Colombia: Encountering the Other, Finding Ourselves

Pining for adventure? Missing the warmth and the sun? The Be’chol Lashon/Vanderbilt Hillel Student Trip to Colombia combined both together service learning for some incredible life lessons. The students themselves share some observations of this exceptional adventure.

Day 1: “Bienvenidos a Bogotá” the capital of Colombia, the thriving heartbeat of a vibrant nation, a city full of exciting people, and traffic. We met our Be’chol Lashon guide, Aryeh. Then it was off to visit Monserrate, the towering peak that overlooks Bogotá like a watchful sentinel. We were rewarded with spectacular views of the entire city sprawled out before us. At the Bogotá Chabad house, we experienced Shabbat services before digging in to a mouthwatering feast, complete with plenty of Hebrew songs and “l’chaims”. For many of us, it was a welcome reminder of the type of uniquely Jewish revelry we’d all enjoyed as children. (Gideon Ticho)

MountainDay 2: The experience we shared at the Conservative synagogue, Asociación Israelita Montefiore, opened our eyes to a completely new Jewish perspective. We spoke to Adriano who taught us about what it is like to not only be a Colombian Jew, but also what it is like to be a “converso,” someone who converted to Judaism, in Bogotá. We also learned about new Jewish communities that are forming in other Colombian cities! Once Shabbat was officially over, we went out with Colombian Jewish students! We learned not only what it is like to be a Colombian Jew, but also what it is like to be a young Jewish person in Colombia! (Erika Slepian)

Day 3: Among the highlights of the day was the visit to Museo de Oro: Banco de la Republica, where we learned about the history of metallurgy in Colombia. The themes of eroticism, motherhood and animals in particular were emphasized in the museum; Zenú was a society run by women (!!), and controlled the politics and practices within it. Although indigenous culture largely disappeared after the arrival of the Spaniards, the fact that a society ruled by women was able to exist in Colombia so long ago was both fascinating and inspiring to me. This theme of feminine strength was echoed in Rabbi Yehoshua’s sermon from Shabbat morning about Purim, specifically the inner courage of Esther as both a woman and a fairly non-religious woman. (Nicole Rakusin)

BL_BannerDay 4: We went to the outskirts of Bogota, and explored the Salt Cathedrals and listened to our Colombian guide tell us the history and the meaning of the various rooms and crosses around the underground cathedral. It was a very beautiful area and unique to learn about the Christian history of this city. Following the Cathedral, we went to a delicious restaurant and feasted on native Colombian dishes. Our long meals are always filled with hilarious moments and meaningful conversations.

It is so humbling and unique to be able to discuss Israel and our beliefs in God while in such a small yet vibrant Jewish community in South America. I think we all are truly growing as individuals here and will return to America more knowledgeable, proud, and inspired to spread world Jewry. (Renee Lewis)

Day 5: I think everyone can agree that today’s experience at the Aldeafeliz EcoVillage was eye opening. We visited the community compost, walked through the one room schoolhouse, and admired the sights and sounds of the Colombian rainforest. Fabio helped us get in touch with our spirituality by leading a meditation on a sacred piece of land that has been used for prayer for over 5000 years. Prior to lunch, a few members of the group walked down to the river, waded in and sat among the rocks, and listened to the sounds of water rushing. We agreed that in that moment, we felt more tranquil and at peace with ourselves than we had in months. (Jacqueline Gottuso)


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Day 6 -8: We arrived on the Caribbean coast city of Santa Marta. We played on the beach for before meeting up with the Jewish community of Santa Marta. We went through the Purim service and then proceeded to dance and party with the community throughout the night. (Darby Howard)

A little bit about Javura Shirat Hayyam: this is the facility used for all the Jewish life in Santa Marta. It is a house that was purchased by the Jewish community a short while ago and each room in the house serves a different purpose. There is a kitchen, dinning room, a schoolroom, two bedrooms and a sanctuary. This house does not look like a synagogue—so we were given the challenging tasks of painting two rooms, spreading gravel in the yard and decorating the schoolroom. We did it all and made the schoolroom look like a proper cheder (Yiddish for Jewish school) Thanks to the Brandeis Hillel Day School for all the artwork! (Daniel Reches)

Day 9: Our last day in Colombia and was filled with bittersweet emotion of most of us. In the afternoon, the entire group gathered to give Aryeh feedback on the trip and help him out with planning his future trips. We went around a circle and shared our highs and lows of the journey. Overall, it was clear that the highs outweighed the lows! (Danielle Honigstein)

Aryeh the guide reflects on the trip as a whole: The enthusiasm and thoughtfulness of this group is a sign of the strength and vitality of the Jewish future. The students themselves are a a diverse group with different points of view about the important issues in life but the engaging with a variety of Jewish communities in Colombia expanded the conversation further. Of course the swimming in the surf and the fresh coconuts were fantastic too!

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