Yael Bellin ’14
Waltham Group Coordinator, Hospital Helpers & Veggie Buddies
What were you involved with on campus as an undergrad?I was your typical overcommitted Brandesian--I majored in HSSP, minored in anthropology, and was involved in a whole host of extra curricular activities. I was one of the coordinators for Hospital Helpers/Veggie Buddies, volunteered for Companions to Elders, served as a board member and then chaired the Student Conduct Board, spent some time on BEMCO, and contributed in various lay led capacities for BOO: Brandeis Orthodox Organization.
Did anything in the Waltham Group impact your career trajectory? Values? Ethics? How else has the Waltham Group impacted you?
My involvement in Waltham Group impressed upon me the importance of a sharp listening ear and having empathy towards others; skills that can serve you well in basically any capacity in life. This was certainly true as a Waltham Group coordinator--after all, how can you be a good leader if you don't understand the needs of your volunteers or community partners? But I have found that it has real world applications as well. I currently work as a caseworker at a small Jewish Non-profit called ORA: Organization for the Resolution of Agunot. Specifically, I work closely with Jewish women whose husbands are refusing to issue them a get, Jewish bill of divorce. The Jewish Divorce process requires the husband to initiate the giving of the get, completely out of his free will. While a couple may have already divorced civilly, without a get, a woman is unable to remarry or seek new relationships according to Jewish Law. In most of the situations we see, a spiteful husband will use the get as blackmail and as a way to continue to control his wife well after their marriage has been deemed irreconcilable. For this reason, get-refusal is viewed as a form of domestic abuse. As you can imagine, this causes a significant amount of pain and suffering to my caseload of women, the majority of whom have also suffered any combination of physical, sexual, emotional, financial, or spiritual abuse during their marriages. This is where a listening ear and empathy come into play. As their Case Advocate (the precise name for my position), I spend many hours on the phone with the 15+ women in my caseload. While most of the time I can offer advice, a referral, or a plan for how we can convince her husband to give the get, some of the time we’ve exhausted all options or the woman is just not in the right headspace to keep up her fight. Regardless of the precise situation, it’s clear that a listening ear and practicing Active Listening can make all the difference. Though a woman’s situation or circumstances have not changed over the course of our 25 minute conversation, she often emerges feeling empowered all because someone just took the time to listen, which in turn gives her the strength to fight the biggest battle of her life. Sometimes it’s just about showing up and being there for someone who is going through a tough time. In an age where everyone talks, texts, and tweets way too much, it begs the larger question--are we truly listening to those who need us, and not just hearing what they’re saying? Do our friends who share their inner struggles feel supported, valued, understood? Are we doing everything within our power to be present and available to the people who come to us for help?
What advice would you give to other WG students or alumni?
Challenge yourself to find meaning and purpose in the day to day and switch things up if you need a change. It’s so easy to stay with what’s familiar, safe, and comfortable, even if it no longer brings you satisfaction. I personally fell victim to this lifestyle. Following graduation, I put my HSSP degree to good use and worked for a large research company in Washington, D.C. while my husband was in law school. The work, primarily government contracting, was important to the Government, clients, stakeholders and society as a whole, but eventually I became somewhat disconnected because the work itself lacked a tangible end result. I knew I had to make a change professionally but the world of public health was all I really knew. I spent countless hours taking HSSP courses at Brandeis, completing different internships, working on a thesis, and now in a formal research capacity at a widely respected firm, so it was hard to imagine giving it all up. I ended up toughing it out for much longer than I intended to upon moving back to the New York area until one day, I saw that ORA was looking to hire new caseworkers. This was a cause I had learned about a few years prior and I believed strongly in their mission so on a whim I decided to apply because the worst thing that could happen would be right back where I started. One cover letter led to two rounds of interviews and eventually an offer. At the time I was still feeling unsettled and unsure but ultimately I decided to take the leap and accept the position and I am grateful I did. The work we do is extremely challenging and emotionally taxing and I certainly have more frustrated days than satisfying ones, but the work brings me a real sense of purpose. I’m humbled to be part of actively freeing women who are otherwise chained to dead marriages, for some of them for close to a decade! It’s something I am very grateful to have the opportunity to be part of it.
I also want to add that my HSSP experiences are not for naught, despite having made this career switch. I learned so much about issues that affect the health and wellbeing of humankind, how to be a good team player, how to be organized and efficient, and had colleagues and mentors who taught me how to think about the big picture. These skills are transferable to any field, have made me a better professional, and will continue to serve me well in the future.
Looking back at your Brandeis experience as an alum, what do you wish you’d done?
I wish I had gotten to know my professors better. Sure, I went to office hours at different points in the semester for help with assignments or for career advice, but I think I missed out by not getting to know them better as people. Our professors have had so many rich experiences and years of study under their belts but they can only skim the surface in sharing personal anecdotes during their lectures. Yet, there is so much to be learned from them beyond the course material. One of Brandeis’ greatest selling points is small class and seminar sizes so there is somewhat of a cozy feeling during lectures, but a bond certainly could have been strengthened by getting to know professors on an individual level.
What question do you think we should have asked you?
What is something people who feel intimidated by service should know?
While no one person can solve all the world’s problems, I am a firm believer that everyone has at least one skill or talent they can put to good use to alleviate suffering in the world. For example, someone may feel anxious to work directly with a vulnerable population but this same person might be a skilled writer who could potentially volunteer his or her time to write grants to apply for funding from outside sources. It’s also important to know that service need not be some wide-sweeping or earth-shattering gesture. It can be as simple as buying a few shelf-stable food items to donate to a local pantry or going through your closet to see what can be donated. Interacting with different Waltham Group coordinators during my time at Brandeis and volunteers for ORA, I’ve come to learn that everyone has something to contribute no matter how small or ambitious.