NEW YORK, May 8 (JTA) – Even though 11-year-old Albieta and her El Salvadoran sisters had no shoes, they still had a lot to teach American college student Lizzie Heydemann.
“In contrast to the Americans, in our sturdy boots and leather work gloves, Albieta and her four sisters went to task wearing no shoes or gloves, and were far more adept than us at using the pick ax and hammer,” Heydemann wrote in an e-mail to JTA about her work with other college-aged volunteers helping rural El Salvadorans rebuild their earthquake-ravaged villages.
A 20-year-old freshman at Stanford University, Heydemann was one of about 70 students from five U.S. schools who recently participated in a weeklong Alternative Spring Break program, sponsored by the American Jewish World Service in coordination with Hillel – The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
The program to help residents of impoverished El Salvadoran villages was launched last year with 20 students from New York University.
The AJWS, a 15-year-old non-profit that specializes in long-term international relief work, developed the program to provide volunteer opportunities for young Jews that might lead them to pursue careers in tikkun olam, or repairing the world, according to AJWS President Ruth Messinger.
“We developed the program because we felt there was a need within the Jewish community to provide an opportunity for students to volunteer internationally and within a Jewish context,” Messinger said.
The reconstruction work done by the students from Columbia, Tufts, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA was organized by La Coordinadora, AJWS’s partner in El Salvador.
The students lived with families about a 90-minute drive from the capital of San Salvador, in La Coordinadora’s base, Ciudad Romero. They worked in the neighboring towns of Buena Vista and Rio Roldan, which were demolished by the series of earthquakes that struck El Salvador in January and February.
In addition to tearing down remains of destroyed houses and helping build new ones, the students planted seeds for a forest project.
The students also held discussion groups on topics ranging from the Jewish perspective on social justice, to international development, to similarities between the Jewish slaves in Egypt and El Salvadorans during the country’s civil war in the 1980s.
The students also celebrated Shabbat in Ciudad Romero with services, dinner and dancing.
Despite the Shabbat festivities, much of the trip was difficult.
“We got to the town and saw the poverty immediately,” Heydemann wrote. The houses had little furniture and food. There was, however, a television which “showed the El Salvadorans what American life is like – this was depressing.”
The “depressing” relationship between the United States and El Salvador is not new.
During the 1980s, a right-wing government, supported by the United States as part of its Cold War struggle against communism, battled left-wing guerrillas backed by the Soviet Union.
The fighting ended almost a decade ago, but the country remains mired in poverty.
The solutions to El Salvador’s problems are in dispute, as political parties continue to battle each other. The effects of the poverty, however, were clear to the students.
For trip participant and former teen star Mayim Bialik, the local conditions brought up issues of wealth, class and responsibility.
“The poverty is staggering and took some time to cope with. I felt guilt for having come from the U.S. and not being able to fix the infrastructure,” Bialik, the former star of TV’s “Blossom,” wrote in an e-mail to JTA.
Now a student at UCLA, Bialik was sick for several days, giving her time to assist the trip’s U.S. doctor, who came to help the locals with health care.
Bialik translated for the doctor, assisted in some procedures and learned how dire the health care and education crises are in these communities.
Despite hardships, local families took care of the group as best as possible.
The Americans grew tired of daily meals of tortillas and rice, but their house mothers gave them “more food in a week than their children probably eat in three,” Heydemann said.
The students decided to skip more traditional spring break haunts like Ft. Lauderdale and Miami because of their Judaism and their desire to learn more about the world – and to find ways to bridge the two.
“As a Jew, if you want to feel good as a nation, you have to be responsible for what’s going on around you,” said Aryea Aronoff, a 20-year-old Columbia student.
Rachel Koss, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in Pan-African studies at Barnard University and Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, came on the trip after volunteering last summer with the AJWS’s International Jewish College Corps in Ghana.
The trip was planned before the first earthquake hit the region in January. The disasters didn’t dissuade Koss from participating – and she was not disappointed.
“Going to El Salvador changed how I see poverty,” making an abstract concept real, Koss said.
The individuals she met are “real people with real problems, but are still very happy,” with a “great sense of community, values, and family. They have problems that people shouldn’t have, like health care and nutrition,” she said.
“We realized in going there” that “what we did physically in one week is not necessarily worth a lot, because we’re not great workers,” Koss said.
But when the students left, the local women “cried and hugged us partly because we came and sensed we’re equals, because we were partners in living in the world.”
The students’ involvement didn’t end with their flight home.
Stanford and UCLA students are raising money for Tools for Sustenance, a group that provides tools for El Salvadorans, and Tufts students are hosting a fund raiser featuring a slide show of their trip.
The trip also appears to have had some success toward the AJWS’ larger goal of influencing some students’ future plans.
Alex McSpadden of Columbia wrote on his evaluation sheet that when he finishes college he might “focus on the development of the economy and go to a developing nation similar to El Salvador to help them.”
The trip also may have shaped Heydemann’s career.
“I know my career will be in tikkun olam,” she wrote JTA – perhaps, she added, as a rabbi.