“Brandeis Bridges is an on-campus organization that was founded a few years ago that seeks to create dialogue between the Black and Jewish students on campus. It’s just kind of a way to create connections between people and to form friendships,” said Divanna Eckels ’18. Eckels, double majoring in History and African and Afro-American Studies with a minor in Sexuality and Queer Studies, heard about Brandeis Bridges as a first year. 

Ethan Stone ’19, who plans on majoring in Hispanic Studies, agreed with Eckels and described the program as “giving us a way to make friends in a way that we wouldn’t have before, and bringing that back to our own friendships in our own communities.”

Eckels shared her story of how she got involved. “I heard about it pretty early, and it’s something that really interested me, because Brandeis being an institution that’s founded on Jewish values, I wanted to kind of be more connected to that … I felt kind of a divide between Jewish students and Black students on campus,” Eckels said. 

“There wasn’t a lot of interaction [among Black and Jewish students]. Something I noticed, like immediately upon entering Brandeis. So I kind of wanted to form more connections, so I decided that joining Brandeis Bridges would be a good way. Also to make friends since I was so new as well.”

This past February break, Eckels and Stone traveled to Ghana along with twelve other students. Accompanying them was Rabbi Elyse Winick and Prof. Joseph Assan (HS). Rabbi Winick has been going on the Brandeis Bridges trips for the past three years, and Professor Assan, originally from Ghana, was chosen to go on the trip by the coordinators.

“Since he’s at the Heller School, the trip coordinators thought it would be a great idea if he came along, and he served as a really, really great resource for us throughout the trip, being able to explain different societal concepts to us,” Stone said. Eckels confirmed and chimed in, “Rabbi Winick is always [on our trips] but usually there is a different professor, a different faculty member every year depending on what the trip is, where we’re going, and what the focus is.”

Eckels and Stone traveled to many different villages. They specifically went to “craft villages,” which are villages known for making certain forms of art like kente cloth or adinkra symbols. Kente cloth is a type of fabric made of silk or cotton that originated in the Akan ethnic group. Adinkra symbols, established by the Ashanti, are used to decorate, as well as  to convey messages and proverbs.  While on the trip, they traveled to different cities, experienced the country’s culture and got a taste of the lifestyle. 

“We went to a village called Sefwi Wiawso, … and it is a Jewish community in Ghana. It’s a community of Jews who, until a few decades ago, didn’t realize their traditions were Jewish, … and a large portion of the community are made of people that were not raised Jewish but learned about Judaism, learned about this village, and came to learn more about Judaism, and I think that, for a lot of us, [it] was one of the favorite parts of the trip because it allowed us to put together both pieces of the group,” said Stone.

In Ghana, they had the opportunity to visit the village of Nzulezo, a tourist village in the center of a lake. 

Nzulezo is a stilted village, but because of the dry season, the river the group should have canoed down was not as full as it should have been. Instead, they walked a portion of the trip before arriving at the village. The trip itself forced the group to confront their ideas about tourism and what it means to be a tourist.  

“Tourists go here all the time. You walk down the main road … and people are just living out their lives right there, which, for us, felt very uncomfortable a lot of the time,” Stone said.

“It felt really intrusive,” Eckels said of her own experience. 

“The way that it’s treated in Ghana and the way we saw them promote ‘sustainable tourism’, was the word for it, for me really re-contextualized what tourism can be,” Stone explained.

Toward the end of their trip, the group visited Elmina and Cape Coast Castle: two old slave castles. “We went to both of them on the same day, which I think was really jarring for a lot of people, particularly for the Black students on the tour,” Eckels said. 

“I distinctly remember us getting back on the bus after we left Elmina castle and it just being dead quiet on the bus. Everyone was just so somber, and I think that was a part of the trip that the Black fellows were all really anticipating … like a direct location where we felt like we could possibly trace our roots back.”

Afterwards, the group attended Chabad in the city of Accra and spent the evening exploring Ghanaian nightlife. 

Stone compared the separate emotional experiences, explaining that  “spending a day at a place based in history and based in suffering and exploitation and then finishing the day at a place where people go to have fun, go to feel free, I suppose … I found that very striking, and then just being a part of contemporary Ghana I thought was very important to me and my understanding of the society.”

“I felt like being together for those nine days, all the time, forged an incredible bond between us because we had such difficult and hard conversations with each other,” Eckels said.

Both students offered insight on the importance of Black Jewish student relations and the future of Brandeis Bridges.

“We’re currently in a state of re-understanding what the club is. We’re asking ourselves tough questions about what the club should be, what our goals are, what our mission is, and we’re finding that we don’t really know what those answers are,” Stone said when he was describing the current state of Brandeis Bridges.

On the significance of Black Jewish relations and the program, Eckels said, “I just feel like it’s so important to create conversation between these two groups on campus because I feel like there’s just this huge disconnect in terms of understanding each other, or kind of a desire, maybe, to understand each other’s experiences or create those connections. 

“So I think Brandeis Bridges is doing really important work.”