Our aging yellow school bus slowly drove up a steep mountain in a verdant forest in Honduras. I wondered why the bus driver was stopping at a seemingly random spot on the worst road I have ever seen. There were coffee and cornfields left and right. A herd of cows meandered down the road. As I peered out the window at the chickens rampaging beneath the mango trees, I noticed that a small crowd of women and children was gathering to stare back. And then I realized that this was it — this section of road was a village and my home for the next six weeks.
This past summer I and 14 other high school students lived and worked in Cuesta del Neo, a tiny aldeo of 70 families in rural, mountainous Honduras. Our mission: to build a pipeline several kilometers long to bring potable water for both domestic and agricultural uses to the village, which had been devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
We volunteered with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a nonprofit organization devoted to ending poverty by furthering sustainable development and promoting international human rights.
The people of the village lived in immense poverty. There was one streetlamp that sometimes worked. There was one television, about four radios and, more often than not, there was no way to power them. There was no indoor plumbing. School was available to most young children in the village, but secondary school was a two-hour uphill walk if your family could pay for the uniforms. Books were virtually unavailable.
The men worked long hours farming, and the women worked even harder to keep their families fed. The village has not received government aid since 1983.
I expected the impoverished to be downcast and hardened, burdened with the pain of existence and the suffering that plagues them. Nothing could be further from the truth in Cuesta del Neo. The attitudes of the people reflected such vibrancy and exuberance that I could hardly believe these were the same people who struggle just to have enough food on the tables for their large and extended families.
We worked hard on the pipeline. Digging with shovels and pickaxes in waist-high mud is no joke. We worked with a nongovernmental organization called Proyecto Aldeo Global (PAG), which helps aldeos to develop agriculture, technology and education. PAG works with villages that have asked for help as a community, and as such all members are required to participate in the development.
A rotation of men came to work with us digging the ditch, and they were so adept with a shovel that we felt completely useless. While we made pitiful little scratches in the dirt, these men were carving Grand Canyons through forests of roots. We felt inadequate and in the way. Then one of my group leaders, a Peace Corps worker, explained that we were not there only for the actual labor, but also as motivation for the villagers — our efforts gave them hope. Together we cheered when the water rushed through the pipes for the first time.
Not only did we get the experience of the physical labor, but we also got the cultural experience of living in homes of villagers. We shared their food, their stories, their precious few photographs. We shelled beans that had been picked by hand and dried on clotheslines. They taught us Spanish and we taught them English — the most common sounds echoing through the adobe houses were “?Como se dice?”, “How do you say…?” and lots of laughter.
The American teens all practiced different forms of Judaism, from secular to Orthodox. We did our best to make keeping kosher and Shabbat easy. We ate only vegetarian food, cooked with new pots and did not travel or drive on Shabbat. One of our more creative innovations was an “eruv” made of dental floss. We took turns leading Shabbat services. We also studied Jewish texts relating to sustainable development, poverty and the responsibilities that accompany us as Jews.
My experience has helped me to understand that through an accident of birth, I am lucky enough to live in the United States, where I have the responsibility to make a difference. It seems a daunting task, but as Ruth Messinger, the president of the AJWS, has repeatedly said, “We do not have the luxury of being overwhelmed.”
As Americans, and especially as Jews, we are in a unique position to call attention to injustice and to work to correct it. Judaism does not require us to complete the task, but we are required to attempt it. I challenge us to do more — to end our complacency and to create opportunities for us to do good in the world.
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