From murals to camps

From murals to camps

As the first truly chilly fall week in Pittsburgh wraps up, we looked back to a season of warmer weather to find that some young Jews in the city experienced incredible summers. Here are a few of our favorite stories:
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Painting isn’t an unusual summer job for college students — house painting, that is. But a 20-foot-long mural of Pittsburgh’s skyline melding into Jerusalem’s? Well, that’s a different story.
Lauren Demby, a 21-year-old Pitt senior, spent her summer doing just that; her finished mural now takes up 200 square feet of wall space at the Hillel Jewish University Center.
“Aaron [Weil, Hillel JUC executive director] was talking about wanting a student to paint the wall,” said Demby. “He asked me if I knew anybody who paints. I said me.”
Demby then worked with a friend on initial designs in the summer of 2009, but only got as far as base coats of paint that year. A year later, she returned to the project ready to work, launching eight-hour days for nearly two months to complete the mural. She began by projecting the sketch onto the wall and re-drawing it on top of the coats painted last year.
“I’d never painted anything of this scale,” said Demby. “At the beginning, it was definitely overwhelming. I didn’t know how to start.”
Detail by detail, the mural began to take shape by July. She started on one side and slowly worked horizontally across the wall. Demby mixed her own paint. The mural’s vivid colors were all created from only seven different paints — black, white, red, blue, yellow and orange, with some added gold detail.
“Once I got into it, I felt better that it was a struggle. I knew what I wanted to see in the big picture, but it wasn’t that way until the end,” she said.
Demby added the final touches only two days before Pitt’s fall semester started in late August. The result was more than a mural; it was a message.
“Pittsburgh is our hometown, but we also wanted to show Jerusalem,” said Demby, noting the mural’s juxtaposed skylines. “That’s our real home, you could say.”
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For many Jews, learning about German history stops at around 1945.
Over 10 days in August, Caroline Kessler’s German knowledge was pushed into the present — she participated in Germany Close Up, a program that brings American Jews to Germany to understand how the country has changed, grown and become a friendlier place to Jews in the decades since the Holocaust.
Kessler’s trip, co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, had a political history focus and planted her in Berlin, where she spent the trip, “going to federal foreign offices and learning how the German government works,” said Kessler.
But before the 20-year-old Carnegie Mellon University student even got to Germany, she had to overcome some hang-ups.
“I had this tinge of doubt about ever visiting Germany on my own. I didn’t want to go because of all the history,” said Kessler. “How could a city that let what happened happen be an alright place for a Jew to travel?”
That viewpoint is exactly what Germany Close Up worked to eradicate, working to show that the country, “might be doing more than any country in the region to combat anti-Semitism,” said Kessler. “Of all the people we interacted with, none of them were Jewish. It was crazy to me that there were people so committed to learning about what happened to Jews — not their own people.”
Though the first day was filled with Holocaust-focused discussions — and a visit to the former SS headquarters — the rest of the trip wasn’t stuck in the past.
“The point of this trip was to really see what Germany is like now,” said Kessler.
Kessler made sure to explore Berlin on her own as well, renting a bike one day to see the city. She stopped by a Turkish market packed with immigrants. A bit further, she saw a parade of “crazy young people” supporting marijuana legalization. Later, she biked to a section of the Berlin Wall.
“I saw all these different components,” she said. “In the course of an hour, I saw all these layers of the city.”
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College students weren’t the only young Pittsburgh Jews exploring the world this summer. Take Talia Holc. The 15-year-old Allderdice freshman spent two weeks of her summer at Camp Kimama Israel, an American-style overnight camp designed to host an international base of campers.
Located in Mikhmoret, 30 minutes up the coast from Tel Aviv, the camp draws kids from all over the world, creating a veritable child-U.N. for the summer.
“It’s a completely different experience than a camp like Emma Kaufmann [the JCC summer camp in Morgantown, W.Va.]” said Holc. “There are people from all over the world speaking different languages.”
Holc spent just a fraction of her summer at Kimama. As the camp hosts three two-week sessions, she was otherwise traveling through Israel with her family. The short sessions create a fast paced experience set right on the Mediterranean, with campers staying in dorms rather than traditional bunks. Kimama operates like an American Jewish camp, with activities such as sailing, horseback riding, sports and drama, but draws from a much wider array of campers.
Still, it was the downtime that really appealed to Holc.
“The best times were when we just had rest hour — the chill time,” said Holc. “All the girls from other groups would go into someone’s room and hangout. Once we got through the language barrier, we saw how much we had in common even though we were all from all over the world.”

(Justin Jacobs can be reached at

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