One of my closest friends here at Nazareth College is the amazing Jill Schwartz. A fellow physical therapy major, Jill is also very involved with the Jewish and interfaith communities on campus. Her story and passion have always inspired me and I wanted to share them with the Golden Flyer family.
What religious experiences have you had at Nazareth College?
Growing up in Gates, I really didn’t know anyone else who was Jewish so being in touch with other Jews at Nazareth has been huge for me. I went on The March: Bearing Witness to Hope in 2012, as a freshman, which was incredibly transformative for me as well. The March is a ten day trip to Germany and Poland where you travel alongside Holocaust survivors, their families, and Holocaust scholars. It was such a powerful experience in itself to have survivors and their families traveling with us, to see how it impacted them to revisit the places, for example, where their father or grandfather had been – that was a really valuable experience. There’s a moment where we walked as a group from Auschwitz to Birkenau and we stopped and everyone shared what they march for. For me, I marched for the present day victims of anti-Semitism which has a very personal tie for me. The March was the first time I had been able to publicly share that I was the victim of an anti-Semitism act in high school. It had been something I hadn’t felt comfortable enough to share or able to talk about and The March gave me the opportunity to do that in a welcoming environment where I was surrounded by people who cared about what I had to say and gave me the support that I needed. Since that moment, I’ve realized the value and the importance of sharing my story even though it’s not the easiest thing to do. I’m glad that I’m able to because it opens the eyes of my peers that this is still an issue even today and what happened to me is not an isolated incident. When I shared at The March five years ago, people didn’t really see anti-Semitism happening but now, more than ever, people are saying “Yea, I see this on the news or I hear about it on Facebook.” That’s really mind-boggling and baffling to me but, I think, it makes my message even more important.
To get back to the March, the main part of the trip was visiting the camps but we also went into ghettos and other historical sites. One place that always sticks out in my head is Tykocin. It is this little town in Poland and when the Nazis came through, they rounded up all of the Jews in the village, marched them into the forest, and shot them into a mass grave. That’s something that at that point in my life I was really not aware had happened and I think a lot of people aren’t aware of it but, unfortunately, it happened fairly often and the Nazis did a good job of covering their tracks. It’s been a pleasure to learn through Dr. Nowak, one of the religion professors here at Nazareth, about historians going around eastern Europe to these unmarked grave sites and making sure they aren’t lost from public memory, to give meaning to the lives lost and make sure they aren’t completely forgotten about. To read more about Jill’s experiences on The March, read her blog here.
Because of the March, I met two girls from Naz who were members of the Jewish community here on campus, Hillel, and I decided to get involved because of that. Being a part of Hillel has introduced me to even more traditions than I participate in with my own family as well as more of what it means to be Jewish, which varies on an individual basis. I identify more as a cultural Jew, which seems pretty common, but Hillel really has helped me to understand as a young Jewish person what being Jewish means to me.
How did your ideas about religion and spirituality change as a result of those experiences?
It’s really been a very natural progression of how events have cascaded one after another. Everything started in high school with being targeted for being Jewish and instead of that pushing me away from my faith, it pushed me closer which was what actually inspired me to go on The March. When I came back, I got involved with Hillel, Interfaith Council, and took classes here at Nazareth like Auschwitz and After, Liberation Theology, and The Holocaust in Eastern and Central Europe. The exciting part for me is these are not necessarily related to my major but have made me more well-rounded and changed how I interact with patients. I’m also part of the Rochester Rehovot Sister Cities Committee and we’re working on a youth exchange between these two cities specifically targeted at at risk youth. I also went on Birthright to Israel last January. I look back and I never would have dreamed of any of these things happening before I came to Naz. In my family, I’ve become the person who’s going to pass on our traditions, no one else has really stepped up to take that torch and I think it’s really a nice way for me to connect with my family. I’ve really enjoyed starting to lead Seders at Passover and educate my family and even start talking about things like refugees in the context of our faith and our heritage as a group of people who have a history like we do as Jews. It really has made me think about what is my role in current events and how do we step in as minorities who have been through similar circumstances?
How do you see yourself carrying your passion for religious leadership and advocacy on after leaving Nazareth?
I would definitely like to devote some more time to scholarly work in Holocaust studies after I get my career as a physical therapist off the ground. The project that we’re working on this semester, holding an educational evening for Holocaust survivors in the Rochester area and their families on how to prevent falls, is something I’ve always dreamed about doing. Studying the Holocaust and being Jewish has impacted my interactions with patients and my patient care but I really have been searching for a long time for a way to connect the two and I think that that will be the perfect way to give back and hopefully it will turn into a long term project. My dream is really to be able to combine my faith with my knowledge and expertise as a physical therapist, two things I am so passionate about.
It’s also been a privilege to have been asked to speak at a lot of different events on campus and I think the best part of being able to share my story has been the people I’ve met through those experiences. One that was really meaningful to me was this fall I talked a lot about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States particularly in the wake of our most recent election. Afterwards, I had a Muslim student approach me who had immigrated to the US and she shared that she went to a local high school and had been targeted for being Muslim and wearing a hijab. That really brought home why it is so important to me that I continue to share my story. My dream is that me sharing my story makes it easier for someone else be able to share theirs. That moment made me really feel like I’ve come full circle and that was such a wonderful feeling.
Do you see any connection between your practice as a physical therapist and the things you’ve learned about yourself and others via your experiences at Naz?
I think a lot of the time as physical therapists we’re nervous to talk about things like religion and spirituality with our patients but it’s something I love to do because religion is something that is very important to a lot of people. Even if you don’t necessarily consider yourself to be the most religious person, we all have had different experiences, different backgrounds, that have pushed us one way or another. Being able to talk to my patients about what my religion means to me, my family’s traditions, the things I’m involved with in the community because of being Jewish, opened my eyes to a lot of patients who are also Jewish. My opening up to people has made them more comfortable opening up to me. It just starts this wonderful, beautiful conversation about religion and spirituality not only in the Jewish faith but in other religions as well and they ask me questions and I teach them and I ask them questions and they teach me and it builds rapport and shows them a different side of me as a physical therapist.
Also, I picked up a bioethics minor after The March so that I could study more in depth how the ethical dilemmas of the Holocaust relate to current ethical dilemmas we’re facing in the health care world. One that really sticks out to me in particular is how people with disabilities were treated. I remember on The March seeing crutches and prosthetic limbs just piled up and I really thought, “Wow; I know who those people are. They’re the people I want to spend my career and my life helping.” Now that I’m so close to being a clinician, seeing those things and learning about how people were being targeted just for having a physical or mental disability is really impactful for me. I just always think about what kind of experimentation was done on people with disabilities and the Nazis were so quick to just get rid of them and it wasn’t really talked about and still isn’t really talked about. Even here in the United States, not so long ago, we were institutionalizing people with disabilities. If I’ve learned anything it’s the importance of being an advocate for my patients. Someone has to be a voice and if we take one lesson away from what happened in the Holocaust, it’s that we cannot just sit back and watch these things happen to our brothers and sisters. We need to speak up; we need to do everything in our power to keep people safe and protected, promote unity, and show people love regardless of their differences.
Do you have any advice for other religious minorities as they look for colleges?
I wouldn’t say anything religious drew me to Nazareth but my time here has taught me to take advantage of any opportunity as little as it might seem even like going to lectures by guest speakers on campus. They’re opportunities I don’t think enough of us take advantage of but college is a time to broaden your horizons and open your mind to different things, whether religious or otherwise, so I guess my advice would be to try to participate and take advantage of those opportunities as much as possible because it has made all the difference to me.