I’ll admit, sometimes I browse Buzzfeed. In particular, since I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky, I often look at bucket lists for inspiration.
I recently opened a “Bucket List for Girls” post, which posed the question: “What do you want to do before you die?” On this Buzzfeed list, one of the to-do-before-you-die items was “volunteer in a foreign country.” Accompanying this statement was an image that appears to be what the list-makers imagine an unspecific African country might look like: black women dressed in bright, patterned clothing, lugging buckets of water on their heads. Among the black women is one white girl, dressed in safari-style camo wear, holding a similar bucket atop her head, with a look of great accomplishment.
I had a visceral reaction to this image. Shaking my head, I wondered – what is she doing? Why is she there? Where is she? Is she actually helping, or just volunteering for her own sake? That is the risk of “voluntourism.”
What is “voluntourism?” It’s pretty much what it sounds like: vacation travel, with volunteer opportunities awaiting at the travel destination. Search the web and you’ll find dozens of organizations, nonprofits and travel businesses alike, deeply involved in organizing volunteering vacations.This is a recent trend among my generation. A quick Google search for “Humanitarians of Tinder” will pull up a site devoted to Tinder [a matchmaking/dating site] images, of mostly white people posing with mostly black children.
This makes me uncomfortable. Apparently, it’s now cool to travel and volunteer to any unidentified country that needs us to save them. Photographs of us participating in these activities will even attract potential mates- after all, they show that we’re good people, the sort of people who devoted our whole winter break to needy children in Guatemala!
On one level, I find it exciting and inspiring that caring about others and trying to make a difference are qualities that have become “cool.” If this is the direction society is moving, I’m all for it. But I want to challenge this culture a bit. I wrote on this topic before, how images can stereotype people and erase cultural, historic, and geographic complexities. While looking through the Tinder images, I felt a great pit at the bottom of my stomach. These photos exploit others by defining them ultimately as “poor, helpless individuals, in need of saving.” What of their strengths?
The Talmud teaches in Brachot 19B: “Come and learn: Human dignity is so important that it supersedes even a biblical prohibition.”
Where is the human dignity in this trend of being a voluntourist?
I’m not trying to discount this idea altogether, but I think the missing piece with voluntourism is making space for dignity of both sides. So here are some tips that can challenge this phenomenon, since as we know from our friends at Buzzfeed, making suggestions into a list is helpful!
1) Learn about the history, culture and current political standing of country you’re interested in before you go.
2) Study the root causes of issues you’re interested in.
3) Speak with people on the ground before you volunteer- what are they doing, and how can you help them?
4) Take a strengths-based approach- focus on the strengths of the community you want to serve and think about how you can bring things back home that they can teach you.
5) Take some time to learn about issues in your own community, and find out what you can do to serve those closer to home.
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I recently completed a one-year Kahn Fellowship for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. My aim during the fellowship was to specifically work on engaging the young queer Jewish community. In return, my own personal growth would be nurtured through an additional immersive experience. My colleague Margalit suggested something called TENT.
One of TENT’s week-long intensive programs, “Tent:The South,” would be take participants from all over the country on a road trip, from New Orleans to Memphis through Mississippi, learning about Jewish history and contemporary culture in these regions.
I had never thought about Jews in the South. It was so far removed from everything I knew about the history of the South – which was delineated along racial lines that excluded Jewishness. I was excited to go on this trip. Who were these Jews in the South? Perhaps even more interesting, who are they now?
We started out in New Orleans, a city rich with history and supporting three synagogues. Even the Orthodox synagogue in town, Anshe Sfard, is working toward inclusivity and seeks LGBT involvement. This was astonishing to me, but also exciting. From there, we traveled up through Mississippi and into the Delta, all the way up to Memphis. We stopped in many towns and small cities, and met with local Jewish communities, continuously learning about our Jewish history in the South.
I had many emotional and informative experiences on this trip. Perhaps most personal to my understanding of my own identity was really digging into what the South “is” and “isn’t” and what it really means to me as someone who was raised in a border state.
Growing up in Maryland, whenever I spoke with Northerners I was told I was from the South, and whenever I spoke with Southerners, I was told I was from the North. I tried to claim my border-statehood, but that wasn’t good enough for people – they needed to “other” me to the other side of the tracks, or in this case, the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. I left Maryland at 14 to go to a private school in Pennsylvania, and I’ve never identified as a Marylander since.
It was on this trip, this Southern Jewish trip that I got to go on as a result of my work with the LGBTQ Jews in Los Angeles, that I learned to own the Marylander in me. And in a way, more of my Jewishness too.
Growing up, I saw myself as an “other” compared to the Jews I knew, because of my queer identity. But now I really see the cultural narrative of Jewishness as one of “otherness;” and I see my Jewishness as part of my personal narrative. Many people say they are Jew-ISH; I used to say I wasn’t practicing – I was just good at it. Now I don’t know what to say. I suppose I am “exploring my Jewishness.”
Finally, now I see: not feeling like I’m from the South or from the North, not feeling like my home state has a place in this country’s delineation, is really part of my greater narrative. I am a person in-between, or on the line, an “other” from the norm like all Jews and from the Jewish “other.” Never here nor there. I live on the border between the LGBTTQQIA2S (and growing) alphabet. I live on the border between secular and religious (and changing). And now I am finally owning that I grew up on the border between North and South. I am from a border state, and like the place from which I hail– I, too, am a perpetual border state.
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For my family, like many Jewish families, holidays play an important role in our life. Holidays are the times when we all get together. There are endless, crazy traditions. Holidays meant coming home, and being with my family.
I grew up in Florida, and went to college in Florida. When my parents moved from Florida to Texas, I suddenly had a to plan on a plane ride instead of a two-hour drive to be with my family for the holidays. Then I graduated from college and started a real job, forcing me to face the reality of not spending every holiday with my family. Being “home for the holidays” was no longer a given.
I certainly am not alone. Every recent college graduate balances making it home for celebrations with our families to what our “grown up life” and holiday celebrations will look like. Luckily, with my first out-of-college job, I literally am not alone.
When I moved to Jackson to start work for the ISJL, I knew that I was joining a new family. My Education Fellow cohort has family dinners together. We look out for each other. We bring each other pints of ice cream with a Shabbat candle for birthdays, squeal over the sweet story of a fellow Fellow’s engagement, and make sure that everyone has a family with whom to spend the holidays. We celebrate together. And yes, we have even and taken family portraits at JC Penney together.
This year in particular, I have been truly blessed in the holiday-celebration regard. One of our board members invited anyone who was in town to spend all or part of the High Holy days with her family in Greenwood, Mississippi. Even though I wasn’t able to spend Yom Kippur with my family, another family opened its arms to welcome me in. I fasted, watched football, and broke fast with M&Ms and Diet Coke—just as I would have done with my family of origin.
As Education Fellows, this happens to us all year round. We each have six or seven communities that we visit and, with the gift of home hospitality, we are lucky to be welcomed into many families throughout our two years. We light the candles at Shabbat dinners in these families’ homes, and hear about how everybody’s week has been. They allow us to truly be part of the family and the greater community; in addition to celebrating many Jewish holidays, I have also cheered at soccer games (even though I don’t entirely remember the rules), attended local craft and historical festivals, and participated in a charity fundraiser.
Other Fellows have enjoyed family movie nights, gone on afternoon hikes, and visited kids’ art shows; there’s no end to the possibilities!
Not only do our hosts welcome us into their families for the weekend, but we also share our lives with them. We tell stories about the shenanigans and adventures of group summer visits. Especially as second year Fellows, we want to contact our hosts or education directors when exciting things develop for graduate school or plans for Life After The Fellowship.
I still love getting to be with my family. I also love how much more “family” I have now. When I first started at the ISJL in June 2013, I added 8 Fellows to my family. Over the last 18 months, that family has grown exponentially with every summer, fall, and spring visit I make. Not every recent college graduate gets so warmly embraced by so many families, who make us feel at home even when we’re far from home. I look forward to continuing growing my Southern Jewish family this year, and staying in touch as the world takes us in all different directions.
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