Celebrating Freeman18 with Alexander Merriman, T'17 & Jessica Matthys, T'17

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Tell us about yourselves:
Alex: I’m a Chemistry and Biology double major with concentrations in Biochemistry and Cell & Molecular Biology. I’m from Buffalo, NY and I want to be a physician-scientist (I’m planning to matriculate into an MD/PhD program next year) studying stem cell biology & regenerative medicine.
Jessica: I am from Los Altos Hills, CA and I am majoring in Mechanical Engineering with a certificate in Energy and the Environment.

What made you choose to come to Duke?
A: My decision to come to Duke was a really simple one: I knew I wanted to fence in college, and I really liked the Duke Fencing coaches after having met them in Anaheim at Summer Nationals when I was in high school. I knew Duke had a fantastic athletics program, and really liked the idea of attending a school that would support both my professional and my athletic aspirations. Moreover, Duke has a really outstanding undergraduate research culture, which aligned well with my goals.
J: My mom made me apply to Duke because her friend's son went here. I visited for the first time during Blue Devil Days and loved the spirit and the natural scenery. I can't believe I have only a couple more months here! 
 
What are you involved in on campus?

A: I am a member of the Varsity Men’s Fencing team, an Organic Chemistry tutor, part of Duke Innoworks, and I volunteer at the the hospital. I have also worked in the lab of Kenneth Poss [James B. Duke Professor, Cell Biology] studying heart, appendage, and spinal cord regeneration in adult zebrafish since freshman year.
J: I am the president of Out of the Blue, the oldest all-girls a cappella group on campus. I was so lucky to have their support through this process; they are like my second family and even performed a song at my bat mitzvah! 
 
What made you decide to have b'nai mitzvah now?
A: Growing up in a dual faith household, I was afforded the opportunity to explore religion and select my own faith as an adult. After multiple rewarding experiences in Israel (working at Weizmann Institute & Birthright), I decided that I would like to undergo the process of becoming a bar mitzvah and further explore my Jewish identity.
J: As a second semester senior, I have a somewhat relaxed academic schedule and wanted to be more intentional about how I spend my free time. I wanted to explore what being a Jewish adult means, to learn Hebrew, and to connect with my relatives and ancestors. 
 
What was the process of becoming b'nai mitzvah like?
A: It certainly required a considerable commitment. Weekly meetings with Rabbi Elana were always very enjoyable. I liked learning about the historical aspects of the faith, how contemporary Jews engage with their religion, the various customs, and the myriad different sects within Judaism. I feel more integrated with the community now that I’ve undergone this experience that so many of my peers have also gone through. I also became comfortable chanting Torah in public spaces while practicing for the big day. 
J: During this process, I learned to read Hebrew, studied my portion, met with Rabbi Elana all day every day (the best part), and did a mitzvah project. The Torah portion I was assigned was where Moses receives the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, and it was incredibly interesting to explore the text and commentary. I still can't believe that Hebrew used to look like hieroglyphics and now I can sound it out like a second grader learning to read. 
 
What was the most challenging aspect of preparing for the b’nai mitzvah?
A: Drafting the d’var Torah was definitely the most challenging. Going into the process, I thought the toughest aspect would be the Hebrew portion, but in reality, learning how to intellectually engage with the Torah and come up with a personal speech was much more difficult.
J: I think the hardest part was figuring out what becoming a bat mitzvah meant for me and for my future Jewish identity. To be honest, I am still trying to figure that out, but now I feel equipped to do it surrounded by such a supportive Jewish community at Duke.

What was the best part of your b’nai mitzvah?
A: At the end, after Rabbi Elana gave Jess and me a blessing, she quickly ran off the stage and the audience began throwing candy at us! I wasn’t expecting that at all, but it was a neat way to mark that we were officially a bar/bat mitzvah!
J: Connecting with the Jewish community at Duke :) They are so supportive and taught me so much!

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