Friday, June 10th, 2011
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)