Tufts Hillel - Argentina - May/June 2011

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Reflections from a JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow

Jewish tradition teaches that in addition to doing a Mitzvah, there is additional value in beautifying one. This teaching applies to a group of students from Tufts Hillel who recently spent ten days, in Argentina, working and learning with the Argentine Jewish community.

The Tufts students’ ten day trip started with a trip to Mar del Plata, a medium-sized beach town with a small Argentine Jewish community. The community is proud to be Jewish, but also has been stricken by economic hardship. Their Jewish community center, called “SUIM,” is an example of this. While Jews in the community proudly gather there for everything from Shabbat services, Hebrew school, bi-weekly minyans, and Jewish holidays, parts of the building clearly show the wear and tear of use and a lack of economic recourses to restore it. So, when the community graciously invited the Tufts students (“Jumbos,” as Tufts students are called, due to their mascot) to come to their community to share some stories about their community, a Shabbat, the task of painting the gym, and a night out with Madrichim, the Tufts Jumbos accepted. This is where the value of beautifying a Mitzvah comes into play, as the Jumbos not only helped to paint the gym– with supplies they had collected from their home community– but they also added two murals in two of the student classrooms whose walls needed repainting. One of these murals had a “Mejorar el Mundo” (or “Repair the World”) theme, while the other was “Under the Sea,” which meant that the furniture painted in the room matched with everything from waves, to turtles, to fishes– oh my! In addition the Jumbos learned from community members, both those who are older (many of whom had been impacted terribly by the economic crisis of 2001 and now are unable to pay for food, medicine, and rent without JDC assistance), and those who are younger (the children who attend the Hebrew School as there are currently not enough resources and students for a Jewish day school). They spoke with the elderly, gave piggyback rides and drew with the children, laughed with the Madrichim, and prayed and played soccer and basketball with the community once their work was done. It was during this time I learned that the Mar del Plata Rabbi has quite the soccer skills, and we were able to witness an older woman in a skirt AND heels shooting a basketball to try and get it into the gym’s newly painted basket. All of these things are additional beautifications of the Mitzvah of painting the gym. After a festive Shabbat that finished with a communal Havdallah, the Tuft Jumbos hopped on a bus to head to Buenos Aires to experience a very different and a much larger Jewish community.

In Buenos Aires, Tufts students brought money with them that they had fundraised, in addition to baby bottles, clothing, and blankets, to Baby Help, a day care center for Jewish families with limited economic resources. Yet, not only did the Jumbos bring these much needed resources to share with the Argentine Jewish community, but beautified this mitzvah as they also shared their time, smiles, songs, stories, and games with the Baby Help community. As a Jewish Service Corp Fellow volunteering for the year in Baby Help and L’Dor Va Dor, it was exceedingly gratifying for me to observe the delight in the children’s faces playing with their new found friends. For example, I loved watching three-year-old Toby, playing and jumping on many of the Tufts boys. Toby has a slightly older sister and his mother is a single parent trying to make ends meet. Hence, he spends most of his time around women and relished the opportunity to spend time with older boys. I also loved watching three-year-old Maia, also from a family with limited resources, sitting on Emma’s lap, overjoyed with the opportunity to both braid Emma’s hair, and discover that Emma knows the same “Am Israel Chai” song that she has learned here at Baby Help.

After Mar del Plata home visits, during a particularly deep and difficult discussion in Mar del Plata about the poverty of the elderly in the community, one of the Hillel students asked the social worker “What resources does the community need?” Rather than speaking and telling a social worker, who has been working in this community for quite some time what should be done, the Tufts student asked and intuitively knew that she needed to listen and learn about what more needs to be done. This is an example of striving to fund with humility and be partners with the Mar del Plata Jewish community.
As the group returned to the United States, Tufts Hillel students saw that their generosity and compassion had an immeasurable positive impact. But, they also realize that their work is far from done. They are now discussing how to best raise funds and awareness amongst American Jews and how to share the experiences they had with Argentina’s Jewish community.

There are 613 Mitzvot in the Torah, and many more of the 250,000 Jews in Argentina in economic need. There are a lot more opportunities to do and to beautify more Mitzvahs. Tufts’ Jewish Jumbos have their work cut out for them.

-Danielle Litt, JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow (Buenos Aires, 2010-11)

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Adios Mar del Plata, BA here we come!

Hi everyone! Can’t believe the trip is halfway through! It seems like we’ve done so much and the trip could surely already be coming to a close as we finish our time in Mar del Plata, but Buenos Aires is coming up next….

Thursday night we had the pleasure of enjoying some gnocci and fettucinni with our new Argentinean amigos at Mar del Plata’s most “famous” restaurant—La Trattoria. It was a great opportunity to bond with them, and for those of us who speak Spanish, a great opportunity to practice our Castellano. We found that despite occasional language barriers and a few cultural differences, spending time with our Argentinean peers was like spending time with old friends. After dinner, we got to share a nightcap and some dancing at a local club, which fermented (lolz) our new-found amistad.

Friday we were up bright and early again to head back to SUIM and complete the work in the gym and upstairs classrooms that we had been doing over the past several days. Those of us who had not already gone on a home visit, went today. One group went to visit an elderly woman who lives at a geriatric institute in Mar del Plata. She was very hospitable and very kind to us, but it was clear from the start of our conversation that her detachment from the Jewish community was a source of great distress. As the only Jew living in the elderly home with limited means of getting to and from SUIM, she told us that she had no one to share Jewish holidays and services with. She reminisced about living in Buenos Aires where her father was a very respected rabbi, and where she was very involved in the Jewish community. She also told us how badly she wanted to move to L’Dor VaDor, the elderly home in Buenos Aires, which we will be visiting later this week.

The second group of students spent time with a family consisting of a woman paralyzed by arthritic pain and her two children, both of which have a genetically-inherited muscular degenerative disease. The family members’ combined pensions left them above the poverty line, but their situation was so dire that the JDC felt it called for special assistance.

During each visit, tensions were brought to light regarding the difficulties assessing need. For example, the elderly woman we visited could not understand why the JDC could not simply move her to LeDor VaDor. Another elderly client felt she should be receiving more assistance. We spent a group reflection discussing these issues later in the day with a JDC social worker who explained to us how complicated it is to try and distribute a limited amount of resources throughout an entire community in need.

Friday afternoon met us with some hard-earned relaxation and fun at La Casualidad. Activities en el campo ranged from human foosball and archery to a rock wall and a labyrinth. Barring a few mud stains and some good-natured trash talking, we all made it out and got to enjoy a traditional Argentinean asado. With our bellies full of steak, chicken, potatoes, humitas, ensalda, y fruta we climbed back on to the bus and headed back to the hotel to clean up and get ready for Shabbat.

Although services at SUIM were unlike those that many of us had experienced in our home communities they were still very meaningful and rich in Jewish tradition. Singing the same prayers we were accustomed to hearing at Tufts Hillel in Hebrew and Castellano was particularly interesting and surprisingly moving. It meant a lot that the community welcomed us so warmly and allowed us to share their weekly Shabbat service and a delicious post-services dinner prepared, of course, by Sussi – the head chef at SUIM and our adopted Bobe.

As a surprise, our fantastic trip coordinators arranged a delicious wine-tasting back at the hotel. We got to taste a selection of Argentina’s finest kosher wine, while learning about the art of wine-tasting for our very own sommelier, Naomi. The night finished up with a jolly old sing-a-long—notable favorites included Disney hits and Journey.

Some of us were fortunate enough Saturday morning to go to Mar del Plata’s white sand beach. Although it was too cold to go for a swim, Rabbi Ruttenberg led us in a guided meditation, which set the tone for a peaceful, reflective Shabbas day.

After spending a fun lunch with community members to whom we grew ever closer, we organized a fun filled afternoon with the Madrihim for many Jewish children who spend Shabbas at the JCC. With various ice breakers, scavenger hunts, childhood games, Israeli dances, and little discussions about Jewish identity in Argentina and the United States comparatively, we were able to keep the little ankle biters busy and had a great time ourselves, despite some of the rough housing that the little boys forced upon us.

Our time in Mar Del Plata ended with a beautiful Havdalah service. Once again, the fusion of familiar tradition with new languages and customs created an interesting ceremony that many of us Jumbos got to partake in. Following directly after, we inaugurated the gym with the entire community of SUIM. With ceremonial prayers and rituals, a ribbon cutting, even more snacks from Susi, as well as a display of Argentine free-throw skills, our work in Mar Del Plata came to a bittersweet close. Witnessing the joyous faces of the children playing on their refurbished court as well as the community members extending abrazos and besos to their new American friends, it was clear that our service not only had an impact on SUIM and Mar del Plata but also created long lasting relationships that have left a mark in Argentinean and American hearts alike. After swappig cell phone numbers and facebook information, we boarded the bus for Buenos Aires as our new extended family of the Jews in Mar Del Plata waved us off, feeling a mix of accomplishment, sadness, and excitement for the new adventures that the Capital city promises.

-Rebecca & Justin

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

Visiting the Homes of the Elderly

Yesterday we visited the home of an elderly woman and her daughter. The visit was emotionally challenging because both of these women are crippled by disease. The mother is confined to a wheel chair because she has severe arthritis in her hips, and the daughter has a chronic degenerative illness that her father died from several years ago. Although these women appeared to live in a fairly comfortable home, they suffer because they cannot find work and live in constant fear of their health and economic problems. There is no cure for the daughter’s disease, a sad reality that lingers over this family.

The mother and her daughter came across as hostile. They expressed frustration that they can barely afford to pay their rent, cannot find work, and cannot leave their house to buy groceries or basic necessities as the public transportation in Mar del Plata is not handicap accessible. When our group leader commented, “I am sensing your anger,” the daughter responded, “I am not angry. I am just scared.” She proceeded to burst into tears. This moment impacted me greatly. We felt sorry for the plight of these women. We were painfully aware of their desperation.

Although these women do not receive a lot of economic help from the JDC because they are technically above the poverty line, their inability to work makes them eligible for some help. The JDC pays for some of their transportation to and from S.U.I.M., the local Jewish community center in Mar Del Plata. Additionally, the JDC gives them a stipend for part of their rent and pays for their medications. Yet, these women live in such hard conditions that, even with the help they receive, their situation is hard for them to accept. This made us realize the difficulties of allocating funds to a community with such vast needs.

-Lauren & Andrew

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

Unos días en Mar del Plata.

Esta semana fue un tanto peculiar para la Kehila de Mar del Plata (ciudad ubicada 500 km al sur de Buenos Aires) debido a la visita de chicos de Estados Unidos. En mis veinte años de vida, que yo recuerde nunca hubo un acontecimiento de tal magnitud dentro de una comunidad judía de la zona.
Según me comentaron desde un principio, el objetivo de esta presencia fue colaborar a la comunidad con un “granito de arena” y mejorar el establecimiento que día a día crece gracias a los que la conformamos.
Mi nombre es Gabriel Sánchez, soy Rosh Mazkir del Ken Hagshamá que forma parte del movimiento juvenil Habonim Dror. Esta idea la tuvieron chicos de mi misma edad que en vez de utilizar el dinero para disfrutar por ejemplo de vacaciones, la usarían para colaborar a una comunidad chica del interior de la República Argentina.
Pintaron el gimnasio, dibujaron dos paredes de kitot, disfrutaron, comieron, bailaron, jugaron, dialogaron con personas de la comunidad, se divirtieron y por sobre toda las cosas ayudaron con alegría a hermanos judíos que viven en otra parte del mundo.
Estos cuatro días que pasaron, particularmente, me encanto poder interactuar con personas de gran corazon que lo único que buscan es la igualdad social.
Fue una experiencia increíble que además de quedar calcada en la pared de nuestra comunidad, quedará dentro de nuestras memorias con la esperanza que se reproduzca para que estas acciones sean algo cotidiano.
Cómo dice la frase “Kol Israel Harevim ze la ze”
Muchisimas gracias y los esperamos nuevamente cuando deseen pasear en nuestra querida ciudad de Mar del Plata.

Gabriel Sánchez-

ENGLISH TRANSLATION

This week was a particularly peculiar week for us here at the JCC of Mar del Plata (a city about 300 miles south of Buenos Aires), due to a visit from a group of university students from the U.S. In my 20 years of life, I cannot recall having had an event of this magnitude happen here in the Jewish community of Mar del Plata. From what I was told, the objective of their trip was to work with the local community in order to make whatever improvements they could in their time here. My name is Gabriel Sanchez and I am the Rosh Madrich (Head Counselor) of the youth group here in the JCC of Mar del Plata, a group called Habonim Dror. Instead of using their summer break to take a vacation, these students chose to come to Argentina for a service-based trip. They painted the gym, made several murals, had fun with their peers, danced, ate, and interacted with several members of the community. But above all, they enjoyed helping their Jewish brothers and sisters who live in another part of the world.

During these last few days, I loved the fact that I was able to interact with people of such big hearts who are devoted to making the world a better place.

It was an incredible experience, and in addition to the improvements made to the gym, they left in our hearts the hope these acts of kindness will become part of our everyday lives. It is just like the phrase says, “Kol Israel Harevim ze la ze” (“All the nation of Israel is responsible for one another”).

Thank you very much, and we will be waiting for you here whenever you wish to come back to our great city of Mar del Plata.

-Gabriel Sanchez

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Becoming Witnesses to Hardship and Generosity

Fixing a goalpost at the Jewish community center in Mar del Plata

Today we continued our work at SUIM, the Jewish Community Center of Mar del Plata. We finished painting two murals and the main gym while enjoying many delicious homemade alfajores. We also sent seven students to meet with JDC beneficiaries in their homes.

The stories they shared deeply affected us and after returning to the group, we discussed the significance of the JDC’s welfare program in Argentina. Many of us were upset, surprised, and uneasy, yet motivated to make a difference.

One of the beneficiaries we met with was an elderly man renting an 8′x8′ room for himself. Previously, he worked as a chef all over the world in places such as France, Israel, and Spain. Then, he continued his career teaching cooking classes all over South America. Sadly, he was struck by glaucoma initially losing sight in one eye and then the other. This limited his ability to support himself, and he had never gotten married. So, he was forced to return to Argentina where his brother could take care of him.

His brother owned a bookstore and has a wife and two children. Due to theft and unfaithful business partners, he lost his livelihood. After repaying all his debts, he found himself on the streets until he connected with the JDC. Right now, the JDC takes responsibility for paying the majority of rent and medicinal expenses for the brothers.

The former chef resides in a single, crammed room where his blindness and other physical disabilities impair him from leaving his twin bed without help. When he attempted to begin his story, his anguish was visible. As he spoke, his words were choked, and it was shocking to see tears in the eyes of a total stranger within a couple minutes of meeting. With his brother’s encouragement, he eventually recounted his story to us.

Through his journey, he is only grateful for what he is given and never asks for anything more. He has maintained his unbending faith in God and attends services at SUIM three times a week.

The blind man and his brother spend at least an hour together everyday. But in the summer, the brother can no longer afford the rent of his Mar del Plata room due to the increased beach tourism. He has no other choice but to leave Mar del Plata with his wife and move into his son’s tiny apartment in Buenos Aires. The blind man is very restricted in what he can do on his own for the summer months.

Another beneficiary we visited today was an elderly man, formerly wealthy and a world traveler. He expressed a struggle with his will to live, mentioning that his wife had passed away a few months ago. He was a man of great pride, refusing any blatant handouts from the JDC. However, when he is at SUIM services many days a week, he enjoys a free meal with his Jewish community. After his savings were devalued in the 2001 financial collapse, he lost everything he had and currently resides in a one room apartment, similar to the other beneficiary’s. According to him, living in poverty is made that much more difficult by the fact that he has known wealth.

Lauren, Rebecca and Julia painting up a storm

When we discussed travelling all the way to Argentina, many of us questioned the impact a small group of college students could have in a short span of time. These stories of comfort one day and rapid loss the next took us aback. We imagined ourselves in their situations and questioned if we would be able to still be appreciative like them. The first beneficiary was so grateful for our presence that upon saying goodbye, he insisted that each of us sit on his bed with him as he clasped our heads and said a blessing. Experiencing the powerful, emotional reaction that this gentleman had to the generosity of the JDC gave us confidence in our mission.

Tomorrow, we’ll be visiting two more families and continuing to witness the JDC’s impact. At orientation, we learned about Argentinean history. Now, we are experiencing firsthand where individuals fit into this history. This powerful connection has brought into focus the significance of our efforts and the JDC’s generosity.

Below are some more pictures of our trip so far.

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Roadblocks and New Friends

Hi everyone! This will be out first official post from Argentina. As I write this, I’m sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Vaness in Mar del Plata, a beach city south of Buenos Aires. To say the start of our adventure was eventful would be an extreme understatement.

We began our journey at the American Airlines counter in Boston Logan airport at 3:30pm on May 23rd. By the time everyone had arrived and checked in it was 4:30pm, plenty of time for our 6:30pm flight—little did we know just how much time we had ahead of us. Due to inclement weather in New York and Boston, our flight was delayed and by the time we finally departed for JFK airport it was 8:30pm. A delayed flight generally proves to be slightly annoying and inconvenient, but when you are trying to catch a 10pm flight to Argentina it is unsurprising that we were all pretty nervous and unsure as to whether or not we would actually make the connecting flight. We knew that there would be a short window of time to sprint to the next gate, so when we finally landed and got of the plane at JFK we made a mad dash across the terminal. After what we decided was more like an obstacle course than anything—absurdly long escalators and long stretches of people movers—we arrived at the Argentina gate just on time.

Safely on the plane we were all able to relax and attempt to sleep through the 10 hour ride. We arrived in Buenos Aires at 10:20am on May 24th sleepy but very excited to get started on our real adventure. However, more obstacles awaited us at customs. After an hour of telephone calls to a less than helpful bank, we finally arranged a way to pay for all 20 of our entry visas into the country—they charge Americans extra because we charge them to enter our country.

Finally free of airports and planes, we finally had mostly smooth sailing all the way to Mar del Plata.

After 5 hours at Logan airport, a quick sprint through JFK, a 10 hour flight to Argentina, 1 hour stuck in customs, and a 4 hour bus ride, we had finally made it to our first destination. I have to say that I was extremely impressed by everyone’s patience and ability to turn our roadblocks into good experiences. We played name games, cards, got to know each other, and generally kept a positive attitude during times that could normally be accompanied by whining and groaning.

Once we were finally settled into our hotel, we went out for traditional Argentinean pizza at the famous Manolo and learned that hard boiled eggs can actually taste pretty good on pizza. We had a great time laughing about our travels and discussing our plans for the coming days. We finished off the meal with some gelato, and some people got to experience the well-known Dulce de Leche flavor for the very first time. To digest before heading back to the hotel, we walked along the beach and took in the Argentinean air, making sure to take a good look around at the beautiful city of Mar del Plata. Back at the hotel, we went around in a circle saying our high points and low points for the day, and one thing we all discovered was that all that time spent waiting was actually very helpful in jump-starting our group bonding.

Going to bed after our first day already full of adventures and with a stomach full of delicious Argentinean pizza, I know we have a lot to look forward to—both in terms of getting to know one another even better and in terms of working with and helping the Jewish community here. I am positive that I, along with the rest of the group will sleep soundly tonight and will wake up in the morning fresh and ready for even more adventures.

Stay tuned for even more exciting tales

¡Buenos Noches!

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Let’s get it started…

We have been preparing all semester for our trip to Argentina in just a week!

We had three orientation meetings where we got to know each other, learn a bit about Argentine Jews and prepare for our journey ahead. We even spruced up our Spanish skills by teaching each other some of our favorite words in Spanish! For our third orientation, we were so lucky to be joined by Evan Rosenstock from the JDC. He gave us more perspective on the work that the JDC does in Argentina and globally. He also gave us expert tips on how to get the most out of our experience.

The group at our first orientation!

Throughout the semester we have been raising awareness and funds for the Jewish community in Argentina through our Smoothie-Palooza. We sold smoothies outside of the library through the last few weeks of classes. Everywhere we walked on campus, we could see students and professors sipping smoothies through our smoothie stand’s signature neon straws. We raised $1,374 to for the JDC’s Baby Help Center! The money will help to support their programs aiding babies and new parents hit particularly hard by the economic crash.

Melissa prepares one of her famous smoothies for a customer. Justin, Ariel and Lauren watch and learn in awe from the master.

Emma, Melissa and Matt are pleased to offer a fresh smoothie to a Tufts student after his squash game.

Before we all left campus, we had an informal lunch to say goodbye until Logan Airport. We ate some lunch, sipped on some mate and brainstormed ways we could collect items to donate to the Baby Help Center. The next time you read our blog, we will be writing from Argentina.We are all so excited to be in Argentina in just one week!

¡Besos!