As a Jewish woman, I am inspired on the most basic level by the words of my Jewish ancestors, and the reinterpretation of those words by modern-day Jewish scholars. In my daily life, I am inspired by the people around me who I see emulating Jewish values—my family, friends, teachers, scientists, politicians—whether they are Jewish or not. In particular, I am inspired to work on refugee and immigration issues because of my own family history. In 1946, my great-grandfather, Malkiel Piecarz, had just survived the Holocaust, but his wife and children had not. My great-grandfather was now a refugee with no safe place to go; he tried to make it to Palestine, but was turned away by the British. Malkiel’s two brothers had immigrated to the United States before the war began, and they tried to make arrangements for him to join them. At that time, however, our country was not opening its arms widely for Holocaust survivors. Obtaining a visa turned out to be very difficult, until kind Jewish strangers stepped in. These strangers arranged for my great-grandfather to work for them in New York, so he was no longer considered a refugee—instead he would be coming on a work visa, which was much easier to obtain. It’s unclear whether Malkiel actually did work for these people, because soon after arriving in New York, he moved to Ohio to live near his brothers. But either way, because of the strangers who offered Malkiel a job, I’m able, three generations later, to grow up in the United States. I feel that I should—must—work to extend the opportunities I’ve had to other people searching for a better life, just as someone did for my great-grandfather. For this reason, two years ago I started volunteering at an English and civics class for refugees and immigrants, and it quickly became one of my favorite parts of each week.
The purpose of the class where I volunteered was to increase the students’ proficiency in English in order to aid in their searches for well-paying jobs, as well as to prepare them for the citizenship test they would take five years after arrival in the States. At first, my role was to assist the teachers by working with students one-on-one or in small groups. However, the civics teacher left abruptly, and so I stepped up to teach the civics lesson each week. At first, it was hard—not only had I never planned lessons before, I’d be teaching adults. But I learned as I went, and two months later, one of my students took the citizenship test. She passed with flying colors—and still came to the class each week.
As much as the impact of the class was measured in tangibles (the number of students who found better jobs or who gained their citizenship), the benefits to both myself and the students far exceeded these things. One week, as a farewell to a volunteer heading off to the army, we held a potluck, invited students’ friends and family, and asked each guest to contribute food from their culture. We each arrived bearing heaping plates of injera, tamales, kibbeh, fufu, and more. I, the Modern Orthodox American Jew, brought challah. After enjoying food with flavors as diverse as the faces in the room, we turned up some music, and a student from Guatemala began to dance the mambo. Everyone joined in to learn the moves, and one by one, students each led a dance they knew from back home. The other volunteers and I taught Cotton-Eye Joe. When we were all dripping with sweat and laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, we collapsed on our chairs and smiled for pictures. But the part of the night I’ll hold with me forever is when a student in the class stood up and told us we were her family. She explained that when she was resettled in the United States, she knew nobody but her husband. She spent much of her time talking to the people she left behind, and feeling like she’d never find her place in this country. But once she started coming to class each week, she knew she’d found her home among us, the teacher, volunteers, and classmates from all over the world.
That night, I learned the biggest impact I can make is not through dollars or donations. The most important thing for me to do is help create a community that is safe, loving, and caring for all. Not only do I want to help make a difference in someone else’s life, it is my privilege and duty as a Jewish woman to do so.
This piece was originally published in Hadassah Magazine’s essay contest on social and racial justice.
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