By Rachel Bernstein –
A few weeks ago, the Gilda Slifka HBI Interns and I drove down to Newport, Rhode Island to visit the Touro Synagogue, considered the oldest synagogue still standing and in use in the United States. We toured the synagogue and wandered around downtown Newport, a quaint shopping and dining destination along the harbor. We listened to the soundtrack from the musical “Hamilton,” both ways sparking a spontaneous sing-a-long among some of the interns and me. The contrast between Newport, a city greatly affected by the American Revolution, the Touro Synagogue, used as a British hospital during the Revolution and the contemporary musical about Alexander Hamilton and his involvement in the Revolution, stuck with me and became a memory I won’t soon forget.
Earlier this summer, I started compiling all of the materials I created and collected over the years in my role as the Academic Adviser for the summer internship at HBI. This is my eighth summer working with the HBI interns and every year I’m so glad to be back at my summer home at HBI. It doesn’t even feel like I’ve been doing this for eight years because each year is new and different. I’ve worked with interns from Europe, Israel, Canada, and all over the United States. I’ve heard their stories about growing up in a broad range of religious traditions and practices, their college lives, discovering Jewish Studies or gender studies, their hopes and dreams.
The interns really keep me current—each year they arrive at HBI with fresh ideas about Jews and gender, the mission of the HBI. Hearing from interns who have recently taken exciting new classes on queer studies or feminist theory at their schools and want to apply these developing theories to their study of the Jewish community, inspires me to keep relevant. Over the years they have introduced me to different authors and scholars, new theories and language, and certainly new ways of thinking about Judaism and the Jewish community.
In my eight years, I have supervised projects that cover the gamut of scholarly and artistic explorations of topics around Jews and gender. During my years with the internship, I’ve supervised intern projects on tzniut (Jewish laws of modesty); Jewish women politicians, comedians, clowns or dancers; interviews with or resource guides for LGBTQ Jews; gender and Jewish law involving tefillin, divorce, niddah (law of ritual purity) or the use of reproductive technology; Jewish women in history from Eastern Europe, World War II and the Holocaust, and conversas from Iberia and Latin America; Hannah Arendt and her stances on feminism and Judaism; short stories about the matriarchs and contemporary issues faced by Jewish women; original paintings depicting biblical women; a zine with original art and writing and a discussion of nonbinary genders such as the androgynos and tumtum in Jewish texts and one about reimagining the use of the mikveh; documentaries addressing Soviet Jewish identity or examining the lives of Jewish women from a Chabad community and a Jewish Renewal community; the stories of ba’alei teshuva, individuals who adopt ultra-Orthodox practice; Jewishness and gender or sexuality in literary works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, the New Yorker writings of Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick, and violence in fictionalized Holocaust narratives; Jewish women in the Klezmer revival; the BRCA gene and Jewish characters in TV/film/web videos/graphic novels. That is such an incredible list and I probably accidentally missed a few!
I have learned so much from the HBI interns, not only from their excellent projects, but also in our conversations during our weekly meetings when we discuss research methods and theories. While I might often present to them the same texts or activities that I have planned in years past, each year the interns bring something new to it—a word they want to complicate, an image that contains multitudes to analyze, their own personal experience that informs their approach to a topic.
We also have weekly events that I have set up each year. Many take the form of a field trip to a site of Jewish and/or gender relevance around New England, like our trip to Newport. Working with this internship has given me an opportunity to visit places I might not have been able to access otherwise. Each year, we visit Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralistic community mikveh in Newton for an educational program. Some of our interns have written blogs about this trip before and I always find this trip to be an informative, reflective experience. We also head to downtown Boston with Professor Ellen Smith from Brandeis who leads the group on a walking tour to sites of Jewish history in Boston. We stop by Paul Revere’s house and a public park tucked away in one of the side streets of the North End to learn about different waves of Jewish immigration in Boston. We also visit the Holocaust Memorial near Faneuil Hall and consider its form and meaning. We then visit the Vilna Shul, an immigrant-era synagogue in Boston’s West End to see its history in the peeling
paint layers, murals, giant wooden ark, and specific construction of the bima and the men’s and women’s sections. For the other events, we’ve heard from many different organizations and speakers over the years such as workshops with Keshet on LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish community; the Anti-Defamation League; text studies and trips to see an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of Science; discussions with Professor Joy Ladin; and a meeting with past National President of Hadassah, Nancy Falchuk. It has been such an honor and a privilege for me to plan and experience all of these trips and meetings with the internship.
The joy the interns bring to learning, research, and discovery gives me renewed energy in my own work as I complete my doctoral program in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology at Brandeis. I know the wisdom I have learned from the interns in my experience, as the Academic Adviser, will continue to aid me as I journey further into my career. HBI will always feel like a home to me, both intellectually and physically, after my many summers with the internship. So all I can say is a big thank you to all the interns I have had a chance to get to know and learn from, the generous donors who have helped the interns and me have so many great summers, and to the amazing staff at HBI for helping me grow here.
Rachel Bernstein is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology. She is the research director of the HBI-Gilda Slifka Summer Internship program.