When Ryan Abrishami, class of ’24, was considering enrolling at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine (Ross Vet), he sought advice from many close people to him in the Los Angeles, California community he calls home. Among them were his rabbi, with whom he shared he was uncertain of moving to St. Kitts because there was no established Jewish community. “I remember him telling me verbatim ‘if you go to St. Kitts and there is no Jewish community, then it is your responsibility to create one’,” recalled Abrishami.
In Summer 2022, Abrishami and his peers founded Jewish Veterinary Students of North America (JVSNA), a student organization that seeks to service and unify the interest of students, faculty, and staff – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – of Ross Vet through effective community outreach and fostering the sense of community among the Jewish students. Beyond their official purpose, the JVSNA is built upon three pillars that mirror that of Jewish faith – Jewish education, Community Service, and Religious Events.
“Judaism has been the center of my life since I was born,” said Cassandra Zafrani, class of ’24 and JVSNA’s inaugural vice president. “I grew up religious. I went to a Jewish high school where we took extra courses to learn Hebrew, the Torah, and the significances of Jewish holidays. I have Shabbat dinner every Friday with my family when I am home in Montreal. It is a big part of my life, and I am happy that it is part of my life in St. Kitts as well.”
“In Los Angeles, I live in a community where 80 percent of the people are Jewish,” added Abrishami. “You do certain things in Judaism that are just second nature. It is why I was actively searching Jewish communities on the island because it is such an integral part of my life. I could not picture having no family away from home.”
Before Abrishami, JVSNA’s inaugural president, Zafrani, and the rest of their board formed the club, there were a few barriers to practicing Judaism in St. Kitts. And without a club presence to connect with each other, holy days, holidays, and customary celebrations were often spent alone. “Before JVSNA, I would do Shabbat by myself and I was happy to do it, but I love doing it with Ryan and anyone who wants to come,” said Zafrani. “JVSNA has helped us form our own little congregations in our homes.” In fact, JVSNA is the first officially recognized Jewish group in St. Kitts and just the second student-run Jewish group to exist at any North American veterinary school.
Even before their official establishment as a recognized club, bringing both Jewish and non-Jewish community members together was the first pillar the leaders envisioned. “Hosting the religious events was a given because JVSNA is a religious club, but we really wanted to do more than that,” said Zafrani. “We want to include other students that do not know anything about Judaism, and we wanted to bring them into all our holidays and show them what we do and why we do it.”
In Yiddish, mitzvah means “good deed.” Although JVSNA is primarily a religious group, community service is integral to Judaism and thus the second of three pillars for the club’s formation. As Abrishami and Zafrani continued bringing students together to celebrate Shabbat weekly, the connections they were forming as a club and as friends started requiring bigger spaces beyond their own apartments to host everyone. Eventually they made it to the Park Hyatt in St. Kitts with over 60 people in attendance celebrating Shabbat together. The next day, the group visited St. Christopher Children’s Home.
“We started with an idea to just visit the kids and spend the day with them,” recalled Abrishami. “The next thing you know, we are playing games, ordering pizzas, and we went to the store and purchased $1,000 in toys to donate. My parents had been visiting St. Kitts for the first time and my dad decided to donate another $1,000 worth of shoes. No exaggeration, the kids played soccer for five hours straight after that.”
On what community service means to the Jewish community, Abrishami continued: “In the Jewish community, it is essential that we learn about our faith, our religion, and our culture. But at the same time, all of that is meaningless if we do not take action to do something about all that we have learned. And the general idea behind what we learned is how do we make this world better than when we left it? A lot of people have great intentions, but without action those intentions mean nothing. So as hard as it is, and as much time as it takes away from studying, it is essential that we take all these events that we do religiously and implement them into action.”
Another term for Shabbat is Sabbath, a day of religious observance and abstinence from work. Jewish people observe Shabbat from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, which makes for some fun celebrations and equal opportunities for non-Jewish attendees to experience Jewish culture. One of these frequent guests is Don Bergfelt, MS, PhD, head of biomedical sciences at Ross Vet and the club’s inaugural faculty advisor.
“While I am not Jewish, I learned of the club’s vision and mission to be inclusive of students of all faiths and engage in social and charitable events or activities to support children and families in need,” said Dr. Bergfelt. “Considering the nobleness of these values, I was honored to accept and serve as faculty advisor to learn more about Jewish traditions in relation to my Christian traditions, engage with the club members in charitable events, and source volunteers on and off campus who will donate time and effort to accomplish and recognize the club’s missions in the short-term and provide guidance to ensure the club’s sustainability in the long-term. I am grateful to be along for the excitement and joy of learning and serving.”
Dr. Bergfelt continues to join Abrishami, Zafrani, and the others when they observe Shabbat. Having a weekly opportunity to connect with each other is just one of the many opportunities the club continues to build upon now three months into their official establishment. “I do not want anyone to be deterred from coming to Ross Vet because there was no Jewish community,” said Abrishami. “I have had such an incredible time at this school and on this island. It is important to have that home away from home for us. We found that here. Unfortunately, many other vet schools do not have that yet, but our mission is to make that happen. We are just getting started.”
To connect with the Jewish Veterinary Students of North America, current and prospective students can email Dr. Don Bergfelt at email@example.com