Hillel summer program in Uruguay gives UA student fresh perspective
Special to the AJP
I wanted to spend my summer in Europe this year. Once I accepted that wasn’t happening unless I won the lottery, I turned to the small print in the Hillel newsletter and found out about a program offered by Hillel Uruguay, the first Hillel in South America. For a month, I could practice my Spanish, volunteer or intern, and learn about Montevideo’s Jewish community.
It took me about an hour to read the description and, Google some photos of Uruguay. That same day, I turned in my application and deposit. I immediately updated my Facebook status to announce that I was going to Uruguay, and one of my first responses was from someone who graduated from St. Gregory two years before I did, who had decided to do the same program.
Jessica Savage and I had not known each other well in high school, but that connection instantly made us friends. Before we went on the trip, she showed me photos from her previous trips to Uruguay. She was hooked on the country, and I would be, too.
We arrived in Montevideo on June 8, and it was freezing — at least for a native Tucsonan like me. There were 11 participants, including me, and it took about 10 minutes to bond over lunch (Italian food, a Uruguayan staple). That night we walked to Hillel Uruguay, about seven blocks from our kosher hotel, yapping all the way down the uneven stone sidewalks. We were welcomed to Hillel by the American fellow, Amy; the director of international programming, Stefi; and about a million other people. Hillel Uruguay is almost completely run by students under 30, save for the director and the owner of Café Hillel, where we ate our dinners each weeknight.
Soon I was settled into my routine of four hours of advanced conversational Spanish in the morning, followed by lunch (the best steak in the world for about $5) and an internship at Un Techo Para Mi País Uruguay, the Latin- American version of Habitat for Humanity. I came home to the hotel at night exhausted but exhilarated — I may have been the quiet, shy girl at the office who didn’t always understand the thick, Uruguayan accent, but I was in awe of how much important work everyone did, and I swear I never saw a person over 30 enter the building. College students in Uruguay, at least the ones I met, are extremely active and have what we might consider full-time jobs all while attending rigorous classes.
Though Uruguay is a fairly affluent country, poverty still exists, which is why Techo exists. The week before a building session was to take place, I traveled with other volunteers to a shantytown, where various families were about to help build new huts to live in. The smell was unbearable until it took over and I stopped noticing it. The people were incredibly nice. Everybody offered me yerba maté, a beverage I finally have a bit of a taste for. But describing the experience is no easier in English than it was in Spanish. We have poverty in the United States, yes, but I have never seen it look like that. Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough.
The first Shabbat took me to a synagogue, which was, for me, strangely Orthodox (segregated seating and much chanting) and yet super-casual (jeans, gossiping the entire time, and, children playing in the hallway). Our group was divided into small duos and trios, and we were hosted by local families for Shabbat dinner.
These weekly Shabbat dinners were the best thing about Montevideo. This is where I stretched my Spanish the most, as I defended Obama, described lactose intolerance, gushed about music I like, and recommended books, all in my second language. And this is where I learned how unique the Jewish community in Montevideo is. Though we were in Latin America, most families we met were Ashkenazi, not Sephardic, as I had expected. And, though most described themselves as falling somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox, there were no real distinctions between any sects. Everybody was Jewish, everybody of all ages hung out at Hillel (the only place to get a kosher meal in town, aside from our hotel), and there were a variety of ways to be Jewish — something I’ve continued to learn all summer.
Uruguay is not where you go if you want the South America of indigenous folk art and lots of interesting food. Every restaurant sells the same dishes, and the entire indigenous population was long ago killed off and is almost never mentioned. Then again, it’s also a country where cows outnumber people six to one, and they know how to cook every part of them in every way. Just don’t ask for anything spicy with your food — black pepper is too much for Uruguayans.
Not being distracted by street fairs or nature (Montevideo is a beautiful city, and I traveled the country for two weeks after the program ended, but hills are about as exotic as it gets in terms of landscape), I was able to immerse myself totally in the experience of the people and the language – although I may have a strange affectation to my Spanish now, a blend of Mexican, Tucsonan and Uruguayan accents. My Uruguay is the people, the places, and the memories. And when you go, I recommend you don’t eat the cow kidneys or intestines — they’re an acquired taste.
Hannah Gomez is a junior at the University of Arizona, where she is the Hillel FACE (Fellowship for the Advancement of Campus Engagement) fellow for 2009-10.