Spring Religious Studies course connects students with the Charlottesville refugee community

Prof. Vanessa Ochs relates the Jewish narrative of Passover to the plight of today’s oppressed minorities


As part of the course, students will learn to prepare their own seder, a dinner prepared for Passover.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As students are in the process of selecting their courses for next semester, a popular class that has already filled for the spring is a Religious Studies course that requires students to volunteer with the refugee community in Charlottesville. The course, titled “The Passover Haggadah,” is listed under the RELJ designation in the Student Information System and focuses on practices in Judaism aiming to address the role of being a community of outsiders.

The Haggadah is a Jewish text that the course applies to contemporary issues. The course, taught by Religious Studies Prof. Vanessa Ochs, applies the narrative of Passover — when the Jews were liberated from slavery in Egypt — to modern-day outsiders. Ochs said there are different types of strangers one may encounter in today’s society.

“The major theme of the Haggadah is being attentive to the needs of the stranger because Jews were strangers … [as] slaves in Egypt, and they were commanded to be attentive to all the needs of all other strangers and to address their needs,” Ochs said. “Strangers can be broadly interpreted as the immigrant, the person who suffers in any kind of way, the LGBT person or a woman being treated as a second-class citizen.”

Along with fulfilling the academic requirements of the course, students are also required to volunteer weekly. Students learn to prepare their own seder — a ceremonial meal eaten on Passover — that accommodates the needs of the particular group students are volunteering with. Ochs plans to hold a class seder downtown in Emancipation Park to further engage with the local community.

“Ultimately, we are hopeful that we will have a class seder, a Haggadah we create, in Emancipation Park, that deals with moments that are timely in our community, and bridge[s] the connection between U.Va. and the Charlottesville community,” Ochs said.

Ochs said she believes all students in the course, whether Jewish or not, can learn about how traditions evolve over time.

“I think all students learn that ritual is malleable, that new rituals have been invented,” Ochs said. “They also learn how to function as ritual facilitators, and that’s a really important skill to learn.”

The Hillel Jewish Leadership Council — the association for all Jewish student groups on Grounds — also works to connect students with local volunteering opportunities. Their Social Justice Committee engages with the Charlottesville community led by the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.”

Annie Weinberg, chair of the JLC Social Justice Committee and a third-year Curry student, said JLC works with marginalized groups in the Charlottesville community — such as the homeless or the elderly — because the Jewish community can identify with the narrative of being outsider.

“It’s kind of something that from a young age is ingrained in Jewish families and Jewish children,” Weinberg said. “We always say on Passover, and all the time, ‘We were once the strangers in the strange land.’ You treat your new neighbors and strangers in a way our community would want to be treated.”

Weinberg said the JLC is planning to increase engagement with the Charlottesville refugee community in the spring.

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