Assistant Director Nicole Wasilus on UD Hillel's
Alternative Spring Break trip in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Global Jewish peoplehood represents a special and unique bond that exists among Jews worldwide, despite our diverse languages, religious affiliations, cultures and historical experiences. Obviously, not all of our people, especially according to poll data younger Jews, feel this bond. But I believe strongly that it should be a goal of the organized Jewish community to stimulate and strengthen this sense of kinship and mutual connection. The connection I feel with Jewish people in communities all around the world has made my Jewish heritage a more significant and valued part of my identity and it has enriched my life. To me, global Jewish peoplehood begins with a personal connection, a shared interest or a familiar melody. The opportunities that I have had to travel and meet different kinds of Jewish people has reinforced my belief that travel experiences can be a gateway to a deeper Jewish connection.
The feeling of belonging to the Jewish people can begin with a personal connection.Almost a year ago, I participated in the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI) summer program, a transformative 26-day program in a secluded, mountainous paradise in Simi Valley, California. Joined by 70 Jewish adults aged 18-26 from around the world, including participants from Australia, India, Russia, etc., we spent each day participating in Avodah (hands-on service work), Beit Midrash (Jewish text study) and exploring the creative arts. This immersion experience had a strong emphasis on building a supportive and welcoming community so that each participant could grow personally and Jewishly. The unspoken achievement of this program is that each participant has now developed a personal and direct connection to Jews from all different corners of the world. This experience was instrumental in helping me see myself as part of a Jewish people that transcended national borders.
Global Jewish peoplehood can be ignited around a shared interest. As Hillel recognizes, meaningful engagement begins by building relationships based on common interests and passions. Hillel’s Alternative Break trips bring together students with a shared interest in service and helping others. In the spring of 2014, I led a group of 18 students from the University of Delaware on a campus-organized Alternative Break trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Each day we had an opportunity to learn about a different Jewish organization in Buenos Aires and to work alongside local Jewish volunteers. The unexpected encounters with these local Jewish Argentinians, who also derive inspiration from the Jewish value of tikkun olam, was most meaningful to me. As we packed medicine at Fundación Tzedaká with middle-aged Jewish women, I remember thinking that most American Jewish travelers and tourists don’t get to have these authentic experiences.
Jewish music and shared melodies hold a special place for me in drawing closer to fellow Jews. Another poignant moment on the Alternative Break trip was singing “Ma Nishtana” with the members at ORY, a Jewish center designed to assist people with mild and moderate mental and/or psychological disabilities aged between 18 and 60, as we prepared them for Passover. Because language and cognitive capabilities were certainly barriers between the members of ORY and us, there was something even more special about our ability to sing in unison. A week later, when I sat around the Seder table with my own family, I sang the four questions feeling more connected than ever before.
When you feel connected, there is a different, more visceral reaction to the news. For example, another powerful experience on the trip came from visiting the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) and learning about the devastating 1994 terrorist attack. After the trip, I came across the news that Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who had been investigating the case since the attack, was found dead under suspicious circumstances. My strong reaction to this sad development was directly tied to my having visited Buenos Aires. This experience has grown my interest in Jewish news worldwide, but especially to Jewish news in Argentina.
The sense of belonging to a Global Jewish peoplehood does not have to start with a trip; but there is no better vehicle available to us. If we want young Jewish adults to feel a part of a Jewish people beyond their families and immediate communities, we must expose them to Jewish life all around the world. I know that my own connection is strengthened after each one of my travel experiences.
I recently learned that the University of Delaware (UD) launched America’s first study abroad in 1923 and that today nearly 32% of UD undergraduates study abroad. I believe that the Jewish community has an opportunity to appeal to a growing number of students and young adults who are looking to travel. We can offer a deeper and more meaningful travel experience by connecting with Jewish people around the world. As I felt after my first Alternative Spring Break trip to Louisiana as a student at Penn State Hillel, we leave these types of trips not with just some cheap souvenirs, but, instead, we leave forever transformed from the experience.
Nicole Wasilus joined the UD Hillel staff three years ago. As the Assistant Director, Nicole leads Hillel's Campus Engagement Internship program and will be launching Ask Big Questions on campus in Fall 2015.