This past spring, CJE was the fortunate beneficiary of students participating in an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) service trip.
Holocaust Community Services (HCS) hosted a diverse group of students from Vanderbilt University who spent the week meeting with Holocaust survivors, packing up food for a local organization, helping in the office and attending trainings and survivor events.
This visit was viewed as a great success by all. In fact, Yonit Hoffman, Director of HCS, said “By the end of the week, the students were calling themselves ‘ASBeschert!’” Combining the ASB acronym with the Yiddish word “beschert,” meaning destiny or fate, the students jokingly demonstrated their quick study of the language, as well as their sincere belief that they were fated to meet and become soulmates of HCS staff and survivors.
Chances are, if you’ve had any college students in your life, you’ve heard of the phenomenon of Alternative Spring Breaks (ASB).
They are organized opportunities for college students to participate in volunteer work during their breaks. Students looking for a more meaningful way to spend their breaks have been choosing ASBs for years—and writing about them.
Nothing describes the students’ experiences better than their candid reflections. Here are excerpts from Vanderbilt student Riley McCormick’s reflections on his week at CJE, capturing the activities with humor and thoughtfulness.
With the exception of the two site leaders, I think it’s safe to say that most of us did not expect to be in Chicago during spring break until we started to load a rental van. We had all applied for Alternative Spring Break, a program founded by student-activists at Vanderbilt in the 1970s to be an ‘Alternative’ to the traditional beach party scene that has since spread to numerous colleges across the country.
As I came to learn, our respective backgrounds varied wildly. In the photographs, our level of diversity would have featured perfectly on a glossy university brochure: we had Asians from Asia, Indians from India, and of course, Jews from… Baltimore. Multiple faiths, ages, political convictions and sexual identities were represented. It really was like a microcosm of the university.
[Their reasons for attending:] Pragya, a freshman from India, did not want to be left on a nearly empty campus over the break. Paul, a junior who belongs to a fraternity that recently got kicked off of campus through no fault of his, came for the opportunity for a new experience. Hannah, a senior staring graduation in the face, came to reconnect with the Jewish heritage shared with her grandparents, who emigrated from Ukraine. The three Jews on the trip (Paul, Hannah, and Rose) would each in their own way serve as indispensable “translators” of the Jewish tradition to our consortium of Hindus, Atheists, and Catholics. Because Hannah’s parents immigrated from the atheist Soviet regime, they were not observant Jews but, nevertheless, felt culturally connected to the faith by celebrating its major holidays. To a lesser degree, Paul expressed a similar relationship to his religion; after growing up in a Jewish household and attending a Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School, the Vanderbilt junior said he was not obse ant, but felt “strongly culturally Jewish.”
This divide between culture and religion was a new concept for me. I remember ribbing Paul once about his first name, but apparently the irony was lost on him—“I was named after my grandfather, Dr. Paul Wapner,” he said, “and I’ll hopefully be earning the ‘doctor’ part soon.” While Rose admitted that, like every thoughtful practitioner, her relationship with G-d was a complex one, she was the only practicing Jew on the trip. Rose and Hannah are both involved in the campus Hillel. Apparently, the Director of Vanderbilt Hillel had gotten in contact with HCS to organize our trip. They have an excellent café at Vanderbilt’s Hillel Center, and, before our trip, our Jews in residence schooled us on the cuisine. (I decided that challah was delicious and gefilte fish was, well, a taste I might never have the means to acquire.)
Until the past two months, I had limited exposure to Jewish culture. Sure, I had attended a few b’nai mitzvahs growing up (fun) enjoyed Seinfeld re-runs (brilliant) and eaten matzoh crackers topped with ham and cheese. In the part of the city [Nashville] where I grew up, there’s a Baptist bible college catty-corner from an Orthodox synagogue only a few houses away from a Conservative congregation. And that was considered the most “Jewish” neighborhood in the Music City. Hannah told me that various resettlement orgs sent a significant number of Soviet Jews to Nashville, but I had yet to hear about that population in the 12 years that I have lived here.
On our first full day “on site,” we were confronted with the grim realities of the “Jewish Question” posed by Hitler, recorded vividly at the Illinois Holocaust Memorial and Education Center. The building is designed to resemble a concentration camp structure, with accompanying smokestacks and industrialstyle corridors. Before we departed on our Museum tour, we were able to meet two Holocaust Survivors, Morris and Lisa.
With the aid of a Catholic priest, Lisa was hidden in a secret compartment carved out of the Budapest home of a young woman who apparently harbored the girl for fear of being reported to the Nazis. As a consequence, she received meagre rations and no light, toys, or books to read for four years of her childhood, yet she survived. Morris fled the Nazis on foot from his native Poland to the Russian interior and was resettled in the modern Uzbekistan. [After liberation], he attempted to help build a Zionist state in Palestine before the UN signed a 1948 resolution permitting the modern state of Israel. He sailed aboard the Exodus, a leaky boat (uncomfortably reminiscent of contemporary refugee vessels in the Mediterranean) that was boarded by British sailors just miles away from the Palestinian coastline in an infamous incident. After [this incident], Morris stayed [on the ship] in the French port of Marseille [for many weeks] with little food or water.
An aspect of the Survivors’ lives that many of the Vanderbilt students commented on was the difficulty they faced separating their pre- and post-war experiences, given that the cataclysm of the Holocaust has come to define them in the public imagination. It’s still something I’m learning how to do, but removing the obscuring, historical aura to treat the Survivors as individuals is a necessary task for anyone seeking to be their advocate or ally.
[Matched with a Survivor through the HCS Friendly Callers Program], we’ve only had a few phone conversations to date, but I can see myself making a routine of calling my survivor, Aron, to catch up and hear some of his interesting experiences. As a matter of fact, talking to Aron made me think of my own grandpa whom I called as soon as I was back to Nashville.
Aron was [at the Museum], too, and I could finally place a voice with a name. I’m still kicking myself for not getting a picture with Aron, but meeting him remains the brightest highlight of the trip for me.
We would spend three mornings at the HCS headquarters doing [filing and basic admin] work, and although it could get tedious at times, many of our group members expressed appreciation for getting to play an active role in the behind the scenes operations of HCS.
During our breaks, we had the privilege of getting to know the HCS staff. Hearing their stories gave me newfound respect for non-profits.
When we weren’t at HCS, we worked in the Maot Chitim warehouse. It’s an organization that’s operated in the Chicago area for over 100 years now, delivering meals for Jewish holidays to people in need. Maot Chitim is a Hebrew word used in the Torah to describe the 10% of a farmer’s crop that was to be left un-reaped during Passover, so that the poor could walk through the field themselves and claim it. The organization’s Executive Director who supervised us, Joellyn Stoliar, embodied this spirit of charity. She remembered that in the years immediately following the fall of the USSR, even wealthy immigrants would ask to receive free food for the holidays, not out of greed but because of habits that were necessary for survival in the Old Country because of food rationing. Maot Chitim, as Joellyn explained, typically grants aid to any caller—no questions asked.
Even after we had said our final goodbyes, I still got the sense that our diverse ASB group would retain a kind of unspoken, almost Breakfast Club-like understanding of whatever had happened in Chicago. I really hope that we keep in contact with our Friendly Caller Program survivors and I trust that we’ll make the effort to.
But how do we transmit what these heroes have taught us, more or less live it out in our daily lives? This is my attempt at a start, and on behalf of everyone in our group, I’d like to thank Holocaust Community Services, Maot Chitim, Vanderbilt ASB and Vanderbilt University.