Trading iPods for machetes

While most teenagers are notorious for clashing with parents over their perceived rude behavior, Jonah Li-Paz may actually draw more sighs from his family for being overly polite.

“My parents get really annoyed — my grandparents, too — because they say I say ‘thank you’ too much,” he said, half jokingly. “I didn’t do that before.”

His words of thanks aren’t stemming from a love of manners but rather a deep-seated sense of gratitude he has experienced since completing his mitzvah project last year. For eight days, Li-Paz went with more than a dozen Jewish youth and several adult chaperones to volunteer their time in the small mountain town of Cantel in Guatemala. The group slept on concrete floors in the homes of their host families and spent their days doing manual labor in the rural community. While the work helped local villagers, the purpose was also to give the young Americans a renewed sense of appreciation.

“This trip was taking kids out of their comfort zone — literally, away from their electronics, away from all of the comforts of home and taking them away from luxury to abject poverty,” explained Ron Li-Paz, Jonah’s father as well as the cantor and spiritual leader of Valley Outreach Synagogue.

The trip was organized as part of the service element of the synagogue’s program JEWELS (Jewish Education: Wisdom, Ethics, Hebrew Literacy and Service). Jonah took away from the experience exactly what his father — and the synagogue’s program — had intended.

Students harvesting corn, broccoli and root vegetables for their meals (Photo courtesy Cantor Ron Li-Paz).

“What led to the trip was seeing time after time that our kids learn blessings, they learn ideas of gratitude, they learn the value of gratitude, but they don’t know what gratitude really means until they lack things that they ordinarily expect,” Li-Paz said.

After surrendering their iPods and smart phones, the young people — who ranged in age from 12 to 17 — would wake up early, eat breakfast, and get started chopping down trees with machetes, laying bricks, digging or otherwise physically helping in whatever way they could. The work was exhausting, and the culture came as a shock in more ways than one. Food that would normally be reserved for lunch or dinner — primarily rice and beans — became the usual breakfast. It was his first breakfast, in fact, that taught Jonah a lesson that remains with him today.

“We just loaded our plates like we usually would at home, with a lot of food, probably more than we’d eat,” Jonah explained. “And afterward, when we realized we didn’t eat it all, we just kind of didn’t care and went to throw it away in this little hole we had in the ground. And we saw all the kids looking at us in awe that we were throwing away food.”

Cantor Ron Li-Paz and son Jonah standing with a Guatamalan woman (Photo courtesy Cantor Ron Li-Paz).

From that point on, Jonah and his friends took only what they thought they would eat, and gave away anything that remained. Jonah realized how good he and his peers have it in America, and also how truly grateful people were in Guatemala for the little they did have.

Since his return to the States, Jonah has held onto the inspiration he felt during the trip, sharing memories with friends and wallpapering his computer’s background with photos from the village. As he actively tries to hold on to these memories, the effects of the project have effortlessly matured him.

“People who didn’t know I went said they saw the biggest change in me, and they still say that a year later.”

The change inspired by the trip was an important part of what Jonah believes is a multi-step process of becoming bar mitzvah, which he did this past December. He views mitzvot like the project in Guatemala as a path toward manhood and womanhood, and understands that tikkun olam, repairing the world, cannot happen suddenly. The world will be healed on an individual level, with one person helping another, who then helps another, he said.

While he is glad to be volunteering and helping his fellow man back in Agoura Hills, he still longs for some aspects of Guatemala that he thinks could benefit many in our country.

“Everything was so different, and, in a way, I kind of prefer Guatemala; I prefer the simpler life in that way.”

Jonah would love to complete a similar trip again but, for now, he’s back to carrying his iPod rather than a machete.