A Means to an End

Posted by Michelle Wachtel on Tue, Jun 29, 2010 at 15:23 pm

This is the first post by Michelle Wachtel, who will be participating in the Mission to HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya this July and will be sharing her reflections with us before and after.

When I moved to Washington, DC in 2008 I wanted to meet new people and get involved in the local Jewish community – HIAS Young Leaders provided me with both of these opportunities. To many of my friends HIAS was a mere jumble of letters, something I had to repeat a few times when I was explaining that I was off to a meeting or our monthly film club. But to me, HIAS is a house-hold name. Although I didn’t always understand the “hows” or “whys,” I grew-up knowing that my mother’s family left their home in Sopron, Hungary in 1956. Their village was close enough that they could walk over the border into Austria during the night, and within a month the HIAS office in Vienna helped make arrangements for their immigration to the United States. They were on the first plane of Hungarian refugees to arrive in the United States, appropriately on November 22 – Thanksgiving Day.

Since being welcomed into the HIAS family two years ago, I have had the pleasure to be a reader for the HIAS scholarship program, participate in numerous local events, including the 2009 HIAS National Advocacy Mission which attracted Young Leaders and Board Members from around the country, and I am currently serving on the DC Young Leaders steering committee as the fundraising co-chair. It is an honor to be chosen to participate in this summer’s mission to East Africa, and I am looking forward to sharing this experience, and the HIAS story, with my peers and colleagues when I return home.

But allow me to take a step back, and share with you how exactly I got to this point. Even before I attended my first Young Leaders meeting I knew that I would be an active member and supporter of HIAS. I wanted to give back to an organization that had already given so much to my family. But, when I did start to learn about what HIAS is doing today, I was confused. What happened to the “H” (Hebrew) in HIAS? True, I knew Jewish immigration and refugee issues were not what they were during past decades, but it never occurred to me that HIAS was working on behalf of non-Jewish refugees. But I learned about “Welcoming the Stranger,” and how HIAS uses Jewish values as the basis for immigration reform and advocacy. And I continue to learn how HIAS utilizes their years of expertise to resettle refugees around the world and to work on behalf of communities in crisis, such as during the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, and so much more.

While I share HIAS’ mission and wonderful success stories with my peers and colleagues, I am still often asked, “why HIAS?” Not why am I involved with HIAS, everyone can understand that, but why is HIAS doing this work? How do they stay true to their mission statement when working beyond the Jewish community? And although I am convinced of the need for HIAS in this world, my answers never seem strong enough. It is for this reason that I decided to apply for the East Africa mission. I am looking forward to seeing HIAS’ work in action and coming home with pictures and stories that will put persistent inquiries to rest, as well as arm me with the knowledge to promote HIAS’ mission further. These are my only expectations of the trip, and I am confident that they will be met and exceeded.

I have traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Each trip has been unique because of the people I meet and the places I see, but there is a commonality of learning and experiencing new things. In this way I know the HIAS East Africa mission will be similar to my past travels.What separates this “vacation” from my many others is that it is not a sight seeing trip, but rather, I believe this trip is a means to an end. It is a tool that will help me better understand and be able to share the HIAS story.

Getting ready for this trip has been a long process, and each step adds towards my excitement. I have gone to the doctor and gotten more shots (in both arms!) than I thought was possible to receive in one visit. Instead of a sticker, I received my “Yellow Card” a vaccination certificate from the World Health Organization. I have visited the Embassy of the Republic of Uganda to receive my visa, and I am keeping my fingers crossed while my passport is at the mercy of the US Postal Service enroute to the Embassy of the Republic of Kenya. And while I am eagerly awaiting my briefing book I am delving into Google and Wikipedia to learn as much as I can about the history of the region.

As part of my acceptance to participate in this mission, I am tasked with doing something to bring my experience back to my community. I am particularly passionate about engaging new HIAS Young Leaders, and that is what I am putting my efforts towards. So while I am still getting ready for the trip to come, I am also thinking ahead to what I will do when I return. My main project will be to coordinate, with the help of my fellow Young Leaders, a fundraising event in support of HIAS’ work in East Africa. The program is scheduled for October, and I hope to incorporate my photos of the trip into the evening – both as decoration and as matted prints that can serve as raffle prizes. In the meantime, I have started a Twitter account (@MishinAfrica) – follow me to receive daily updates and highlights from our mission.

Often when I think about the work of HIAS today I think about the quote from Hillel, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” To me, it is the simplest answer as to why HIAS was founded and continues to operate today, even though in a different way. I never had the chance to meet my grandfather, the head of my mother’s household, who made the decision that his family would leave Hungary. But I did have an opportunity to hear his voice through the article he wrote for Passages in January 1957, sharing his story and gratitude. I am looking forward to continuing that tradition on behalf of our family, and I know that this blog post is just the beginning.

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