By Orrin Konheim
Silver Spring resident Jen Wachtel, 29, is an archivist in the private sector, but before that she volunteered and interned at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as an archivist. At the University System of Maryland, she minored in Judaic studies and German studies alongside her history major and wrote theses on the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto and immigrant aid during the Holocaust. She volunteers in activism for asylum seekers and refugees with HIAS, among a number of Jewish affiliations, including Washington Hebrew Congregation.
When did your interest in Judaism begin?
When was I not interested in Judaism? I was raised Jewish in a Jewish family [in New Jersey]. We went to Hebrew school, I went to synagogue.
Religious apathy is high enough across the board that not everyone stays involved after Hebrew school. What made you stay with it?
I do remember there was one important conversation with the now-late Rabbi Marcus Burstein at my home synagogue. He had all the high school students gathered around right before college, and he said, “Just do me a favor, and whenever you go to college, please go at least three times to Hillel before you make a decision.” So I went one time and I only needed to go one time and then I kept going throughout all of college.
You wrote your undergraduate student thesis on the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto. I was assuming that Shanghai would not have that much involvement in the Holocaust.
At the Shanghai Jewish ghetto, there were actually 20,000 refugees that escaped the Holocaust and in the city. You’re thinking of the ghettos in Eastern Europe where conditions were deadly and people were being rounded up and sent to death camps. This is a different kind of ghetto.
And how did you settle on your graduate thesis?
So I noticed when I was writing my undergraduate thesis that a lot of Jews who escaped to Shanghai happened to be from Germany and Austria, so I focused for my master’s thesis on Austrian Jews who applied for immigration aid from 1938 to 1940.
Both your undergraduate and graduate theses are on the Holocaust. Did you know that you were studying the Holocaust at an early point in college? Is that why you studied German?
My family on my dad’s side immigrated from German-speaking countries…so I was considering learning more about that language. They were from areas of Europe that were controlled by the Austrian Empire.
Can you detail those countries?
Pick a country in Eastern Europe, that’s where I’m from. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew.
How did you choose history?
My dad’s a history buff, so I probably picked up some of it from him. When I was little, I loved to read but I noticed a lot of the books that I was reading tended to be historical fiction, so I decided why not focus on history and that’s what led me to focus on [archivism], because I was working on these papers where I would have to go to the archives…and I loved it, and I wanted everyone to experience this kind of joy, and I was like, “How do I ensure that everyone has access to the archives?” So I ended up asking, “How do I get on the other side of this desk?”
How did you get involved with HIAS?
The very first time I became involved with HIAS was the Muslim Ban . That was the first time I signed up as a volunteer, because as a Jewish person, I felt that it was wrong to target people based on their religion.
Do you have a favorite biblical story?
I learned with HIAS that in the Torah, it says 36 times to welcome the stranger, that’s two times chai , and I’ve really taken that to heart and I’ve carried that imperative with me with my volunteer work.
You are involved with a lot of Jewish organizations.
I do have a fun activity that I’m looking forward to this weekend — a museum activity, because I study museums. But 99 percent of my social activity is Jewish. A good friend of mine, she calls me her gateway Jew because I’ve led her to so many activities.