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Student perspectives

Sinai Scholars Symposium and a Shabbat in Crown Heights

The fifth annual Sinai Scholars paper presentation featured the topic of “Money and Morality.” When I was told I was accepted to present, I polished my paper and worked on a presentation, expecting to participate in a weekend full of long academic days, and sleepless nights working out the kinks in my speech.

I was beyond surprised, therefore, when I had the fortune of staying in a beautiful house with hosts who treated me like family from the moment I stepped through the door.  The authenticity of staying in the Crown Heights “Chabad” neighborhood was astonishing. Being a relatively nonobservant Jew, I was very nervous about how the weekend would unfold. I was out of practice with most prayers, and couldn’t understand the Hebrew, let alone Yiddish, that permeated throughout the community. Regardless, there was never a hint of condescension nor was anyone remotely rude or uptight when I failed to follow some previously unknown custom.

Sunday was the day our presentations were held, so I took the subway into Manhattan and was welcomed warmly by a host of people when I entered the Chabad near NYU. With gourmet breakfast, lunch, and dinner, my nerves were constantly set at ease by good meals and company. I was in the last section of presenters, and while I was nervous to present, my speech was met by a curious audience with attentive ears. After answering a few questions, I sat back down and waited as the other highly qualified candidates finished up the day of presentations.

Still though, there was more to enjoy. After the final presenter, everyone was invited to listen to a panel of businessmen who addressed the topic of money and morality in a conversational way. Among the businessmen was Mr. George Rohr, who is a major philanthropist in the religious and secular world.

While I couldn’t stay for dinner, the kindhearted kitchen staff prepared me a to-go bag that I hastily consumed in the taxi to the airport. At the end of such a beautiful weekend, it was seen fit for me to catch my flight with less than 5 minutes to spare. With all of the catch phrases that we commonly hear to promote events, I was surprised and encouraged by the accuracy of those phrases in the context of the Sinai Scholars event.

For those interested, my paper’s topic involved the Jewish justification for the morality of credit derivatives and options.

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Eric is pictured on the left. 

Love Your Fellow As Yourself

Shabbat Shalom. This week we have the pleasure of reading not only one but two parshiot: parsha Acharei Mot and Parsha Kedoshim. In short parsha Acharei Mot discusses the specific responsibilities of the Kohen Gadol during the Yom Kippur service, followed by a series of mitzvot that teach us to be holy in parsha Kedoshim. Among those mitzvot we find, “Love your fellow as yourself,” which Hillel proclaims “is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary.” I found Hillel’s statement to be extremely bold. How can the entire Torah be summed up in five words? What significance does this mitzvah have over all the others?

The great Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory explains this through the three loves: the love of God, the love of Torah, and the love of one’s fellow. As He describes it, each of these three loves is a component of a singular essence and therefore you cannot distinguish one from the other. Our love for God is not complete until we have learned to love each other and the Torah and so forth. Our connection to God is directly related to our connection with each other. The way we interact with one another and our willingness to not only accept each other, but to love each other for who and what we are and even who and what we are not, affects our personal relationship with God. 

In the wake of the Boston tragedy this week, I think we can all agree that, especially in times like these, recognizing and showing our love for others is essential in providing strength and support for the victims—and for ourselves as we all try to come to terms with the act of terror that occurred in Boston. It is hard to make sense of these horrible incidences and the evil that sometimes exists in the world, but that makes the love and kindness that we all have the capacity to show others, even more important. As we come together tonight in the spirit of Shabbat, we are bringing light into the world. Despite the distance between here and Boston, the energy we have created tonight is being felt across the nation. 

Thinking about the importance of showing kindness and love to others, I have reflected upon how grateful I am for the love and support that I am given in my life. As graduation approaches I want to acknowledge and truly thank those who have contributed to my college experience and given me so much love and guidance that I will take with me onto the next stage of my life. Rabbi Zev and Ariela are the perfect example of two people who demonstrate what it means to "love your fellow as yourself." Since my freshman year you guys have been so welcoming and loving. The atmosphere at Chabad is always filled with such positive energy and it all stems from you guys. You reach out to every student who walks through the door and devote so much time and effort for the sake of others. Your actions motivate me to be a better person. I am so thankful and appreciative for having you in my life and I will miss you both very much next year.

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Shana is pictured on the right. 

Remembering in Austin and Auschwitz

Sunday, April 22, 2012—16:03 

    Sitting on the steps of the memorialized seven tons of ashes, I see before my eyes a wooden structure. It doesn’t look that different from how I imagine log cabins looked in those days. Rusted red ladder hooked to its dark, marred walls, 10 sectors of brick above forming that horrid chimney. Inside, the ovens “efficiently” burned five human lives a piece in [30 minutes,] the time it might take each to finish a grocery store run, catch up with a long-lost friend, enjoy a bike ride, a family dinner. We said Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning, next to the steel contraptions. We saw where they poured the fuel to heat—the fuel to murder, destroy, commit evil. Tears glistened on each generally frivolous teen’s face.

– My journal, Majdanek

 

    I spent last year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day trekking from Auschwitz to Birkenau with 10,000 other participants of the commemorative March of the Living program. At the time, I didn’t even know where I’d be in school for the following year’s memorial. Much less did I anticipate finding a memorial experience as meaningful as the one I found at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Last Thursday, April 4, student organization The White Rose Society passed out 10,000 white roses on campus to represent the number of people killed daily in Auschwitz. Named after a non-violent intellectual resistance movement at the University of Munich during WWII, the Texas group echoed their predecessors’ message of “We will not be silent.” As the gray skies kept up a continuous flow of rain onto the Forty Acres, pristine cream-colored roses rested in hands everywhere below umbrellas. Simple, but everywhere.

    Even more activities were scheduled this week. Organizations sponsoring events include The White Rose Society’s Human Rights Symposium, fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi hosting a memorial ceremony Monday and the Longhorn Research Bazaar featuring a research poster project about my experiences visiting the Poland camps during Holocaust Remembrance Day last year.

 

Thursday, April 19, 2012—1:25 

    Our tour guide noted the separation between Jews and Poles—though one refers to religious beliefs and another a nationality, the country and its citizens view the identities as mutually exclusive. Of an estimated 2,000 Jews in Cracow, only 150 acknowledge their Judaism through affiliations. Sad, as the Nazis aimed for that diminished Jewish life here.

– My journal, Schindler’s Factory Museum

 

    But what touched me the most was an interview Friday with a senior broadcast student from China who is producing a video about The White Rose initiative, the horrors of Auschwitz and how China was affected by WWII. She said she'd never met a Jew before interviewing me nor had she heard about the Holocaust beyond history book statistics. As I spoke to her tripod-holstered video camera in the warm breeze of an Austin afternoon, my words took me back to a year previous. We both became choked up just discussing the power of the camps and of speaking with Holocaust survivors as their numbers dwindled. I told her how I had the pleasure of travelling with Majdanek survivor Max Glauben of Dallas.

 

Sunday, April 22, 2012—16:03

    …The whole time there, I imagined Max’s little brother being one of mine—Jason or Zachary. That mother being Mom, Nana, even Daley in a few years. If it happened to Max, it could happen to me and I’m so grateful it hasn’t yet. I also feel I must live my life to the fullest for them. These six million plus were deprived of an incredible amount and I feel so fortunate that I have friends, a family, free will, the ability to and avenue for pursu(e/ing) my dreams and talents, and an education. . . I’ve become fascinated by the knowledge we’re fortunate enough to have access to and I don’t want to forget it. I feel an obligation to be a witness to this. Everyone’s taking pictures, but I still need to. Same with writing down facts I can find online. I just want to take advantage of everything on this trip because it’s truly unbelievable.

– My journal, Majdanek

 

    The depth and range of commemoration at the University of Texas at Austin—from academia to research to Greek life to extracurricular activities—is incredible and very representative of the campus' activism and concern. Each venue serves as a reminder that powerful, life-changing experiences come in everyday events. I’m proud to be part of a campus that takes its history seriously, and understands the importance of preserving the past to avoid repeated horrors in the future. Today, the Burnt Orange never forgets.

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Jori Epstein is pictured left. 

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