2006: A Penn Odyssey, continued

Jacob Boyars
From: Silver Spring, Maryland.
Best Experience: Working last summer on a kibbutz in Israel’s Jordan Valley. “Though I’ve previously held jobs which required hard work, I came to love waking up early, working with my hands, getting dirty.”
Service: He is a member of a Chevra Kadisha, a group that prepares the dead for traditional Jewish burial.
Potential major: History and/or Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.
Favorite Class: A freshman seminar taught by Professor Robert Engs, which combines biography with
history of the Gilded Age.

When Jacob Boyars was considering colleges, the presence of a large Orthodox Jewish community on Penn’s campus appealed to him. But when it came time to select a dorm, he consciously chose not to live in one of the high rises that has an Orthodox Jewish residential program.

“I figured if I decided to go to a secular university, it was kind of ridiculous to only associate with people who come from the same background as myself,” he says.

For Boyars, who deferred admission to Penn to spend a year in Israel, studying at a yeshiva and working on a kibbutz, that background also includes volunteering as a member of a Chevra Kadisha. “The job is one which the community needs done, and which few people are willing to do,” Boyars explains. “I am far from the best Jew in the world; far from the best Jew I can be. I feel that by taking part in this, I can carry out an awesome and grave responsibility, essentially helping someone to prepare for an important meeting for which he is unable to help prepare himself.”

The Chevra Kadisha, which translates, approximately, as “group of purity,” are those who carry out the requirements of Jewish law in preparing the dead for burial, Boyars says. “When someone requests a traditional Jewish burial, a group of four or five men (or women, if the deceased is a woman) from the available pool are assembled.”

According to Boyars, “The job consists of cleaning the body, saving any dam nefesh (blood of life). The actual tahara (ritual purification) consists of pouring a certain volume of water in a constant stream, about three household buckets worth, while reciting the phrase tahor hu (‘he is pure’).” At that point, he explains, “the deceased is then dressed in shrouds, shards of broken pottery are placed on his eyes and mouth, and he is sprinkled with dirt from Mount Zion. The body is placed in an all-wood coffin.”

Throughout the process, the main concern is kavod ha’met (respect for the dead). “That means no extraneous talking, no passing things over the body, generally gentle treatment of the body, and attempting to keep his eyes and private parts covered at all times.

“I started work with the Chevra Kadisha when I was in 10th, or possibly 11th grade,” Boyars says. “My father was a team leader, so by going with him those first few times I was able to ease into it pretty comfortably.”

Easing into Penn has been another matter. From the 20-minute walk to reach kosher dining services to the party atmosphere that permeates the dorms, Boyars has encountered a number of differences from the life he grew up with in Silver Spring.

“It sucks to be alone on Friday night, sitting in my suit and kipa, while everybody else is” out partying, he says. “For the first week, and now every Thursday through Saturday, everybody on my floor [in Hill College House] goes out and gets trashed. That’s all they can think of doing. I’m friends with some of them, and they’re cool people, but I’m fundamentally not into [the party scene].

“Deep down,” he adds, “everyone who got into Penn was a ‘tool’ in high school. Now that they’re here, they [say things like] ‘Dude, I have no idea what class I’m in. I was trashed, and I tried to go to sleep on a table … ’ If people are really like that, then okay, but they’re just putting on a show because of what they think other people will be impressed by.”

“The truth is,” he says, “I know I’ll stick it out” at Penn. It’s not the first time Boyars has immersed himself in an unfamiliar atmosphere. Before coming to Penn he spent about nine months learning in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, which “I concluded rather emphatically … was not my cup of tea. In spite of this, I stuck it out, learned a great deal, and more importantly formed some incredibly close relationships, both with other guys and the rabbis.”

Last summer, he went to work on a kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu; its members are Orthodox Jews who support the State of Israel and serve in the Israeli army. Boyars would rise at 4:15 a.m. to work in the date groves—pruning, planting, and laying irrigation lines—finishing before the worst heat of mid-afternoon. “I met some fantastically interesting people, and got to live in a world which most suburban-bred undergrads, even those with religious and educational backgrounds similar to mine, would never dream of,” he adds.

Asked if he expects to return someday, Boyars says, “I feel a very strong personal connection with Israel. I feel it’s in a very precarious position in the world. So if I have the ability to help with that, I kind of have the responsibility to do so.” Boyars briefly touches upon the Middle East conflicts, then apologizes if he’s sounding “too political. In yeshiva I was the big leftist. I was arguing all the time. Here at Penn I was hoping I could be the Zionist. I’m disappointed I haven’t had any big arguments yet.”


DesirČe Tunstall
From: Springfield, Virginia.

Pre-Penn Experience: Wrote speeches for a congressman.
Major: Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics.

DesirČe Tunstall must have liked what she heard whenever she tuned in to the orations of U.S. Representative Bob Etheridge on C-SPAN. After all, during her junior-year internship with the North Carolina congressman, she wrote many of his speeches. “It was an exciting experience, listening to him talk and thinking, ‘I wrote that.’” Because Congressman Etheridge had a smaller staff, Tunstall explains, “I was given more responsibilities and tasks than I would have been given in a larger office. Towards the end I did pretty much all of the speechwriting, and I also did some legislative work.”

From that experience as well as internships she’s had in private law firms and participation on her high school’s model-judiciary team, Tunstall comes to Penn with “a serious interest in law and government.” She hopes to participate in Penn’s Pre-Law Mentoring Program, Black Student League, and a host of other campus organizations, “but my grades are the priority.”

“In terms of the social scene,” she says, “I don’t drink, first of all. So most of the parties here I’m not really interested in, and I don’t go. Or [my friends and I] will do what we call ‘taking a walk.’ We’ll walk over there [to the fraternities] and walk back.”

Tunstall says she has bonded with many of the residents in DuBois College House, where she lives. “It’s like a small community, and there are lots of activities such as house meetings and Sunday brunch.” And she has already begun training at the student TV station, where she’ll be helping with a “sports talk live” program—at first behind the scenes, and later, she hopes, in front of the camera.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Penn so far for her has been the opportunity to listen to campus visitors like linguist Noam Chomsky C’48 G’51 Gr’55 Hon’84 speak at Irvine Auditorium and take classes under individuals whose books she’s read or whose faces she’s seen on television. For example, Tunstall read Sociology Professor Douglas Massey’s American Apartheid over the summer; she has a class with him this semester. She also is eagerly awaiting a class that Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, will be teaching next semester. “I read his book, Holler if you Hear Me, and his biography of Martin Luther King. Then I saw him on BET. I thought, ‘Wow, he teaches here. That’s incredible.’”

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