Putting it in Perspective: Practicing what Judaism Teaches at HIAS

Posted by Jenny Fernandez on Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 14:55 pm

The Jewish High Holidays have just passed, and as a student it was frustratingly difficult to find time to be able to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hours of homework piled up, mandatory meetings were inconveniently scheduled halfway through Services, and midterms approached much more quickly than I thought they would. In general, since I began college, I haven’t been as involved with observing my Judaism as I used to be or as much as I would like to be. HIAS offered a great chance for me to experience life at an international NGO, learn about issues in which I was interested, and work with a staff who were dedicated to positively changing people’s lives all over the world. But more importantly, interning at HIAS has allowed me to explore my Jewish heritage to help me engage on a more personal level with the policies I study.

As a college student in Washington, DC, I’ve found that it is often very difficult to stay neutral. With the Capitol at the center of the city, physically and otherwise, it wasn’t very surprising to me that I, along with many of my classmates and friends, were caught up in partisan disagreements. As an international relations student, I would prefer to be focused on actually helping people all over the world who live in conditions of poverty, racism, and injustice. HIAS has become the avenue through which I am able to do so. Although HIAS is a Jewish organization, they help refugees of all different ethnicities, races, and religions. HIAS advocates for refugees, whether that means speaking and working with Democrat or Republican Members of Congress. Through my internship with HIAS, I have learned that it is more important to help people in need than to argue over political minutiae to the point of gridlock.

Best of all, HIAS was the opportunity that I had been looking for to reconnect with my Jewish roots. Judaism is a system for guiding its followers in making decent and moral decisions. Judaism teaches us to be kind, to be honest, to be ethical, and to deliver these messages to others. Working with refugees means working with people who have been persecuted because of something they believe in, how they act, or the way they look. Judaism encourages us to accept these people, to show them that there is a safe place to believe what they want to believe, study what they want to study, and talk about whatever they want. Judaism teaches us that always doing the right thing, even if you don’t feel like you agree with it at the time, is important. To me, this means that even though our country is going through a difficult period economically, we should not be reducing our efforts to help those in need. In fact, it is at times of financial trouble that our duty to help the least fortunate is the greatest.

My internship with HIAS has allowed me to combine my religious, educational, and personal beliefs in a productive and extremely important way. And although I haven’t been able to attend Hillel events on campus or travel back home for High Holiday services and celebrations, interning at HIAS has encouraged me to live and practice what the Torah teaches.

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