Right back at you, New York students visit Island

Adriana Ignacio, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe, spoke to New York City students Melanie Castillo and Nilsa Rodriguez about tribal culture — Photo courtesy of Elaine Weintraub

In April, a group of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students traveled to the island of Manhattan on the first leg of the “Two Islands, One World” cultural exchange.

The notion of an exchange program between the two islands was inspired by the idea that all young people, regardless of their economic circumstances, should be able to travel and experience diverse cultures as a necessary preparation of living in

The Vineyard students spent three days with students from the High School of Economics and Finance. They also experienced New York in a variety of ways that included riding the subway to the tenement museum, visiting the 9/11 Memorial, the African Burying Ground, and attending a Mets game.

Last week, their New York counterparts arrived on the Vineyard to spend four days learning about the cultures that make up our Island community.

The New Yorkers’ visit began at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center where Rabbi Broitman led the students in a discussion of values, ideas, and comparative religion, while community elder Ruth Stiller shared stories of the beginnings of the Jewish community on the Island. In an extraordinarily generous gesture, the Rabbi invited students to read the sacred Torah showing them how the Hebrew language is written from right to left.

Students shared their ideas of what makes a sacred space. For Aska Gunrung, this visit provided the most powerful image of her Island stay. “I loved talking about the Jewish religion,” she said. “I liked the idea of being able to talk about what is important. I am a Hindu and a Buddhist and so I am accustomed to thinking about how religious belief is sometimes the same and sometimes different. I liked the story of how the Jewish migrated to the Vineyard from Eastern Europe because my family came to America from India.”

Following the visit to the Hebrew Center, the New York visitors met with their Vineyard counterparts at a community dinner at the Brazilian restaurant Tropical, hosted by the African-American Heritage Trail. Friends and well-wishers packed the restaurant to welcome the guests.

Each student happily received a gift of chocolates donated by Chilmark Chocolates. Francis Vasquez liked the food at The Tropical so much that he returned the next day for lunch.

Friday morning, a yellow school bus picked up the students at the youth hostel in West Tisbury, where they stayed during their trip. For students who usually travel to school on the subway and had only seen buses like it in the movies the bus ride was a special delight. The bus ride was the start of a day spent shadowing their host students as they attended classes.

For students Illarion Shushakov, Augustin Garcia, and Nilsa Rodriguez, their day in school was the best part of their visit. They enjoyed reconnecting with their Vineyard hosts, but more than that, they were really impressed by the range of activities available to our students.

“Your school is fantastic,” Augustin said. “You have basketball courts, gym, auto shop, and cooking.”

Illarion agreed. “Your students have so much more to choose from. They can do so many things: music, the garden, arts and crafts, and academic classes. There is a lot more choice here.”

The students also got an authentic taste of Island life when they boarded a Steamship ferry for a visit to Woods Hole and the Marine Biological Laboratory aquarium.

The visit included a morning walk along the Heritage Trail to sites rich with African-American and Wampanoag history at Great Bite reserve and West Basin where they visited the site honoring the Wampanoag Tribe. The interaction with the Trail and the Wampanoag Tribe was the most interesting part of the visit for Adriana Mallea, who very much enjoyed talking to her namesake, Adriana Ignacio, at the Cliffs. “I have always been very interested in learning about Native Americans, particularly the legends and stories. And before I came on this trip, I researched the story of Randall Burton, the fugitive whose rescue by the Wampanoag Tribe, is honored at West Basin. Seeing the rock and the plaque on the Tribal land telling his story was a wonderful experience for me.”

From Aquinnah the group traveled to Menemsha Fish Market where Stanley Larsen introduced them to a group of lobsters, one of them 90 years old. Apparently the 90-year-old would cost about $120 and there was much conversation about how its taste would compare with a younger one. Playing with the lobsters and learning about the fishing culture was voted by all of the students to be one of the best parts of the trip.

The students’ stay included an afternoon on the beach, a tour of Edgartown, and an evening in Oak Bluffs where they experienced the delights of pizza and ice cream and promenading to see and be seen, much as our own young people like to do.

The students voted their visit a great success and said they could not wait to return. Melanie Castillo made some ambitious plans: “I will come back here and work at Aquinnah in the shop selling stuff, live in the hostel and travel on the VTA. I can write it all up for all of my classes. Selling is math, travel and culture is history, walking through those long grass areas is science. I can be back here and make it work for school there. I could get credit for business for working in the shop. I like it here.”

The Vineyard community really made this visit a success for the young visitors. This was the first year of this cultural exchange. We hope each year it will grow and thrive, giving the students a chance to learn about the world and hone their skills for successfully negotiating everything that life has in store for them.

Elaine Cawley Weintraub is the chairman of the high school history department and facilitator of the Two Islands, One World project.