adopt the family model ASYV upholds. For example, I have a few students who approached me and asked why Rwanda is not like the United States. We then proceeded to discuss comparative histories of colonization, the implications of resource extraction and lasting legacies of European expansionism in Africa. Other boys in my family ask me where they can find an English to Kinyarwanda dictionary so they can practice translation. I see these students carrying dictionaries around with them as if they are a Willy Wonka golden ticket. Even students who struggle with English intently listen to our debates, frequently checking with their neighbors for correct interpretation. Their understanding, at such a young age, that education is the key to success is inspiring.
At times, I think about the connection I have as a Jewish person to the lives of the Rwandan young adults I work with. What I think of is that we are both a people who experienced genocide. We both understand the immense loss, grievance, and repercussions of losing huge portions of our people. After visiting both genocide memorials of the Holocaust and Rwandan Genocide, I have a greater appreciation and understanding of what it’s like to live in a place experiencing the aftermath of overwhelming tragedy – perhaps similar to Jews who have migrated to Poland or Germany years after World War II. The religious center down the road, the old factory up the hill, the event space downtown are all places that were once part of life, and can now be seen as a reminder of death. I imagine that the older faces I see on the streets here in Rwanda resemble the faces of my Grandparent’s generation. The permanently furrowed brows. The cloudiness of their gaze, all lost somewhere in the past. I wonder who they were, how they were involved, and how they have come to terms with all that has happened a mere 22 years ago.
Reflecting on why I came to Rwanda, and my experience so far, I realize it is not me who is lending a helping hand to the students at ASYV. Rather, that they are assisting me in healing, learning and understanding. We, Jews and Rwandans, have a mutual responsibility to help one another, brush each other off, and hold our heads high with dignity. That, as survivors, we have an innate, shared responsibility of shouldering this title. We all come with baggage, and it is our duty to one another to help carry each other along our own paths.
Written by: Gary Fayman (alumni of Inside Jewish St. Petersburg in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles)
It’s almost 9pm. Fatigue consumes me. The plane is quiet, and almost everyone is asleep. As I get up to stretch, I look out the window. The breathtaking sunset glistens over the light blue ocean below. Looking toward the approaching skyline, it suddenly hits me: I’m clearly on the other side of the world. I sit down, amazed and excited. A minute later, the flight attendants announce we’re about to land. It now all felt real: We were about to land in St. Petersburg.
Landing in Russia was a huge “fish out of water experience” trying to navigate the daunting language barrier as I passed through immigration. Once I passed through customs and retrieved my luggage, however, the tension was gone. I joined the group as we met our tour guide and waited for the bus, all of us very aware that we were about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. I, for one, was not disappointed.
Over the next week, we learned, we engaged, we felt, and we celebrated. The experience was the perfect combination of sightseeing and service work. From the Hermitage Museum and Peterhof Palace to riverboat tours and the endless sunlight of summer nights, I was deeply impacted. Experiencing Russian culture was spectacular. The locals were kind and it felt good to practice my limited Russian. While the tourist portion of the trip couldn’t have been more incredible, it wasn’t the only reason I came.
I frequently think back to the partner sites we visited and activities we participated in, witnessing the impact of JDC with the partnership of my home community, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. We gardened in the rain to create a beautiful and better tomorrow for children, we participated in a Lehava (a young adult leadership development platform) member’s project, and traveled through a pitch-black tunnel to experience life as a blind person. However, the most meaningful part of the trip occurred when I met Irina.
When I heard that the Russian government only provided $200 per month for homebound elderly, I was stunned. How could someone survive on so little? These are people who need food, medication, medical attention, and sometimes around-the-clock care. Frankly, this was horrifying. I’m so thankful that our assignment prior to heading to Irina’s home was to stop at a local supermarket and shop for her. We were given a list with her requests, and we had fun picking out cheeses, yogurts, and vegetables, all while trying to decipher the Russian labels. Irina’s apartment was a short walk away. We arrived at a dilapidated building with an overwhelming odor in one of the poorer neighborhoods of St. Petersburg. After emerging from the elevator, the apartment door opened, and we were greeted by the friendliest, most charming woman I’ve ever met.
We shuffled through Irina’s tiny apartment and sat in her living room as she told us her story. Irina was a former English teacher and spoke the language quite well. Her parents had recently died, and she returned to Russia from Hungary to take care of them. Recently, Irina suffered a fall that left her homebound and practically immobile. Even walking from one end of her small apartment to the other was painful. At only 64 years old, Irina was limited, stuck, and depressed. Her only child, a son, lived in Hungary. She hadn’t seen him in a few years and though she couldn’t afford to visit him, they talk daily and remain quite close. When we presented Irina with the food we purchased, she was so humbled. Our hearts were heavy, but Irina told us not to be sad. After taking a group photo, I told Irina that we would stay in touch. She made me promise to do so, and she also made me promise to keep up with my Russian studies as I spoke it relatively well. I smiled, hugged her, and then followed my group downstairs.
The rest of the trip was truly incredible. On the final night, most of the group stayed awake, bonding over the shared experience before catching our 6:00AM flight back to the US. An international flight gives you a lot of time to process your thoughts, and I remember wishing the trip hadn’t ended. I was jealous of some of my new friends who either extended their stays or embarked on their own adventures throughout Europe. As we landed at LAX, I couldn’t help but feel that I had to go back. There was more to see, do, and learn. I now had two local friends in St. Petersburg that I could hang out with whenever I came back. I knew that this was not the end.
Six months later, I still remember this trip fondly. I gave up a lot to go. Yet, it was all worth it. As I write this, the impact this trip had is almost indescribable. It’s as if it was meant to be. My friends and colleagues have been asking me for months to host a gathering to talk about my experiences. My work has only just begun. Now, it’s your turn to embark on a journey of your own. See the world and explore new cultures. Remember that every action you take has an impact on others and that every person has a story to tell. To paraphrase television producer Norman Lear, even this YOU get to experience.
Written by: Alec Leve, JDC Entwine-Gabriel Project Mumbai Multi-Week Fellow
I gained a lot from my six weeks as a JDC Entwine-GPM Multi-Week Fellow in India. I met and built relationships with numerous people, I learned how to live on my own in a big city and foreign country, I had my first experience teaching, and perhaps most surprisingly, became more connected than I had ever been to Judaism and community.
I came into India with a basic knowledge of Judaism. I was bar mitzvahed at a reform synagogue that I never felt particularly connected to - I didn’t enjoy learning about Judaism and in turn didn’t try to learn about the religion. Despite this lack of interest in Jewish content, I always felt a connection with Jewish people, which informed my Jewish identity and pride in being Jewish for most of my life.
I didn’t sign up for the program with the intention of becoming more Jewish. On our first Shabbat in Mumbai we attended synagogue and Chabad for dinner. I spent this first service doing what I usually do during services, thinking about whatever crossed my mind, unable to participate in the prayers. While I enjoyed talking to the community around me, my inability to relate to the religious aspect made it unfulfilling and a bit uncomfortable. Sometime after this first service, for no conscious reason, I downloaded an English translation of the Torah onto my phone and read it in about two weeks.
It didn't take me long to decide why the Torah is cool for so many reasons. I found that it’s a well told story of G-d’s relationship to people, and gives practical guidelines for how to live a moral life. With this newfound appreciation for the Torah, I decided to try out actively practicing some of its teachings, most notably, the Commandment to keep Shabbat holy. For my last three Shabbats in Mumbai I attended local services, and embraced it as a day of rest by not doing any work. One of many things I gained from this was a deeper appreciation and love for Shabbat.
Another great outcome was building of relationship with synagogue congregants. On Fridays I attended a Baghdadi Indian synagogue in downtown Mumbai, where I got to know a diverse group of Friday-night regulars. On Saturdays, I attended a synagogue in the same compound as my guest house with a core group of about ten Indian Jewish men. At first some were more welcoming than others, but towards the end of my stay the entire group had accepted me as part of their congregation. I look back on the relationships I formed very fondly – it’s so meaningful that these old men took me in as their own.
In addition to my newfound synagogue connections, I spent time with a woman who lived at the same guest house, as well as her son who is my age and would come over regularly. She took care of me as my mother or aunt would have, making me tea and making sure I was well fed. I never thought that I would have an adopted Jewish mother halfway around the world. Reflecting on the experience, I find the connections even more powerful because they were forged through a shared global community, despite different personal histories and thousands of miles.
I have to thank JDC-Entwine and GPM for putting me in a situation where I had the opportunity to become a part of a relatively small Jewish community. In such a big city where pretty much everything was new to me, it was nice to spend some of my time being with people who I have always felt a connection with. The volunteering and travel was great, but I know the program would have had a very different impact on my life without the local Jewish community.
I just returned from India with a lot to think about, but two things I know for sure are that I need to learn more about Judaism, and that I now have an extended Jewish family in Mumbai.
I honestly am not sure what I expected when I decided to apply for JDC Entwine’s Insider Trip to Rwanda, but there’s no way I could have anticipated how truly meaningful the journey would be, and the lasting effect it would have on me. Perhaps I’m still only beginning to fully realize and understand it, having returned a month ago.
It may seem strange to have booked a trip to a country recovering from a tragic civil war only 2 decades before to find peace and healing, but from the moment I read about Agahazo Shalom Youth Village, ASYV for short, and its mission, I felt compelled to go for that very reason. In fact, for me the trip was nearly 2 years in the making from the time I first applied. I had planned to go in 2015, was packed and ready to go, when the day before the outbound I flight my parents called to tell me my grandmother was about to pass.
It was the second time in two years that someone I loved deeply had passed unexpectedly, having lost my other grandmother the year before. And loss was something I had become all too comfortable with in that year; in addition to losing both of my grandmothers (whom with I was very close), I ended a 3+ year relationship with my boyfriend whom I had moved cross-country for, left a job that I’d loved, moved cross-country again to a place where I had to start all over. In the span of only 2 months, my entire life changed. I was grieving for many things I’d lost on many levels.
Perhaps that’s why ASYV and its mission called to me. The idea of a place of beauty and hope that gave people a chance to start anew, to heal and find peace, to build a new community and forge a new path forward together. I was desperate to find that myself and somehow knew subconsciously I’d find it at ASYV.
When the late Anne Heyman, founder of ASYV, embarked on this mission, she knew that the village had to be a place of beauty in order to inspire hope and peace. Modeled after similar villages set up in Israel after the Holocaust, ASYV was initially established to protect, care for and educate Rwandan’s youth who were displaced after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. It’s hard to fathom, but almost one million people were killed in just a few short months during the Genocide, leaving Rwanda with the world’s highest orphan population per capita. Each year, ASYV takes in the most at-risk high-school aged kids from around the country, offering them a unique chance at building a new life.
The students live in family units for 4 years and are assigned a “Mama,” who cares for them as if they were her own children. They name their family after a person of inspiration (my family was named Margaret Ekpo, for the Nigerian women's rights activist). Multiple nights a week, the families sit down together for “Family Time,” talking about their days, singing songs or playing games. They eat their meals together at the dining hall, volunteer together on Saturday mornings. At 5:45am every Saturday they do an activity called “Mucaka Mucaka,” a run around the village during which they chant in Kinyarwanda, the native language, singing and cheering – an exercise in both physical and mental health. Friday nights are “Village Time,” a talent show held in the grand amphitheater overlooking the Rwandan hillsides.
I read all of this in the briefing packet before I went, yet seeing it firsthand somehow still felt novel and inspiring. Before I finally left for the trip – after packing for it a second time – I thought I was going to provide a direct service, that I would spend my days working on the farm, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, and teaching kids English in the classroom. I thought that I was going to give.
The reality was that I did none of these things (ok, I did chop vegetables twice). I wasn’t in a classroom; in fact, I didn’t step foot in the majestic school at the top of the hill until the week had nearly ended – and there were no students even there at the time, at sunset on Shabbat.
What I did was take. I took in the horrors of the Genocide – at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, and at the Nyamata and Ntarama churches where mass murders took place. I took in hope, as I got to know the incredible students at ASYV and their stories, how they were taking advantage of every opportunity given to them and then some to build a brighter future for themselves and others. I took in beauty, as I watched the sunset on the red dust hills surrounding the village, saw elephants and giraffes in Akagera National Park, and watched the millions of stars light up the sky when the power went out in our guesthouse. I took in pure joy, as I ran through the village during Mucaka Mucaka as the sun rose, danced “Gym Tonic,” a Zumba-like dance workout, on the basketball court with my Margaret Ekpo family, and sang the Hebrew song “Sallam” with my fellow JDC Entwine volunteers on stage at Village Time, teaching the hundreds of ASYV students the lyrics and watching them sing along.
I’m told my presence there was in a sense giving, that my choosing to spend my time to travel there and meet the students and hear their stories and learn about their culture was a gift. But, I feel I got so much more than I gave.
In our group’s last reflection session before departing, we discussed how hard it was going to be to go back to our day to day lives, where problems were having “too much” to do, or the local Whole Foods being out of our favorite sushi. These aren’t real “problems.” Yet, loss – death, divorce, fighting with a friend or family, being let go from a job, losing a pet – all of these things are real problems. While it may manifest in different forms and circumstances, no one’s life is free from tragedy entirely. We’re all different, yet at the core we’re all the same.
If a country can recover from a tragedy as devastating as the Rwandan genocide, if children who have seen their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters murdered can commit to bettering themselves, not only to give themselves a second chance, but to provide one for others, if they can forgive and move forward as One Rwanda, surely there’s no tragedy that’s insurmountable. The power of community, of love and support, is incredible.
I returned from Rwanda to San Francisco, where I realized I have built myself a new community. It looks entirely different than the community I had three years ago, even one year ago – maybe I wasn’t ready for this journey yet then. Nothing changed necessarily when I returned from ASYV, but I did; I recognized and appreciated the new life I’d built for myself.
Even when life is at its darkest, knowing that you can always go somewhere new, that you can always meet new people who will make you feel worthwhile again, is proof that anything is possible with hope, love and belief. ASYV is doing just that for Rwanda’s youth, and I feel so grateful for having been any small part of its story – and having the opportunity to continue to be a part of its inspiring community.
The first time I went to Israel was on Birthright. It was only three months after my conversion was completed and I fell in love with the country almost immediately. In my mind, Israel seemed like a better version of the U.S. in terms of social and racial equality. This was crucial to me at the time, because as an atypical American Jew (Hispanic-Filipino Jew-by-choice, which I sometimes jokingly refer to as a “super minority”), I desperately needed to know that there was a place where the characteristics that made me stand out in Dallas didn’t matter.
So, when I had the opportunity to go back to Israel with JDC Entwine, I jumped at the chance. I loved my first trip with Entwine to St. Petersburg in 2014 and had since become active in the Dallas Learning Network. On the Israel trip, Entwine was piloting an on-trip giving circle model which I was very interested in. As a young professional, I try to give as much as I can to organizations I support, but it had never occurred to me to pool my donation with others. This seemed like a great way to make more of an impact. A chance to visit a country I loved and an opportunity to make an impact? It seemed perfect. What I couldn’t have predicted was that while Birthright ignited my love for Israel and reinforced for me my decision to convert, this trip challenged me to think more deeply about Israel, and even more so, my Jewish identity.
Each of the communities we visited is, in some way, part of Israel’s minority, people who exist on the periphery. We had the opportunity to meet the people who run TEVET, an employment initiative run in partnership between JDC and the Israeli government, that is currently helping the Haredi and Arab communities in Jerusalem and Hura. We also visited Project Wadi Attir, a model for sustainable, community-based agricultural enterprise that combines Bedouin tradition and values with modern day science and technology, and JDC’s new Social Hub in Lod, which encourages social entrepreneurs to come together to solve Israel’s social issues through entrepreneurial community projects. I am still in awe of the dedicated people who run these organizations. They are shining examples of what Israel has to offer the world and to know that JDC is helping to develop these leaders and organizations makes me proud to support JDC’s work in Israel and around the world.
But perhaps the visit that affected me the most was with the Ethiopian community in Ramla. As Amos Levi, Resource Development Manager for JDC Israel, spoke about the difficulties and racism the community has encountered and how they are trying to keep their culture and heritage alive in the younger generations, it struck me how much I had in common with them. I never really had to think about something like the color of my skin until I entered the Jewish community. My status as a “super minority” has become increasingly painful for me as I’ve tried to find my place within the Jewish community that doesn’t yet know how to best welcome someone who doesn’t fit the typical American Jew profile.
Several times a day, I go from loving this community unconditionally to wondering if I will ever really fit in, because, after all, I didn’t grow up Jewish, I didn’t go to a Jewish summer camp, and I still have a hard time finding places to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays. Some people have asked me why I just don’t walk away. But, like the Ethiopian Jews, I can’t just drop something that is so important and integral to my identity. In fact, by exploring the vast cultural mosaic of Israel and in turn my own place in this landscape, I was able to develop a deeper relationship to the country than I had in the past.
We quipped that the the theme for the trip was “it’s complicated.” But in all seriousness, the trip illuminated the complexity and dynamism of Israel’s social fabric. Israel’s relationships with its minority communities - the Haredim, Arabs, and Ethiopian Jews to name a few - are complex. This theme also describes how I feel about Israel, a country I wanted to believe was infallible when it came to social issues, but I now understand is still very much in its growing stages and is not perfect, much like the wider Jewish community.
We are taught that while we are not obligated to solve all of the world’s problems, neither are we allowed to just ignore them. JDC, with its amazing professional team, leaders and fellows, embodies that sentiment in action. JDC takes innovative, fledgling social programs and helps transform them into organizations that are tackling some of Israel’s (and the world’s) most dire social and economic issues. Being a part of this trip and the giving circle has reminded me that, despite any negative experiences I have had or will have, I do have a place in the Jewish community.
Through participating, I was able to understand Israel and my connection to the country on a much deeper level. I was able to connect with other Jews of color and understand how these minority groups make up Israel’s complex social landscape. After having seen some commonalities between myself and these communities, the trip also reinforced my commitment to continuing developing my Jewish identity in a way I can be proud of and, hopefully, in a way that can help break down some of the issues to which JDC is responding.
I was in the Philippines last week. Even as I write that sentence out, it seems surreal that a mere week ago, I was in that paradisiacal environment, volunteering with and learning about the Filipino culture and meeting the warm, welcoming people who reside there.
And though a week later, my tan is fading quickly and many of the warm fuzzies generated from my week long excursion with JDC Entwine are no longer at the forefront of my mind, I wanted to take the time to put down a few things I thought about while traveling:
The terms of happiness are not universal - I spent my week in the Philippines traveling with a diverse group of people. We hailed from all over the globe from all different backgrounds. United by a common mission to volunteer and learn, we traveled half way across the world to do just this. While abroad, we met people from drastically different backgrounds than ours who struggled with very different daily trials and tribulations than many of us are ever likely to face. In our reflective, post volunteer session discussions, the theme of education arose over and over again—many of the people we met would only ever reach a fourth grade level of education and there was a lot of discussion about whether this contributed to their overall happiness. It was hard not to project that our criteria for happiness must be universally applicable and yet, in our time talking to them, I witnessed an overall happy, content, satisfied, group of people. Educated or not, they didn’t seem to be wanting in that particular facet of their lives,
Don’t take walls for granted - Many of the Filipino people we met live in huts. Huts without indoor plumbing, electricity or walls. These huts are destructible and we heard tales of people residing in island fisher villages whose homes were literally torn apart during Typhoon Yolanda. When we asked if they had rebuilt sturdier homes post typhoon, their response was unanimously that they didn’t have the finances to build elevated homes. And so, they continue living in homes comprised of metal roofs and wooden slats with nary a wall in sight, with no shield from nature, no sense of privacy and no real shelter. While on the trip, I found myself describing—and complaining about—my crappy New York apartment to some trip mates. Taking a step back, I reflected that walls, and everything that they contain—and keep out—should not be taken for granted.
There’s beauty in simplicity. The week before I left for this trip, work was absolute madness. Working until 11 pm each night, I was going out of my mind with exhaustion. I love my job, but I was having an inordinate number of thoughts along the lines of ‘why am I killing myself to make one more ad’? When you’re running a million miles a minute all the time, it’s easy to lose perspective. So when I arrived in the Philippines and met these incredible people whose lives are so much…simpler, it gave me a dose of much needed perspective. When faced with people who have so little and seem OK with it, it really made me appreciate how much beauty can be found in slowing down every once in a while.
Listening is hard when you can’t hear. After a late night run one evening, I jumped in the pool, came up for air, and announced ‘I can’t hear’. When jumping on one foot resolved nothing, I attempted to treat my ear with everything from swimmers ear, to capfuls of rubbing alcohol, to ear candling to a visit to a local doctor. All to no avail, I resigned myself to not being able to hear 50% of what was said on the trip and made a decision to deal with it when I returned home. Let me tell you, the poignancy of working with local disabled Philippinos while suffering from hearing impairment, was not lost on me. When I finally visited an ENT in New York, had the problem resolved and an onslaught of sound flowed once more into my ears, I was nothing short of ecstatic. It’s easy to forget how much you rely on something until it’s gone.
There is a lot of good in the world I’ve met a lot of tremendous people in my lifetime. I also live in NYC, work in the cutthroat businesses that is advertising and have met a number of…not so nice people. It’s easy to write people off and make blanket statements that ‘people suck’. And sometimes they do. But when I spent a week abroad with 20 tremendous people who were willing to give their time, love and money to an incredible cause, when I met with local Filipino organizations to see what they are doing to help one another improve their lots in life and heard the stories of local people who didn’t have much to their name but gave of their time anyway—wow. What a beautiful reminder that there is so so much good in the world.
I feel truly blessed to have been able to be a part of the JDC Entwine program. Hearing about the work that the Joint is involved with, seeing how they work tirelessly to ease the burden of people around the world through donations, aid, education and endless amounts of love and dedication, was a truly life changing experience. I only hope that though my jet lag slowly goes away and my tan fades, my commitment to this cause will persist. And maybe, I’ll be more cognizant of slowing down every now and again and giving back just a little bit more.
Posted: February 25, 2016
Our Jewish Bollywood Love Story: How this JSC Fellow discovered her home thousands of miles away By Kimberly Duenas (JSC Fellow, Mumbai, 2013-2015)
Just like other love stories, it is appropriate to begin ours with ‘once upon a time.’ But unlike others, I should probably say, ‘once upon a time in India, an American girl in the Jewish Service Corps met an Indian guy at a Shabbat dinner in Mumbai’. That’s more like it!
Our unique story began in 2013 when I accepted the once in a lifetime opportunity to be an Entwine Jewish Service Corps Fellow. I had no idea how the experience would change my life in so many profound ways. It was a passion for Jewish community building and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) that ultimately led me to India, and at that point had no idea that someone in Mumbai shared that same enthusiasm that I did, and so much more.
Shay Birwadkar, who was born and raised in Mumbai, was an active member of the Jewish Community Center’s young adult movement, the Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP), and would regularly interact with the JSC Fellows to plan events for the young community. And this is where it all began…
I can remember the day I landed in India so clearly. After a 16-hour flight, I picked up my luggage and approached the door leading to a new world, a hustling and bustling, vibrant city that I had never seen before. On the ride to the hotel where I would be staying for a couple nights, I looked curiously through the window at what would be my new home in a dreamlike state. I felt exhilarated, a little nervous, and definitely jet-lagged. Just one hour after arriving, I was formally welcomed to India by the excited JSC Fellow who brought me to Shabbat dinner at what would be my future apartment. It was there where Shay and I met for the very first time.
Typically, in Bollywood movies when two people experience love at first sight, the scene is set by ethereal music, bright decorations, and a cast of back up dancers. In our unexpected encounter, the sound of Mumbai streets, twinkling Shabbat candles, and a crowd of cool young Indian Jews created the same enchanting effect. Our friendship began there, and it wasn’t long before we started spending time together consistently.
I felt that not only were Shay and I destined to meet, but that I was meant to be connected to Indian culture and specifically to the Jewish community. I couldn’t possible have imagined the warm and caring welcome I received from everyone I met as I embraced the world around me. Planning classes and events for the Jewish community was an incredibly meaningful experience in that I was the student just as much (if not more) as I was a teacher.
Soon, my one year of service turned into a two-year stay in my now second home. And after two years of so much growth, learning, love and color, Shay and I were ready to take the next step in our relationship. With the blessings of our families, we became engaged in the most fitting way – on the final day of my JSC Mid-Year Seminar, in front of the Kotel.
The subsequent months seemed to fly by and before we knew it, the end of my placement was approaching. After two years in Mumbai, we made the decision to move back to my native California together. Though it was heartbreaking for me to leave the community, and though it would be Shay’s first time living outside of India, we took comfort in the fact that we would be embarking on this new adventure together.
On New Years Eve, Shay and I had a small family wedding in California- 'Part One' of our wedding celebrations - and are planning to celebrate our marriage 'Part Two' in Mumbai in a couple short years with the Jewish community and all our family and friends. Although our California wedding was many miles away, we made sure to infuse as much India as possible as you’ll see from the photos!
We should thank the JDC for bringing us together and playing an instrumental role in our Bollywood love story! We feel so blessed to have been brought together through the bridge of the global Jewish community and we pray that we continue to find ways to contribute to our Jewish communities, wherever we are.
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.
In a little-known piece of history, the president of the Philippines welcomed 1,305 Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe to his country in 1938. This extraordinary act of generosity led me to visit the Philippines in 2016 with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). I too was welcomed. Smiles and ceremonies greeted me at every stop of this tropical archipelago. As did stories of giving.
I came to learn about the JDC’s current work in the Philippines - about how they returned to this country in November 2013 after typhoon Haiyan struck. The work is a tribute to the generosity the Filipinos gave the Jewish refugees long ago, and which the JDC coordinated. They were one of the first organizations on the scene, bringing medical support, and expertise in disaster relief and recovery efforts. They are also one of the few organizations that remain in the Philippines, continuing to partner and rebuild two years after Haiyan's bitter wake.
In the barangays of Ivisan, I met fisherfolk and farmers whose homes and livelihoods were struck by Haiyan. I heard stories of suffering and sickness, alongside tales of resilience. The stories of giving overflowed. It was not about simply recovering, but rather rebuilding stronger with a goal of decreasing vulnerability to nature’s whims. Diversifying livelihoods through the introduction of new tools, crops, and planning can help this largely agricultural society to weather more storms.
One of my favorite programs to learn about involved the distribution of livestock through JDC’s partner in the region, the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR). Isaac Bekalo, the head of the organization explained that the animals came with the condition that the firstborn be gifted to another. The recipients would do the same, thereby continually regenerating kindness and sustainability throughout the village. Similar models exist for farmers who were gifted seeds. They would share their harvest and knowledge with others so that they too could grow their own plots and continue to disseminate more plants and technological know-how to their networks.
This regenerative form of giving inspires. It makes me think about the multiplying power of our collective action to make the world better. This is perhaps the most remarkable story of all.
Max Lit served as a Fall 2015 JDC Entwine-Gabriel Project Mumbai Fellow
I made a decision about 2 years ago to get involved in community projects in the Durham, North Carolina area, my home back in America. This decision was the result of a series of conversations with friends and family. I came to realize that many of my life successes (good health, a college degree, employment, etc.) were not so much personal achievements as they were a culmination of a larger support system I had around me. I couldn't have gotten that degree without the support of professors pushing me to learn. I couldn't have done much of anything if I didn't have wonderful family and friends who removed all barriers to success and told me anything was possible. I decided that there is no better way to honor my support system than to make myself available to be a part of someone else's.
For those who are not familiar, Gabriel Project Mumbai provides education, nutrition, and health care to both adults and children in the slums of Kalwa as well as the areas surrounding the Shilonda Village. Volunteering as a JDC Entwine Multi-Week Fellow with GPM in Kalwa has truly been the intensely immersive, service-oriented experience I was seeking from the outset. Daily challenges include interfacing with extreme poverty and finding ways to be the most effective teacher you can be amongst varying levels of literacy. However, these challenges seem to almost immediately fall by the wayside as we arrive to a loud, boisterous greeting of “Good Morning Teachers!” from the smiling children and begin singing our daily hygiene-themed songs.
So what's the main takeaway? Well, for me, the true beauty of volunteering in Kalwa rests not so much in our administration of informal education to low-opportunity youth as it does in what I would consider its more powerful by-product: empowerment. Reflecting on my life experiences up to this point, I am most appreciative of role models such as family, friends, teachers, and coaches not so much for the lessons I've learned from them (though those are also quite valuable), but for the underlying message within those lessons that communicated to me that anything is possible. By virtue of being present for the children in the classrooms of Kalwa, the work of GPM has the potential to increase the autonomy and self-determination of this community in such a way that it empowers the children to represent their interests in a responsible manner.
Hayeem Rudy served as a Summer 2015 JDC Entwine-Gabriel Project Mumbai Fellow
In May, when I told my friends and family that I would be volunteering in a Mumbai slum as a JDC Entwine - Gabriel Project Mumbai Fellow, the reactions that I got bordered on one of reverence and sympathy. Reverence, because I was doing something adventurous, going into the ‘wild’, so to speak, in India – a place they perceived of as being ‘third-world’ and markedly primitive compared to our refined, modern life in New York City. Sympathy because it seemed to many that I was foregoing the long-awaited summer vacation between the completion of my college years and the beginning of my medical school career. These reactions influenced my perspective in the weeks leading up to my experience in India. Yet now, several weeks after coming back from Mumbai, what stands out most profoundly in memory are not the jarring scenes of poverty that I was fervently warned would rattle my emotional health in Mumbai (though they were very impactful), nor is it a sense of fulfillment and contribution that I was often praised for when I described what I would be doing as a volunteer in India. Instead, the pieces of the experience that are closest to my heart are those in which I was the observer, the learner, the one who benefitted.
The experiences that stand out in memory were those that arose from observation of the common, rather than being derived from sensational, emotionally-charged moments in time. For example, one came on a tired Sunday morning after our first two weeks in the slums. Having just celebrated our ‘settling in’ in India with a night out on the town, we were quite tired as we moseyed into the JDC headquarters to spend time with a group of kids from slums in Mumbai (not the one in which we volunteered). After brief introductions and a slew of morning activities, the kids were asked to line up for lunch. It is worth mentioning that many of these children eat one meal per day, and so I expected them to be ravenous and unorganized in this lunch process. To my surprise, the kids lined up in an orderly way and all was well except for the fact that one of the younger kids did not have a space in the line. This young one was a ball of sympathy; he peered haplessly out at the line with large, naïve eyes and a pair of matchstick legs jutting out awkwardly from his oversized shorts. I made to insert him into the line between two older boys, when one of them grabbed the little one and gently guided him forward in the line. The children in sequence followed suit, pushing the little one all the way to the front of the line, with the last child placing his hands on the young one’s shoulders in a display of responsibility and caring. I was blown away by the collective sense of responsibility that I witnessed from these young, hungry children.
A similar sense of communal responsibility was also evident in our classroom when the older kids who had a better grasp of English would lovingly demonstrate support for the younger kids in the class who struggled with our lessons. One particular instance of this that stands out in memory was during an exercise in class in which we asked our students to draw a picture of their family members and label them in English. As the students concentrated on their paintings, a shy seven-year-old girl named Parvin tugged on my sleeve and indicated that she wanted to know the English words to label her family members. Hearing this question in Hindi, an older boy named Rahim leapt up from his drawing across the tin-walled classroom and yelled at the top of his lungs ‘Hayeem Teacher, No!’ and started to communicate emphatically with Parvin in Hindi. I looked up inquisitively at our translator, David, expressing my concern of Rahim’s sudden reaction: “He is afraid that she would not learn it the right way if you give her the answer, Hayeem Sir.” I looked back down to see Rahim and Parvin lying on the ground, stomach-down and giggling, now drawing the word ‘sister’ together above Parvin’s stick figure family.
These experiences highlight to me the irony of my trip, which is that I went to India looking to teach, but that I left India with the feeling that I came away with more than I was able to contribute. In relation to the Kalwa Slum in Mumbai, my experiences highlight to me the quality of relativity in matters of luxury, and served as evidence that supports the Jewish idea that ‘one who is rich is he who is happy with what he has.’ My time in the Kalwa Slum was remarkable primarily because of the spirit of its people – a quality that I believe would have been impressionable to me and most other people even in a vacuum that eliminated the circumstance of poverty from the equation. I will be forever grateful to my friends in Mumbai who helped me develop this hopeful perspective that I now turn to to inform my dealings with people both rich and poor in my everyday life.
That simple observation explains much of what myself and a group of young professionals experienced during a recent trip with JDC Entwine to visit the Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP), a JDC program, in partnership with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
One of the main reasons for our visit was to volunteer at the Race for the Cure in Sarajevo. The Race for the Cure is a global series of fitness events organized by the Komen Foundation and its partners to raise funds and breast cancer awareness. Before the Race, our group spoke with Nela Hasic, the Regional Director of WHEP in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, about the goals of the Race for the Cure in Sarajevo. One thing Nela said stood out for me in particular: the Race for the Cure is a chance for women from all over Bosnia to come together and support one another. The sheer number of pink t-shirts, which are reserved specifically for breast cancer survivors, on the day of the event was a visual reminder of how many women are affected by breast cancer but continue to live their lives in spite of their illness. I realized that our role as volunteers was really to help provide that forum for breast cancer survivors to help one another celebrate life and honor those who have lost their battle with this disease.
I saw a similar dynamic at play when our group traveled to Mostar to participate in an arts and crafts workshop organized by one of WHEP’s local partner organizations. There, we helped a group of breast cancer survivors make heart-shaped pillows that women who have just gone through surgery can put under their arms to alleviate their discomfort. It’s an idea that could only come from someone with personal experience of the recipient’s needs. The session was a great example of what survivors can do with space and resources to implement their ideas about how to help others.
I joined the trip to Sarajevo to honor the memory of a dear friend that died from breast cancer earlier this year. Following her diagnosis and throughout her treatment, she blogged about her experience and how she managed to stay positive and keep moving forward. I know it was a message that inspired the women suffering from breast cancer that read her posts. I have been thinking a lot lately about how I can best contribute to the fight against breast cancer. My time in Sarajevo has convinced me that programs like WHEP, which empower survivors to use their own unique experiences to better the lives of others, will reach more women, more effectively than would otherwise be possible. We saw a community of survivors in Bosnia that will be a resource for each other and for those who are diagnosed with breast cancer. With continued support from organizations like JDC and Komen, I believe there is a great deal they can accomplish.
While on safari in Akagera National Park, a protected park of multiple ecosystems in eastern Rwanda along the Tanzanian border, one could not help but be struck by the beauty, warm winds and seamless flow of landscapes from African sahara to hippo-filled swampland in the span of a ten-minute jeep ride. After about forty-five minutes seeing topi after topi (topis are African antelopes, I would soon learn) I was getting a little weary. I could not help but think, “Where are the giraffes? Did I miss the zebras? Could we be the trip that actually gets to see the lions?” Ultimately, the lions were out of view because they sought shade from the heat, but the zebras, giraffes and the glimpse of two elephants grazing in the distance were everything that we could have possibly imagined. However, it is the image of the buffalo resting with a small white bird atop its back that has been singed into my memory.
As our wonderful guide and park ranger Emmanuel told us, the Cape buffalo is often spotted with the oxpecker, a small white bird by his side. One could not help but question, how could a buffalo possibly befriend a small bird in the dog-eat-dog, or more specifically hippo eat lion, world that is the sub-Saharan wilderness? We then learned that the oxpecker feeds off of the ticks and insects that seek to feast on the buffalo. The buffalo in turn protects the oxpecker from the prey that would feast on it but for the deterrence effect of a giant buffalo being by its side. The result is the mutualism and beneficial coexistence that occurs between the buffalo and the bird.
From the outside looking in, this mutual relationship seems absurd and unbelievable. As I watched the two creatures I imagined that thirty seconds later the buffalo would quickly grab the bird with his mouth and we would be audience to a true moment in the wild—lunchtime. We in fact were witness to a true moment in the wild, but it was not the wild that I had imagined or anticipated. Perhaps that is because it was an occurrence seldom experienced in the human wild— the idea of peaceful coexistence to the point of mutual benefit. I thought, if the behemoth species that is the buffalo can find a way to live side-by-side with the meek and fragile oxpecker in a way that ensures both of their survivals, why can’t we?
After a far too short week in Rwanda, it became clear to me that Rwanda is a country of possibility and a beacon of hope in a world where it often feels like coexistence is a near impossibility. It is a jaw-dropping place from its vast rolling hills to the genuine kindness and heartfelt passion that I felt from the smallest human interaction. No person, like no country, goes through its existence unscathed. However the true test is how we as individuals or countries recognize our past histories in the effort to reshape our futures. Rwanda is an incredible model of how people can live together and coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial, though from the outside such an occurrence after so much devastation may seem impossible. In a country where twenty-one years ago neighbor took up arms against neighbor killing over one million Tutsis and Hutu moderates, how can security, government stability and social welfare be cornerstones for that same nation? How can Hutus and Tutsis now live in harmony and work side by side with the same goal of creating a stable and safe country? I couldn’t help but think “who is to say what is impossible?”
I was privileged to spend a week at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (asyv.org) on a JDC Entwine Insider Trip. The ASYV is a youth village modeled after Yemin Orde in Israel, where 500 of Rwanda’s most vulnerable youth live, learn and grow in a safe and supportive community built on family values. Agahozo-Shalom was founded by the visionary role model, the late Anne Heyman. While in the Village, our group was given the special opportunity to witness incredible talents, share in thought-provoking discussions, dance, laugh, sing and experience the overflowing kindness and compassion of the magnificent students of the ASYV. Again I thought, who is to say what is impossible?
In addition to the residential community, the Liquidnet Family High School, the sports fields and the extra-curricular buildings, there is a solar field built by Gigawatt Global on the beautiful 144-acre ASYV oasis. This one solar field alone has increased the electrical capacity of Rwanda by six percent in a country where only fifteen percent of the population have access to electricity. With Israeli inventors, Chinese products, French and German manufacturers and Rwandan contractors, the solar field is another model of mutual benefit. People can work together in ways that benefit all that take part and in Rwanda they do. Maybe we just need a little bit of a reminder of this possibility sometimes. I know I did.
If there is a place on this planet like Agahozo-Shalom, a place on this planet like Rwanda today, and a place where a buffalo can befriend a little white bird, maybe anything is possible. Maybe after all, the past does not dictate our future.
Naomi Matlow is a Toronto writer who recently participated in an Entwine trip to Rwanda with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Together with composer Teresa Lotz she has written ThreeTimesFast, a musical that was previewed at the International OCD Conference in Boston this past July.
In October 2014, nineteen motivated young Jewish professionals from across the globe (Argentina, Australia, France, Hungary, Israel, Canada, England and the United States) were selected to take part in JDC Entwine's Inside Ethiopia trip. The program was a mix of education and service work designed to allow participants the opportunity to witness first-hand the meaningful work undertaken by JDC in Ethiopia as well as to "roll up" our sleeves and contribute to several of the JDC's rural projects.
Upon arriving at Addis Ababa we began to look below the surface, to see a side of the city and the local population that few visitors to the country are able to. We met women who were pupils of technology and business training programs through the Organization for Women in Self Employment (WISE), a program supported by the JDC, and toured local communities to see the women transferring their education into functioning small businesses. We also spent time with female college students who had access to higher education thanks to the support of JDC.
“This is tzedakah in action. This is tikkun olam in action.” These are the words that one of our fellow participants, Naomi Matlow, wrote after seeing JDC’s work on the ground.
Our main focus in Addis Ababa was observing and learning from the incredible Dr. Rick Hodes. Dr Hodes is an iconic figure in the medical world, having dedicated most of his life to working with children in Ethiopia suffering from severe spinal and heart problems. What was an initial 12-month mission - Dr. Hodes first arrived nearly three decades ago to assist JDC with Operation Moses - has become a life-long pursuit. Dr. Hodes is responsible for saving thousands of children's lives, facilitating life-saving surgeries for which patients travel to Ghana and India, at times for lengthy periods of treatment. We met patients who literally traveled days on foot and bus from the most remote parts of Ethiopia just to be seen by Dr. Hodes and his staff (including three JDC Global Service Corps fellows).
Dr. Hodes' incredible ability to look at every individual as a special soul has been well-documented in award-winning documentaries and books. It was not lost on anyone in our group how fortunate and lucky we were to spend such considerable time with him and soak up all we could from his fascinating story.
A highlight of all JDC missions is Shabbat dinner with Dr. Hodes and his family, and our Ethiopian Shabbat was no exception. We spent a memorable Friday evening with Dr. Hodes and his clan - in addition to the five children he has adopted, there are upwards of a dozen patients who are at different stages in treatment and recovery that share his home. Shabbat was welcomed in Dr. Hodes' sukkah, with us wearing funky hats and singing an ensemble version of “If I Had a Hammer," a Dr. Hodes Shabbat tradition for many years.
From Addis we ventured north to Gondar, which until the 1980s was the heart of Ethiopia’s Jewish community. Following the successful Aliyah operations, in which JDC played an instrumental role, Ethiopia has seen its Jewish population decline. However, the needs of the greater Gondar community remain - and a number of JDC projects in the greater Gondar region promote sustainability and education. Our group was incredibly touched upon visiting water wells that had been built as part of JDC water development programs.
One of the unique aspects of our Ethiopian mission was the service component. The time spent working in rural Gondar on local JDC projects (deworming school children, painting and constructing new school classrooms) will never be forgotten. With each day that passed we were joined by more and more kids from the surrounding villages - instead of feeling like outsiders, we felt like part of the community. In a short span of time, and despite language barriers, we were able to make a connection with the kids who joined us through the bonds of human spirit.
It was a humbling experience in our lives that will stay in our hearts forever. We were constantly reminded how fortunate our lives are but more so the importance of helping and giving to others in life less fortunate, whether that be in the clinics of Ethiopia, the 70 other countries that JDC works or simply just in our own local communities on a daily basis. Our experience etched home to us the importance and need to give back to others, and is one that we are forever grateful for and look to apply in our own lives.
“We truly saw so much while we were in Ethiopia. When you see something, it is hard not to only say something but to see something else within ourselves. There is so much opportunity to do good in this world and there is no shame in piggybacking on the good of someone else, therefore allowing more good to be done.” – Naomi Matlow, Inside Ethiopia participant
What do you know about Jewish life in India? We sent comedian and JDC Entwine Steering Committee member to India to meet the Jewish community and film everything! Watch for yourself: http://youtu.be/DLis4Cnepo8
Our Saturday in Buenos Aires consisted of a wide variety of meaningful experiences. After a lively Friday night Shabbat, we continued the festivities by visiting one of Buenos Aires’ reform synagogues. Services included live music which, of course, prompted our group to get out of our seats and dance! The atmosphere in the sanctuary was lively and filled with a strong sense of community. The synagogue’s congregation and Rabbi welcomed our group with open arms and even let us enjoy their delicious Kiddush. The bagels with lox and cream cheese were a big hit and a familiar taste of home! (Shout out to Grandma and Grandpa B!)
We were lucky enough to get to interact with the congregation’s Rabbi after services. He was particularly insightful and happy to share his wisdom with us. The Rabbi told us that in his mind the true beauty of Judaism could be found in making normal, everyday things holy. Challah, he told us, becomes holy when we place it on our Shabbat table. Wine when passed around in a Kiddush cup and candles when lit on Friday night are normal things that become holy as well. Most importantly, he told us, was our ability to make time holy. Through carrying out Jewish traditions or simply engaging in tasks that are most meaningful to us, we have the ability to make time, the most precious of resources, holy. It was evident that this was true as I looked around the table at fifteen of the kindest, most intelligent and adventurous young people I had ever met. We were spending our week engaged in service, learning, and prayer, one of the holiest experiences we had ever had.
After leaving the synagogue full of energy from the Rabbi’s talk (and the lox and cream cheese bagels), we were able to explore the city of Buenos Aires and take in all that it had to offer. Experiencing the Latin elements intertwined with Jewish culture was particularly fascinating for many of us. In such a global world, it is important to understand how different cultures can come together and really create something beautiful.
Beautiful: The best word to describe our Saturday in Argentina. We found beauty in every corner, every song, every person we interacted with. It is often difficult to put the most beautiful, most life-changing experiences into words—not the most helpful realization in writing a blog post. However, I have realized that this Saturday will forever be imprinted upon our hearts and minds and this is far stronger than any written words could ever be.
Today was yet another eventful one; this time in Buenos Aires! We started off the day visiting the Tel Aviv School, which is a Jewish day school for children from the ages of three to thirteen. Our group of fifteen Cornellians were split into two groups, with each one playing a variety of games with either four or five year olds. While we made this group of cute kids smile and laugh in the morning, our group had a greater impact on the Jewish elderly community when we visited them in the afternoon.
The Jewish elderly home, L’Dor V’dor, allowed us to work with those in the home on occupational therapy projects like knitting and artwork in preparation for Passover. We got to interact with them and learn their stories of their backgrounds and history. We were lucky enough to have lunch with them and interact even more. Although the young children and the elderly are years apart, we experienced so many similarities when interacting with both groups.
We then had the unbelievable opportunity to visit AMIA, the Jewish Federation of Argentina. We learned its history and the impact they create in this amazing country, and the services they provide to everyone in the community. We got to experience this firsthand as we took a dance class with the elderly of AMIA.
At AMIA, we experienced the liveliness of Buenos Aires’ Jewish community while watching and participating in a dance class for the elderly. The room was filled with smiles and laughter as we swayed to Argentinian hit songs, Israeli classics, and Psy’s one-hit wonder, “Gangnam Style”. After leaving this amazing highlight of the trip, we were able to prepare for Shabbat. We had Shabbat services at an independent minyan where sang, danced and enjoyed fantastic food. We ended the evening singing for hours around the dinner table with both our group and the Argentinian community that was present. We had a fantastic day and a restful Shabbat!
Today we woke up bright and early, excited to put the finishing touches on our service project. For those of you who are new to the blog, we have spent the last few days refurbishing and painting an apartment owned by the Kehila, the local Jewish communal organization and JDC's partner in Rosario. A new family within the community is expected to be moving in within the next few weeks.
When we arrived at the service site we were excited to see the improvements we had made so far and complete the project. We put up final layers of paint and filled in the cracks and crevices ensuring that the house was ready for its new family.
After we cleaned up, we were joined by the kehila's governing board, the rabbi, and other members of the community including current tenants in the nearby apartments. We said some final parting words, thanking them for hosting us in Rosario and exchanged some Cornell Hillel gear.
Next we began the undoubtedly most meaningful part of the project and the trip so far. The local rabbi led us in the ceremony of hanging the mezuzah. A mezuzah makes a home a Jewish home. Every Jewish person places this symbol on their door frame to bless the house and their family's future in it.
Rabbi Scott, Hadar, and Alicia placed three mezuzahs up in the apartment complex. Looking at the joy on the local residents' faces, our group truly felt the impact we made in the community. In this moment we felt as though we transformed the house into a real home or as you'd say in Spanish: "transformar una casa en un hogar."
After concluding our time in Rosario, we hopped back on our bus, heading to Buenos Aires. We were all in a reflective mood on the bus ride, thinking about our experience in Rosario and ways to maintain our new relationships. We arrived at our hostel in the Palermo neighborhood after 4 hours and got a chance to explore the area before heading to the local Hillel for dinner (AMAZING KOSHER MEAT!!!!). We had a great time at dinner and afterwards got a chance to check out some of Buenos Aires' night life.
Looking forward to spending the next few days in the capital and enjoying this vibrant city!
Today is the third day in Rosario and we are exhausted…and covered in green paint. Our day was composed of two main parts—a city tour and a continuation of our service—broken up by lunch at USAR, a local community organization similar to JCC in the states.
Despite being an urban center, Rosario is loaded with parks that were filled with people running, walking their dog, or most commonly, drinking Yerba Mate, essentially Argentina’s national tea drink. First, we stopped at the Flag’s Monument, where we ascended the tower and experienced a panoramic view of the city and the Paraná River that borders it. Afterwards, we made our way to a church in a nearby park, but not before crossing a treacherous bridge and a looming pot of fire (to clarify, it was just a stone pathway and candle-like statue, both of which symbolize the determination of Argentinian soldiers).
Overall, our tour showed us how the city visually reflects the culture and national pride of its people. The coolest aspect of the tour was how divided the people are over fútbol (soccer, to us Americans). We were lucky enough to be in town on the day of el clásico, the name for a soccer game between two rival teams in Spanish-speaking countries. The divide between fans was so strong that buildings and traffic lights were painted team colors, and we heard a celebratory yell outside of our hotel when a team scored a goal. It was a great, spontaneous way to experience the local culture firsthand.
After the tour, we continued our service project.
We made great progress and worked really cohesively; we all got straight to work and had a great time doing it. Unlike yesterday, though, some of us took some time to speak with a local resident about his life. It was so meaningful to hear the man’s story and interact with the person who is going to be living behind the walls that we painted.
We then took an hour break for (VERY) necessary showers before our second reflection session, where we talked about what it means to be a part of a community. Although we may each have different definitions of “community,” we came to a consensus that being part of a community, whether Jewish-related or not, is a dynamic relationship of both giving and receiving. After our deep discussion, we went to dinner at a restaurant similar to a Hard-Rock Café, where we chatted with local peers we met yesterday over what seemed to be an eight course meal. As we leave Rosario tomorrow, still with a full stomach, we look forward to culminating our service project here and starting a new one in Buenos Aires!
We like Latin-American Jews too, and we got to hang out with tons of them today! We started off the day at the Jewish day school in Rosario, which educates students from 6 months old to 18 years old. We first watched cute 4 year olds dance before splitting up into three groups and interacting with students who are 5 years old, 12 years old, and 16-17 years old. The group that interacted with 5 year olds taught them the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” although the children ended up teaching us more Spanish than we taught them English! We visited the 12 year olds during their English class, where they presented us with information on Rosario’s culture in English, as well as some yummy homemade Argentinian treats. The group with the teenagers spoke to us about their culture, shared some popular Argentinian songs with us, and even showed us how to dance the tango! We engaged in informal yet meaningful conversations with them, and it was a lot of fun.
We enjoyed lunch in an outdoor area of the Kehila while contributing to interesting conversation about the Jewish community of Rosario with a Rosario Kehila leader and the community’s rabbi. Rabbi Scott noted that although the Jewish communities of Rosario and the ones we know in the United States are very different, we share many of the same challenges in maintaining Jewish life. With full stomachs, we started our main project in Rosario, refurbishing a housing unit for a mother and two children who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford housing. We got hands deep in some paint, transforming the unit into a more livable space. We realized in our debriefing session that because there are Jews all over the world, we can feel at home almost anywhere we go, including Argentina. Being able to help provide an actual home for our fellow Jews has been extremely meaningful. We discussed how a community is made of people with shared interests, passions, goals and struggles. As we met many Argentinian Jews throughout the day, it became clearer that we were really all part of one community despite language barriers, music taste, and cheek kissing habits.
We finished off our night at Beit Scopus, a center for Jewish young adults. We enjoyed pizza with curious toppings such as hard-boiled eggs and parsley while dancing the night away with our Argentinian friends. We look forward to meeting more Argentinians as well as continuing our service projects tomorrow!
Cornell Hillel is Rosario, Argentina! This post is by Dan Cohanpour and Sarah Cutler; photos by Alicia Glick.
This is so exciting – we made it to Argentina! After a 10-hour red-eye flight (complete with turbulence) to Buenos Aires and a four-hour bus ride replete with snacks and games of Contact, we made it to our beautiful hotel in Rosario!
We got a very insightful debriefing from Viviana, the local coordinator for the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Argentina. She gave us some much-needed historical information about the socioeconomic situation for the Argentinian Jewish community after the economic collapse. We learned about the governmental influence behind the crash, as well as the steps made by charity organizations – particularly the JDC – to help support local organizations within the Jewish community. The lecture provided some background before we began doing service work in the community.
We left the hotel to go on a quick walk to get our bearings in Rosario. There were several lawyers’ and doctors’ offices (including a “Hernia Center”…good to know), bakeries and a ton of beautiful parks. Since we took up a lot of sidewalk and crosswalk space, we interfered a fair amount with Rosario’s traffic, none of which is governed by any visible traffic lights.
We returned to the hotel for much-needed showers, then went out to a delicious dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Paraná River. We ate rolls, salad, mozzarella sticks, chicken, pasta and ice cream…we’ve all agreed we’re going to gain a significant amount of weight – but as Rabbi Scott reminded us, this is a Jewish trip, so that seems only fitting. We felt even more out of shape as we looked out of the restaurant’s windows to see what appeared to be the entire population of Rosario exercising outside the restaurant – at the gym across the street, on the trail near the restaurant, and in a small field with pump-up music.
We ended the night bonding as a group and getting to know each other further at the hotel, dancing a long to some Argentinian music as we enjoyed some traditional Argentinian Malbec. We are so excited about these next few days and cannot wait to meet the local community members! Viva Argentina!
Hello from snowy Ithaca, NY! Hadar here, reporting on behalf of the 15 of us Cornellians awaiting an amazing experience filled with growth and learning. Welcome to the Cornell Hillel JDC blog- a way for us to document our travels and adventures while we take on Argentina (and for mom and dad to know that we are safe and in good hands!). The last week before break is coming to a close and we are all ecstatic for the trip to come.
This semester we met a number of times for orientations to get an overview of Argentina, the communities we will be working with and to understand the specifics of our trip. We’ve broken through the awkward first meeting jitters and feel comfortable with the group as a whole. Last week we met for a Spanish Crash Course led by myself and Sophie to give everyone a basic understanding of the language that we can all hopefully build off of throughout the trip. We are looking forward to learning about the Jewish community in the Buenos Aires region, sharing experiences with the Argentinians we meet, and lending our time to support our new friends. Thanks to the leadership and organization of Hallie and Jenette from JDC Entwine, and Rabbi Scott from Cornell Hillel, we are ready to embark on the spring break of a lifetime this Sunday!
Stay tuned for updates and photos throughout the week!
A Wandering Jew's "Global Jewish Comedy Show" | March 16, 4:15pm - Noah Gardenswartz, JDC Entwine Steering Committee member and comedian, pulls from his diverse array of experiences for "A Global Jewish Comedy Show," a look at Noah's encounters with global Jewish communities. [more]
Repairing the World: Our Shared Responsibility | March 16, 5:30pm- JDC Entwine staffer Alison Laichter looks at what the Jewish community is doing domestically and globally to make the world a better place – from disaster relief to alleviating poverty - and how you can make an individual impact. [more]
Earlier this year, Menachem, a JSC Fellow serving in Ethiopia, detailed his efforts to transport spinal patients from Ethiopia to Ghana for JDC-supported surgeries. Read more here: http://jdcentwine.org/blog/924
Live in New York? Looking for an opportunity to make a difference around the world?
JDC is excited to announce a special opportunity for people from New York or currently living in New York interested in serving overseas with the Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC).
A select number of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are available for New Yorkers, starting right now, in Haiti.
To apply or receive more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Jewish Service Corps is a year-long, paid opportunity to live and work within a community served by JDC. JSC fellows are post-college young adults who create innovative programs that respond to international Jewish and humanitarian needs, and leave an impact on the global Jewish world. More on JSC here: http://jdcentwine.org/jsc
As the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy continues to unfold, we’ve received updates from our partners at the Marks Jewish Community House (JCH) of Bensonhurst. Marks JCH serves 20,000 people in South Brooklyn, primarily Russian-speaking Jews from the Former Soviet Union.
The Marks JCH has briefed us on Holocaust survivors stuck in the dark in top level apartments – without power, food, homecare, and unable to come out of their homes.
Some of the 200 survivors they help they can’t be reached as phone lines are down.
The Marks JCH staff has been working very hard and could use some extra help.
We need 35 volunteers for Sunday...
By 5pm Friday (11/2.)
What: 20 volunteers will bring much needed food, water, candles and company to the elderly; 15 will lead activities with youth at a nearby shelter. When: Sunday, November 4
Above of all, we’ll be bringing our love and support to a local community in need.
Sign up now.
We’re looking for volunteers to join us in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and visit elderly in need of assistance.
Spots are limited. Volunteers will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Please include your cell phone number and any languages you speak, particularly Russian.
Volunteers who live in Brooklyn or have a car may meet us there but must register with Gila.
Serious inquiries only – if you register with us, we expect you to show up.
JDC is providing a bus for the group. This bus will also be used to transport Marks JCH staff and volunteers who are running short on gas.
Meet in Manhattan on E. 44th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues by 9:45am SHARP.
Volunteers should be 21 years of age or older, able bodied, prepared to climb stairs if necessary, and MUST bring one bag of non-perishable, ready to eat food (such as crackers, nuts, dried fruit, nothing that needs heating) candles (or flashlight w/batteries) and a large bottle of water.
We will depart Brooklyn at 5pm, returning to 44th and 3rd Avenue by 7pm (weather and traffic permitting.)
Can’t join us?
Give supplies: Emailgilaw@jdcny.orgfor information on donating food, bottled water, or candles (crackers, nuts, dried fruit, nothing that needs heating) to our group.
Other opportunities: A number of incredible local organizations are rallying support for local communities.
Our invaluable partners at UJA-Federation of New York have opened theHurricane Sandy Relief Fund. Funds raised will be used to provide support to agencies and communities that have been impacted by the devastation.
There are many shelters in the area that are in need of donations of food, clothes etc. If you can volunteer at an evacuation shelter or know anyone who can, please contact Shelly Fine email@example.com 917.453.3911.
Uri LTzedek, a Jewish Social Services organization, is organizing volunteers delivering water, batteries, etc. on the Lower East Side. Please contact them firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in donating, the Masbia Soup Kitchen has been providing meals at shelters in the New York Metro area.
Live in New York? Looking for an opportunity to make a difference around the world?
JDC is excited to announce a special opportunity for New Yorkers interested in serving overseas with the Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC).
A select number of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are available for New Yorkers, starting this fall, in locations including Turkey and Haiti.
To apply or receive more information, email email@example.com.
The Jewish Service Corps is a year-long, paid opportunity to live and work within a community served by JDC. JSC fellows are post-college young adults who create innovative programs that respond to international Jewish and humanitarian needs, and leave an impact on the global Jewish world. More on JSC here: http://jdcentwine.org/jsc