Celebrating Peace Corps Shabbat With Former Volunteers

Peace Corps Week is in early March, honoring President John F. Kennedy’s signing of the Peace Corps Act on March 1, 1961. Here are some reminiscences of three returned Peace Corps Volunteers who will be recognized on Peace Corps Shabbat at Beth Jacob Congregation.

Doris Rubenstein, Ecuador, 1971-73

  1. What motivated you to join the Peace Corps? I’m a child of the sixties, and JFK was very influential in making Peace Corps one of my choices after graduating from the University of Michigan – where JFK had first promoted the idea of Peace Corps. I was a Spanish major and wanted to perfect my language ability, although there was no guarantee I’d be assigned to a Spanish-speaking country. Also, I was itching for some adventure. I sure got it!
  2. What was your most memorable experience? Unquestionably, it was a 3-day hike through the Amazon jungle I had to make to get to my worksite. We were in mud up to our knees for much of the trek, and the heat and humidity were exhausting. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life!
  3. Any “Jewish” moments? There were several, but one that was beautiful was on a Friday night. I was all alone, since my PCV colleagues had gone on some R&R. I had my old Silverman siddur with me and I prayed Kabbalat Shabbat and danced some Israeli folk dances all by myself; but the setting with the active volcano Sangay in the distance and parrots coming in to roost for the night in the grove of trees across the path were so beautiful that I felt very close to Ha-Shem.

Beth Gendler, Senegal, 1992-94

  1. What motivated you to join the Peace Corps? When I was 10 years old, a woman in my ballet class returned after two years in the Peace Corps in Senegal. I admired everything about her and was truly taken with her stories. I decided at 10 that I wanted to join Peace Corps and followed through when I graduated from college. I don’t think my family thought that I would actually go through with it!
  2. What was your most memorable experience in country? Certainly, my most meaningful experience was organizing a 5-day training for traditional birth attendants. For most of the women who attended, it was their first time away from their village on their own, their first formal educational experience, and the first time that anyone had made an investment in their leadership development. I met with the village elders to get their support and permission, and attended presentations to the village councils with the women after training. The women were emboldened to practice their craft, and the men were impressed and deferential. Watching those power dynamics shift before my eyes were one of the most gratifying, moving and powerful moments of my life.
  3. Did you have a “Jewish moment” in country that you can share? I remember fasting for Yom Kippur one year, much to the worry and dismay of my host family. When I framed it as practicing so I could fast with them next Ramadan, they felt better about it!

Miriam Krause, Samoa, 2000-02

  1. What motivated you to join the Peace Corps? I joined Peace Corps because I didn’t want to go right to grad school after college. I thought it would be a great opportunity to travel and get a really in-depth experience with a new culture and a non-Indo-European language; it was the only program I found to include language training. I genuinely believed in the three goals of Peace Corps.
  2. What was your most memorable experience in country? During winter break from school, my brother came to visit from the U.S. and we traveled to one of my fellow volunteers’ houses in a more remote part of the country. We ended up getting stuck there for three days while a hurricane went past, close enough to dump torrential rains and stop the ferries from running but far enough away that we didn’t really have any safety concerns. We played board games, sometimes by candlelight. On the day when the storm had let up a bit, we hiked to a nearby waterfall; it was beautifully lush after all the rainfall.
  3. Did you have a “Jewish moment” in country that you can share? Samoa is extremely Christian, and there were only a handful of Jews in the entire country. I was probably the most “observant” person in the country. In my second year, I somehow got in touch with a synagogue in New Zealand and they very generously sent me a box of Mahzorim ahead of the High Holidays. I sat in my house by myself and went through the Mahzor on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I don’t actually remember what I did with the books after that — I may have given them all to the Peace Corps Office for future volunteers to use.