Music Is All Around

By Joanna Grill
Joanna is an active participant in our High School Youth programs, MA’ARIV, SHAFTY and NFTY-NE. This summer, Joanna was a participant in the URJ’s Urban Mitzvah Corps New Jersey. This post originally appeared on the UMC Blog.

On the Urban Mitzvah Corps (UMC) packing list, I was ecstatic when I saw that “musical instruments” was listed. When I play my guitar here at the Phi Sigma Sigma house, people will walk downstairs and gravitate towards the music in the living room, whether it is a pop song or a Jewish song. I find that the best feeling is to start playing guitar for a group of people, and to end the song with everyone singing along and smiling with me. I led sing-alongs with a large group downstairs, with just girls in the Girls’ Lounge on the third floor, with my three roommates, and with just the music master himself –our own Shawn Fogel. I stepped out of my comfort zone last week and tried song leading for the first Friday night Shabbat service of the session – and I loved it.

Joanna with Kayla, UMC 2014 Student Coordinator, at A Better World Market, one of Elijah’s Promise’s sites.
Joanna (right) at A Better World Market, one of Elijah’s Promise’s sites.
Music is all around. We sang along on the van ride to my job site and took turns “DJ-ing”. My job site, Elijah’s Promise, is a soup kitchen on the other side of New Brunswick. We work 3 days a week at Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen, one day at its pay-as-you-can-café, and one day at its market. We arrive at 10am and prepare food and clean the kitchen until 11am. Then, we serve lunch. As volunteers, we have the opportunity to look a person in the eye and directly hand them a meal that is potentially their only meal of the day. I used to avoid eye contact and judge homeless people on the street. Now, when I’m walking around New Brunswick, I see many of the people I have served. When I look into a client’s eyes and talk to them, I get a glimpse of his or her life. Often they tell jokes or make me laugh while I’m handing them food. Other times, they tell me how their days are going and ask me about myself. People often ask for more servings than what is allowed, and it’s a challenge to say no, once you begin to sympathize and hear their stories. The experience at Elijah’s is both eye-opening and humbling; I never used to think twice about where my next meal was coming from.

Today, all four volunteers from UMC got to serve in front. We met some hilarious clients and had a blast. Out of all the days I have spent here in New Brunswick, today was by far the best. After our lunch break, we made pickles and chopped up several different kinds of vegetables for a huge soup. Hey, remember when I said I loved music? It was a bit quiet today chopping, so I asked Chef Pam if we could bring in our speakers and plug my phone in. All of us from Mitzvah Corps had an incredibly fun sing along while making a tremendous amount of food. I spilled pickle juice down my shirt, but I was having too much fun at the soup kitchen to care. Chef Pam, who is filled with unbelievable spirit and energy, walked in and out of the room as we were chopping. Pam smiled and sang along with us. During one song, Pam jumped in the room, pulled me away from my cutting board and had me teach her the dance to the Cupid Shuffle. Meanwhile, we were chopping onions and were all in tears and having the time of our lives singing with each other. Chef Pam, a complete stranger to us at the beginning of the day, was brought closer to us through serving clients, preparing food, and especially through dancing to music.

Music has been my connection to all of the communities I have interacted with here at UMC, from the house, to my job site. Tonight, UMC participants are leading a service at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, a temple in New Brunswick. I will be standing with my guitar along with all my friends in front of the congregants, all complete strangers. But by the end of the night, I know that the beautiful songs that we will share will bring us together as a community.

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