I am a most unlikely representative of the Jewish community. To say the least. I am the child of a Christmas baby. We have five boxes of Santa Claus-esque paraphernalia, gleaned over many decades, that we haul out every year in the same way you probably haul out your great-grandma’s menorah. But of course, we stop short of having a tree… because we’re Jewish. 😉 Once in my student teaching, I was asked to lead a lesson on Hannukah; I turned to the Internet. I never had a Bat Mitzvah. I’m pretty sure I knew more about Ramadan than Yom Kippur growing up…
Yep. Most. Unlikely. Representative.
Needless to say, HIAS did not attract me because it was a Jewish organization. It attracted me because of my shared passion for immigrants, refugees and underrepresented populations who need a voice. And according to the publicity I’d seen for that year’s HIAS Government Advocacy mission, this would provide a new way to explore and express that passion. Could’ve been Catholics, or Baha’i or anyone… just happened to be Jews!
But here I am, more than five years into one of the best—albeit biggest fluke—decisions I’ve ever made: joining HIAS Young Leaders! Five years into retooling my belief of what it means to—and all the different ways one can—be a Jew. Of understanding that it’s social justice, it’s welcoming the stranger, it’s forging friendships with those of my own religion, and it’s the opportunity to stand as one with them in our common ideal that we can, indeed, repair the world. And those beliefs I always held anyway happen to align very naturally with Jewish values in ways I’d never realized. For a basically secular Jew, it’s the first time in my life I’ve discovered such an outlet. (Funny what you find when you’re not even looking for it…)
And thus I have adopted this role as a HIAS Young Leader and embraced it more intensely as time goes on. This has meant opening my mind and taking stock of me. Or, frankly, allowing myself to let go of my own prejudices and perceived alienation from the Judaism I thought I knew and didn’t really like. And my reward has been the kind of inclusion and acceptance of a living, breathing Jewish community that I knew I was supposed to feel allegiance to before, yet never could begin to until now. And for this—my HYL friends and experiences that continue to “evolve” me—I am deeply grateful.
So how exactly does a Christmas-celebrating, disconnected 30-something Jew wander back to her flock?
Largely thanks to some wonderful Latinos. One of the HIAS-inspired activities I’m most proud of is a long-standing relationship with CARECEN (Central American Resource Center), an essentially one-stop-shop for social, legal and educational services for Latinos in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Our Young Leaders have been tutoring its ESL/Citizenship class bi-weekly for the last 4 years. Our work with CARECEN is primarily conversation exchange. It is informal but serves a crucial need for students hoping to pass their exams and become more confident in English overall. For many, class is their only chance to learn and practice English. We as native speakers (other than their teachers) allow them to put names and faces to “American culture.” Students are native Spanish-speaking adults, most of whom have been in the US for years. They are hard-working and motivated and appreciate everything we do. (“Me encanta when you come!” one woman declared).
For our part, tutors see in the trenches what it is to have to work for citizenship later in life, and appreciate the mere twist of fate that absolves us of this daunting task ourselves. Those students may appreciate us, but I have the utmost respect for them.
What does this have to do with promoting Judaism in particular? By serving immigrants through a HIAS-inspired endeavor, I directly represent the Jewish community. We make it very clear to the CARECEN population that we are a Jewish community who wants to build a bridge with them. We have hosted cultural exchange parties where kugel and falafel take their rightful places next to pupusas and tamales. The bond is not lost on anyone…
In general, I have the sense I’m personally carrying out a core HIAS (and Jewish) mandate to welcome the stranger. Except that somewhere along the way, these are no longer strangers. They become our friends, our extended community… people we care about and check up on in the weeks we’re not there. Whose accomplishments we celebrate first-hand.
The fact that we make the effort also draws other Jewish organizations to partner with us. A local Jewish fraternity has sent brothers to complete their community service requirement by joining us at CARECEN. In addition, a Jewish philanthropic organization funds us to subsidize the often prohibitive cost of citizenship tests for select students. We are supporting today’s new generation of immigrants as someone supported our grandparents or great-grandparents before us, completing a cycle and paying it forward. And we are the catalyst for connecting Jews to each other. And building bridges and educating non-Jews who tutor with us about Jewish core values. It is completely win-win!
So indeed… for this unlikely representative of the Jews, I have found myself in the place I am most likely to be. Yes, I’m keeping my Santa collection, but at least I’ve started to balance the equation of who I am.