February 2007

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AJWS delegates pose for a photograph outside the church where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1980 in San Salvador.
News and Opinion

Seeds Of Hope

-- Joysa Winter

Rabbinical students get firsthand lessons in organic farming, economic justice and the politics of peacemaking during American Jewish World Service trip to El Salvador

What happens when you plop down a group of pasty Hebrew scholars in the middle of dusty, equatorial bean field where the temperature hits 90º in the shade and the humidity tops 50 percent?

That was the question we all were wondering as we eagerly and nervously entered the dormitories where we would be staying for the next week. Our group of 25 seminary students had arrived in El Salvador from several chilly cities in North America, and now found ourselves sweating in the remote town of Ciudad Romero, located about an hour south of the capital, San Salvador.

I use the word “town” loosely. Ciudad Romero’s only storefronts are a spattering of convenience stores operated out of people’s homes, and the only real traffic outside our gate was the herds of cattle young boys on donkeys nudged down the dirt road. The livestock-to-human ratio was hard to measure amidst the constant milieu of pigs and chickens foraging in the mud, and barefoot children playing with sticks.

Our group of volunteers would be staying at the town for 10 days, as part of the American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) fourth annual Rabbinical Students Delegation. We hailed from nine seminaries that spanned the religious spectrum – Humanist, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Modern Orthodox – and we were ready to work.

AJWS President Ruth Messinger speaks to the rabbinical students delegation at the synagogue in San Salvador. The ark can be seen in the background. The synagogue is located in a residential area in a former private home, and has 79 paying members and a full-time rabbi from Argentina.

Part of a bigger picture

The AJWS is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice by alleviating poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world. Through grants to community-based organizations and volunteer service projects like the one we were on, AJWS strives to promote health and sustainable economies for the world’s poorest people.

By all accounts, AJWS is a powerfully efficient organization. For the fifth year in a row, it has received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, as well as an ‘A’ rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy.

Under the guidance of Ruth Messinger, a one-time mayoral contender for the city of New York, the organization has blossomed into a powerhouse of fundraising, almost doubling its revenues in the past two years. AJWS has raised more than $1.3 million for humanitarian aid in Darfur, and another $11.2 million in aid for tsunami victims in Southeast Asia. On top of that, the group sponsors 259 grassroots projects in 40 countries – of which the agricultural initiative we were supporting in Ciudad Romero is just one.

Four daughters in a family of 10 watch AJWS delegates prepare soil for planting in their father’s field in Limonera.
Spreading the message

“Let’s be realistic,” said our group leader, Aaron Dorfman, matter-of-factly, during our meal group’s second dinner with our host family. “It costs a lot more for us to get you down here than you can possibly do out in the field to pay for it.”

Our group of seven chuckled in agreement. We knew exactly what he meant. After spending only 1.5 hours picking dried bean pods – which are planted in between vegetable crops to replenish the soil – we were spent. It was so hot, and the work was so not what any of us were used to that we simply couldn’t do any more.

The trip’s organizers knew this of course, and had planned accordingly. The rest of our day was spent visiting the neighboring town of San Nicholas, where the main offices of the economic development cooperative, La Coordinadora, are located. We viewed artwork created by local youth as part of a gang prevention program; toured a cyber café, a project an AJWS volunteer helped establish; and viewed the handiwork of a group of young people who were learning to dye T-shirts with indigo.

Such is the nature of international service projects. The reality is, the biggest impact any foreign volunteer can make on a one- or two-week trip is to expand one’s horizons. By challenging ourselves to grow in new ways, we hopefully get outside of our boxes enough to go home and live our lives differently.

“You will pay this back when you get back to the U.S.,” Aaron explained. “It’s what you choose to do with this experience that will make all of this matter.”

From the ground up

Our delegation was housed in four dorm rooms in a gated compound, which was built a decade earlier to house men studying sustainable agriculture techniques. For meals, we divided into designated meal groups of six or seven people, and my group went to the home of Irma, a 32-year-old mother of three married to a farmer.

Dinner most nights consisted of pureed pinto beans, grill-fired tortillas and a side of cooked vegetables. Irma served us in the main room of her two-room house, which was made out of concrete cinderblocks and corrugated tin. While we ate, her children and husband made themselves scarce, but the resident hen and her 12 furry chicks routinely scurried under our feet. Sometimes Irma would come and swing from the hammock while we ate, and patiently answer our rudimentary questions in Spanish.

By supporting local agriculture cooperatives like La Coordinadora, and thus empowering families like Irma’s, AJWS hopes to make a difference for the world’s poorest people. Rather than going into an area as outsiders and telling the community what would be good for them, AJWS finds local groups doing work the communities themselves believe are important, and supports their work.

The Salvadorans living in the Bajo Lempa region relocated here after the civil war ended in 1992. Many of them had been living as refugees in Panama, and came to the area when the government offered parcels of land. Prior to the war, almost all land in El Salvador was owned by 14 families, and land redistribution was part of the cease-fire agreement. The new residents in the Bajo Lempa created the Coordinadora (the coordinating committee) in 1996 as a way of uniting more than 86 communities in the region.

For years the land had been used for cotton production – an expensive crop that requires the use of pesticides. Part of La Coordinadora’s work has been to transition to organic vegetable farming, which involves far less capital and provides food staples for the growers’ families. The organization has also built an extensive flood warning system, as the area is situated in the flood plain of the Lempa River.

Daring to dream

How to get involved

Donate: Make a tax-deductible donation online.

Participate: Join an AJWS Service Delegation, which are run in partnership with synagogues, JCCs and Jewish summer camps. Delegations may be specifically geared to adults, young adults, families or high school juniors and seniors. Call Sonia Gordon-Walinsky at 1-800-889-7146, ext. 251.

Send your college student: The Alternative Breaks weeklong service programs run over Spring Break through Hillels or other campus organizations. Since the inception of the AB program in 2000, 750 students from 32 schools have participated. Call Sonia Gordon-Walinsky at 1-800-889-7146, ext. 251.

Send your young adult: The AJWS Summer Program for young adults, ages 16-24, involves seven weeks of volunteer work in an AJWS partner organization in a rural area in the developing world. Some financial aid is available. Visit www.ajws.org to download the application forms.

For us eager but not-so-hardy volunteers, our fourth day was another opportunity to work in the fields for a few hours. This time we helped a farmer in the neighboring community of La Limonera prepare his soil for planting, which involved digging holes about one-foot apart and filling them with fertilizer.

The farmer who owned the parcel, a father of eight, told us he and his siblings were part of the migration that returned after the war, and they shared the work and the harvesting on this plot. With our group working two hours, we were able to save the family the equivalent of four days’ worth of work.

The farmer joined the collective about five years earlier after seeing his neighbor’s fields thrive while his own were wilting. With help from the collective, the neighbor was introducing new plants and techniques that were replenishing the depleted soils and improving his crops, and the farmer could see the difference it was making with his own eyes.

After hearing about his history, someone in the group asked him what his ultimate dream was – where he hoped to be in a few years. His answer was that he hoped to be feeding his family. When pressed further to imagine something beyond that – something more than just sustenance – he fell silent.

“What he hopes for is to buy some equipment that will help with the farming,” our translator eventually said, after further prodding. Then she added: “He is not used to thinking about his dreams – he is so used to only thinking about how to get by. I had to repeat the question to him several times to get him to really answer.”

Catholicism and civil war

Another day brought our delegation to San Salvador, where we toured some of the country’s historical sites, many of which reflect the powerful roles the civil war and the Catholic Church have played in shaping the country.

El Salvador’s 12-year war was, in its simplest terms, a war over class and the distribution of wealth. Though it ended in 1992, it left 75,000 people dead, 8,000 missing and nearly 1 million in exile. This emigrant trend has continued, though now for economic reasons, rather than political ones. Today, about one-fourth of all Salvadoran men of working age are living abroad (often in the U.S.), and the money they send home constitutes 16 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product.

Jose “Chencho” Alas, a former priest and the executive director of the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, discusses the powerful impact slain archbishop Oscar Romero has had on El Salvador’s history and the evolution of “liberation theology.” A mural of Romero is pictured in the background.

Inextricably tied up in the impact of war was the assassination of El Salvador’s archbishop, Oscar Romero, on March 24, 1980. Killed while performing Mass, his death was a reprisal for his constant criticism of the human rights abuses being committed by government forces (which were being armed and financed by the United States). Although his murder was technically never solved, it was widely known to have been committed by a government-hired hit man.

His death galvanized the nation and turned him into a national hero and martyr. It did not stop the war or its atrocities, however, and it wasn’t until nine years later, with the slaughter of six Jesuit priests at the hands of other government soldiers, that U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government finally stopped.

To this day, Archbishop Romero remains a powerful symbol of “liberation theology,” a precept which calls on Christians to work for social and economic justice. It’s a theology that remains strong among Latin American Catholics, and Salvadorans in particular, and was mentioned repeatedly by our local tour guide, Jose “Chencho” Alas, as he showed us where Romero lived, died and was buried.

Chencho was a priest working with Romero at the time he was killed, and was eventually imprisoned and tortured himself for his work with the country’s poor. Today, as the executive director of the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, he shares heart-wrenching stories of his experiences with groups like ours – as well as his hopes for what he called “the liberation of all people.”

“The Passover story, the way (the Jewish people) have taken this experience as part of your being, there is a message in that,” he told us while standing in the rose garden at the Centro Monsenor Romero, the place where the tortured bodies of the six Jesuit priests were found. “Freedom and liberation is dear to all people of the world,” Chencho said, clutching his hands to his heart, “and we all must work together for that.”

Jewish life in El Salvador

We also had the opportunity to visit San Salvador’s tiny Jewish community. The synagogue, located in a former private home in a residential district, provides community space for 79 paying household members. They have a full-time rabbi from Argentina who was ordained in the Conservative movement, and a small but vibrant Hebrew school.

The origins of the community date back to the first half of the 19th century, when Sephardim from France settled in Chaluchuapa. Other French Jews settled in the capital in the second half of the 1800s. A few Jews came from Eastern Europe and Asia in the 1920s, and very few arrived fleeing the Holocaust.

Despite this long history, the Jewish community has never been large. In 1976, 370 Jews lived in the country, but many fled with the advent of the civil war. In 2000, the community numbered 120.

Interestingly, El Salvador was among the first nations to recognize the state of Israel in 1948, and up until the recent Intifada , was one of two Central American countries (along with Costa Rica) to maintain an embassy there.

Israel’s current ambassador to El Salvador was on hand to greet us the day we visited, and relayed what he believes to be a “very friendly” relationship between the two countries. He cited a school in a Salvadoran town called Jerusalem that routinely teaches its children about Israel and told us that spotting Israeli flags around the country is not uncommon. Tikkun olam remains an important part of El Salvador’s tiny Jewish community, and the Jerusalem school is one of the four projects the community is now supporting.

AJWS delegates head out for an afternoon of field work. In the foreground at left is Ellie Knepler, a first-year student studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
Quiet discomfort

For us delegates, the bus ride home that evening to Ciudad Romero provided a quiet space in an otherwise hectic day to reflect on all that we had seen and learned. That night, we each took time in a “closing circle” to share one thought. With 25 people, there was naturally a beautiful array of ideas and feelings that was shared, but one theme resonated among many of them, and that is the idea of perspective – of how, as our group leader had told us several days before, this trip was, more than anything, about changing perspectives.

A young woman studying at Hebrew Union College put it beautifully when she said this: “My comforter. What I can’t get out of my head is the $50 comforter I bought right before I came here, and which now, when I look back on it, I realize I really didn’t need. What do I do with this comforter!? Maybe I should just send it back.”

Judging by the nods going around the circle, she wasn’t the only person with a $50 comforter that wasn’t really needed, nor the only one among us who now, suddenly, found herself sitting with questions that were uncomfortable – and worth asking.

Joysa Winter is a mekinah (preparatory) year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. A native of Denver, she has worked as a journalist for the past 15 years.

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