Even though the Holocaust ended nearly 70 years ago, Jamie Etkind's parents still avoid buying German cars.
From left, Penn students Claire Shimberg, Erica Sachse and Sindhuri Nandhakumar visited Rwandan children during last year's fellowship.
The University of Pennsylvania urban studies major thought of that last month as she volunteered at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, a boarding school for teenagers who lost parents in the civil war that culminated in a mass genocide in 1994.
That was less than two decades ago, she said, and yet the village was filled with laughter and happiness.
"There is still some hatred but it's amazing how much the country has moved on," marveled Etkind, who will begin her junior year in the fall. "These kids have gone through all these horrible events and they all have such big hearts."
Etkind was one of 14 Penn students who visited the East African nation as part of an interfaith, service-learning fellowship.
Penn Hillel launched the Rwanda program last year with a $25,000 national "Ask Big Questions" grant from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, in partnership with the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust. With that subsidy, student travelers paid $950 each to go on the 10-day excursion to Agahozo-Shalom, a residential community modeled after Israeli methods of absorbing orphans from the Holocaust. Anne Heyman, a South African-born lawyer from New York, founded the village in 2006 with support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
This year, 52 students of varying religious backgrounds vied for the chance to visit the site. Hillel leaders selected five Jews, two Muslims, one Mormon, three Catholics and three Protestants -- all undergrads so that the students have the next couple of years on campus to play out the connections they made, said trip coordinator Greta Deerson.
"It's the most inspiring example of how people can come together who, left to their own devices, would never mix," said Rabbi Mike Uram, Penn's Hillel director.
The fellows began meeting weekly in January to learn about Rwanda and each other. In addition to those sessions, each student was required to host an educational event to engage peers in a conversation about religion or genocide. One invited a group of Mormon students to a Shabbat service and dinner; another showed a documentary about the Rwanda genocide; others held bake sales to raise money for the village. Altogether, the group raised nearly $8,000, enough to fund a year and a half of tuition for one orphan.
By the time the students reunited in the airport after finals, "there was a level of comfort that allowed us to get deep quick," said Deerson, 27, who recently left Hillel to become a social worker at a hospital in New York.
Once in Africa, the students got to work helping with farming, cooking, landscaping and construction. In between manual labor and activities with the teens at the village, they toured genocide sites filled with bones of murdered victims. One, a church with skulls lining the walls, was too much for Nicole Cone. The rising junior from Miami said she ran out in a panic, in tears at the thought of ending up as a nameless skull.
It was "the first time I felt like I had a conversation with God where I felt like He was talking back to me," said Cone, who is Methodist.
Cone and several other students said the experience drove them to question, but ultimately strengthen, their faith.
For Etkind, who's "still figuring out where I am in Judaism," the trip presented an interesting opportunity "to explore Judaism kind of from the outside." Up until the Rwanda program, Etkind said, she'd always learned about her religion in a Jewish context -- at her childhood Reform synagogue outside Manhattan or more recently, with observant rabbis heading the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship at Penn.
It was fascinating to hear about the non-Jewish students' faiths, she said, and eye-opening when they wanted to know why she didn't keep kosher or refrain from working on Shabbat like other Jews they'd met.
"I'd never really been asked that before," Etkind said. "It kind of made me realize that I need to make a decision to either change the way I practice Judaism or have a good reason for why I don't do certain things that are commanded in the Torah."
It was also the first interfaith experience for Adam Wachs, a rising sophomore from Lower Merion who grew up attending Jewish youth groups and summer camps. "My eyes were definitely open to views and opinions I've never really been exposed to before," Wachs said.
As the most observant Jew on the trip, Wachs had the honor of leading Shabbat and Havdalah services for the group. On Sunday, they attended church with the village residents.
It was amazing to see the children dancing and singing, "so extraordinarily upbeat and happy and smiling and genuinely excited to be there," Wachs said. "For these young kids to have such strong outlooks and faiths was really inspiring."
The last day, Cone said, several kids asked when they were coming back to visit again. "I really wanted to cry because I really made connections with some of them."
Of course, Cone said, they will be impossible to forget. She recalled one boy who said he was like Jesus because " 'I'm here by myself in the world,' " without parents or siblings.
After meeting orphans like him, seeing the human remains of mass murder and helping construct a mud hut for an old man who would otherwise have nowhere to live, Cone said, "you realize the world's a lot bigger than Philadelphia."
Being in Rwanda "made me realize that a lot of the stuff that I get upset about really isn't worth it compared to what these kids go through. No matter how hard the work is, they're so grateful to be in the village."