(2) Working in Cemeteries in D.C. and Poland

The recently partially-restored Jewish cemetery in Tarnow, Poland

Cemeteries can be very introspective places. They are often very quiet; separated from the outside world, with birds chirping and only the occasional sound of cars driving by or muted conversations. Cemeteries are also full of symbolism and emotion; family histories that cover decades and multiple generations. With every grave photographed and documented, I, along with others doing similar work, am able to preserve a bit of that history. 

The eight fellows along with our group leaders from JewishGen, Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and The Matzevah Foundation, standing inside the cleared section of the Przysucha Jewish Cemetery beside the oldest standing matzevah in the cemetery, which is from 1771.

In a brief pause from my internship, two weeks ago I flew to Warsaw, Poland, as part of a fellowship of 8 participants at various points in our academic and professional careers. The fellowship, a collaboration between JewishGen, Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland, and The Matzevah Foundation, was an opportunity to learn about the long history of Jewish communities in Poland and to explore current efforts to preserve said communities’ stories. A central focus of the fellowship was the role of Jewish cemeteries in Poland as essential proof of the existence of Jewish life in areas now lacking any Jewish presence. As a climax of the trip, our group was joined by additional volunteers from The Matzevah Foundation to clean up a 250-year-old cemetery in Przysucha, Poland.

The gate to the Jewish cemetery in Przysucha, Poland. Most of the fence was not visible from a distance, with a similar level of plant life having grown on the outside perimeter as within the gate.

When we first arrived at the cemetery, it seemed like an impossible job. The area was so overgrown that it looked like a fenced-in forest, and we had little-to-no expectations of finding any matzevot (gravestones). Yet, the more we chopped and dragged, the more we uncovered. Inside the entrance to the cemetery was the first surprise, a pile of matzevah fragments; broken pieces of gravestones. Some had writing on them or showed imagery such as candlesticks or lions (often used on the graves of people whose names translate to “lion” in English, including Arye or Leyb).  As we continued into the cemetery, we found several fully-preserved stones, a small insight into what the cemetery may have looked like in its prime before the war. 

Before this trip, I had an idea in my head of what a cemetery was. Even cemeteries in the US that are less cared-for have a certain look to them: rows and rows of stones, sometimes shoved together with little space in between; sometimes so worn by weather for so many years that they are unreadable, but still there as proof of what has been. The Przysucha cemetery once looked like that, but now there is little left, and what remains is a selection of puzzles with the pieces missing, most likely never to be recovered. Having experienced what can become of such a cemetery, once full of beautifully carved matzevot, the work I am doing to document graves in historic cemeteries in Washington D.C. feels all the more inspiring. As I return to my internship at the Capital Jewish Museum, I am renewed in my enthusiasm to preserve not only Jewish history abroad but also here at home. 

The fact that I was able to attend this fellowship says everything to me about the work environment at my internship this summer. During my very first interview for the position, I mentioned to my now-supervisor that I had applied for this fellowship (at the time I had not yet been accepted). His response: That sounds like a wonderful opportunity! He explained to me that not only did he think it was an excellent program, but that the museum values additional learning opportunities, and he encouraged me to take time away not only for the fellowship, but also for speakers, walking tours, or anything else that came up. This intention for learning, which I value greatly, makes a lot of sense in a museum workspace, where so much of the work is around creating a learning environment for others. In many ways, this internship is helping me figure out what kind of work environment I am looking for and what kind of work I would like to be doing. 

(1) Interning at the Capital Jewish Museum

This summer I am interning at the under-construction Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum grew out of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which has been operating out of a historic synagogue building since 1975. The museum is set to open next year and will physically incorporate the old synagogue building into its design. The photo on the left below shows the synagogue perched on the corner of 3rd and F Streets in northwest D.C. and the photo on the right is a digital representation of the future museum building. The brick building to the left in the second image is the relocated old synagogue, connected by a walkway to the newly constructed museum. 

My work for the museum this past month has primarily been a combination of genealogical research and cemetery record documentation. The genealogical aspect involves researching and creating family trees of multi-generational families in the D.C. Jewish community. I have also been spending a great deal of time at historic cemeteries in D.C., photographing and creating comprehensive indexes of graves. This is a personal passion of mine, as grave photos can be incredibly valuable for genealogical research, and online grave photos are a resource for people all over the world who are unable to personally visit cemeteries.

The particular cemeteries I have been working with thus far are home to members of some prominent families in D.C. history. One of the goals of my internship is to create a self-guided tour so that visitors can walk through the cemetery, visit particular graves, and access information about deceased individuals and their contributions to the D.C. Jewish community. This project would combine the genealogical research and cemetery photography aspects of my work, offering a resource to those in the area interested in D.C.’s Jewish history.

I entered this internship with the hope to learn more about the D.C. Jewish community, its diversity, and the ways in which the Capital Jewish Museum is positioned to explore and preserve the community’s history and support its future. As a side benefit, the internship offers me the opportunity to delve deeper into my own history, as my grandfather’s family settled in D.C. in the early 20th century. During my first visit to Ohev Sholom Cemetery, a historic cemetery in southeast D.C., I was able to visit my great-great-grandparents’ graves, along with the graves of several of their children, and the grave of the founder of the synagogue, all together in a cemetery whose history covers multiple centuries.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fun

I was in Israel for so long that in a way it still feels weird to not be there and working to fulfill my goals at the RRG Beit Midrash. I spent a lot of time this summer working on myself and my professional skills and I think that I have come away with a much better understanding of who I am and what a Jewish nonprofit is like that should give me a leg up in the future when I need to put those skills to the test!

In a way, I intended this internship to be a proving ground for me to test myself, to see if working as the rabbinic head of a Jewish nonprofit was something that I was capable of, let alone liked doing. I can’t say that after this summer that I now feel like a position of that kind is my calling, but I haven’t ruled it out as a potential job that I could work in the future and now that I have some experience I would feel much more comfortable in such a role.

I would recommend someone to take an internship position at the RRG Beit Midrash in a heartbeat because of how much of a positive work environment it is and the best advice I could give for someone with my internship would be not to underestimate themselves. The people I worked with were incredibly supportive and kind and helped me through whatever I needed assistance with and were too considerate of my limits to the point where I needed to tell my boss that I could handle more than he was giving me. But to get to the point where I felt comfortable with telling him that I needed to believe in my own ability to rise to the whatever task I was given, with or without help. There is nothing that you will encounter in this or any internship that is too difficult to do with some help, so there is no need to hold yourself back out of fear or lack of confidence. And in the world of Jewish nonprofits the best thing for an intern to have is confidence, even if it’s only false confidence at the start. Internships like mine are all about how well you can interact with people and we are all human, a smile, some friendliness, and the impression that you know what you are doing are all you need to succeed and make an impact. It seems scary at first but isn’t once you get used to it.

My goal for the summer was to get experience working at a nonprofit and to make an impact where I worked and my most proud accomplishment is what I helped the organization to accomplish and how doing so helped me to achieve my goals. All nonprofits live and die on how much money they can raise and the RRGBM is no exception. When I arrived back in June my boss told me the program had an ambitious goal for the summer, to raise $60,000, more than twice as much as they had ever raised in a year. I am happy to say that in part thanks to my efforts we raised slightly over our $60,000 goal and managed to secure full funding not only for the program’s usual operations but also enough money to expand our outreach to two new locations in Givat Ram and the IDC in Hertzelia! So I leave my internship with a sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that my efforts will make a real difference in the lives of hundreds of young Jewish college students.

So long, Jerusalem and see you soon!

So Far, So Good and SO MUCH Fun!

Greetings from Jerusalem! I am interning for the Hillel at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for their English language Beit Midrash (Jewish text study house), working under and with the head rabbi of the program, Rabbi Udren. So far in June my job has been mostly to work with the rest of the Hillel team to promote fundraising (shameless plug) for next year to get money for programs to rebuild the community after the worst of the pandemic left campus empty. We have done most of this fundraising by calling potential donors and sending messages on WhatsApp. We meet in the office twice a week and make phone calls and documenting the response we get from the people we talk to. So far our efforts have raised $35,000 of our $60,000 goal which is the most successful phone drive the program has had to date!

In July my job will switch to focusing on the social media presence of the University Hillel; I will be in charge of posting to their Facebook and Instagram as well as finding ways to further promote those two platforms to increase their presence and popularity both for the community and as a way to promote Rabbi Udren’s weekly Torah learning podcast, Sparks From the Fire (yes, another shameless plug!). I have already put some effort into this task while I was in quarantine, which has given me a head start and an insight to the problems that the accounts have. The objective is to, by the end of my time there, recreate the schedule and guidelines for posting on those two platforms in a way that can be continued by the rabbi when I leave and to increase the reach of the podcast to people all over the world. I have even been given the illustrious title of Social Media Director for the program! The title only came with pride and a sense of appreciation, not a raise.

From the internship I hope to gain experience and insight into working for a Jewish nonprofit and to make connections that can aid me in my professional life. Furthermore, I have been given the opportunity to learn Jewish texts at a Yeshiva (house of study) two mornings a week, which has served to deepen my spiritual connection to Judaism as well as given me more experience studying Jewish texts, which has been imperative for my professional development.

While I do go into the office several times a week, most of my work as the Social Media Director can and is done remotely, from the comfort of whatever park I am exploring on a given day. I have been able to interact with many Israelis which has taught me one thing: I need to learn more Hebrew. I am hoping that with enough time and practice here that I will finally realize all of the lessons that my Hebrew professors have been trying to instill in me for three years now. I’m sorry, Sara and Guy.

(My view from the office)

Harrison Carter