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For Jewish Teens, Building Houses in Nicaragua Offers Sense of Purpose


? Aching from lugging cinder blocks and not having seen a flush toilet in days, the Jewish teenagers from posh New York City suburbs could have been forgiven for complaining about building simple houses in this rural Nicaraguan outpost.

But the only complaints they offered were about their own upper-middle-class lifestyles back home and the short duration of their stay.

?These people need help and we have the ability to do it, so why not?? said Evan Lobell, 17, of Louisboro, N.Y. ?I haven?t really thought of a bad part. Even the physical labor is enjoyable.?

The 63 teenagers and their chaperones came to this impoverished Central American nation Feb. 17-25 as part of an interfaith ?brigade? from two Reform synagogues and two Presbyterian churches to build eight houses for families too poor to put up anything nicer than a one-room twig-and-plastic lean-to, a typical abode in a country that is the poorest in the Americas after Haiti.

The houses they built would barely be considered sheds in New York ? 10-by-16-foot single-room constructions with tin roofs and no running water ? but their tiled floors and solid cement walls mark a palpable improvement for their inhabitants.

?They?re going to have a tile floor, and that is going to be great for the kids when it rains,? said Sophie Lombeck, 17, of Bedford, N.Y. ?They are going to have a roof that does not leak.?

The houses, built in conjunction with the non-profit organization Bridges to Community, which organizes volunteer building projects for foreign brigades, are just shells when the teens finish their week here, with the foundations laid and the walls built.

Local builders paid for by donations from the volunteers and their sponsors complete the construction, laying the tile floor and welding the steel pearling beams that support the roof, an expensive option that even many wealthier families here forgo ! in favor of cheaper wooden beams.

?For our young people, the responsibility of our privilege is a domain they need to explore,? said Rabbi Douglas Krantz, who joined the teens in the hard labor from his Congregation B?nei Yisrael in Armonk, N.Y. ?Most of our children have their own rooms, and most of their rooms are larger than the houses we?re building.?

Trip participants lived without running water ? that meant hauling water for bucket showers ? and built at one site 100 yards removed from the nearest road, meaning all building materials had to be carried by hand.

?Besides roughing it for a week, I didn?t know what to expect,? Max Applebaum, 16, a member of B?nei Yisrael, said of his decision to come to Nicaragua instead of touring colleges, as many of his friends spent the week doing. ?This is a total reality check for me. Where I am coming from is pretty sheltered. Westchester [County] is the polar opposite of this.?

The interfaith brigade, which this year had a decidedly Jewish majority, is in its fifth year, and has proven so popular with members of the Shaaray Tefila Temple in Bedford, N.Y., that a second trip is planned in August.

The trip?s popularity is a source of encouragement for Gary Cohn, who convinced members of Shaaray Tefila to join the program in 2003 after having traveled with the Bedford Presbyterian Church the year before.

The trip has become an interfaith tradition eagerly awaited by the communities served. This year, townspeople in this hamlet 20 miles west of the capital Managua opened their homes to volunteers and dug new latrines for the teens prior to their arrival.

Even so, most meals consisted of little more than the local staples of rice, beans and plantains, with no steaks, lattes or bagels to be found.

Nicaragua, a mostly Catholic nation, is an unusual place to find Jewish volunteers: The 50 teenagers and their chaperones doubled its Jewish population. Not that the! teens, who shared a Shabbat dinner last Friday with the local Jewish community, seemed to notice.

?It?s impossible to feel like a fish out of water,? Lombeck said. ?We?re all people anyway.?

Participants paid roughly $2,000 for the trip. They were allowed to raise up to $800 toward those costs; any amount raised above that went as a donation to the Bridges to Community efforts.

Adam Frankel, 15, of Bedford, estimated that he raised several thousand dollars for the cause.

?I?m so much happier here than in the U.S.,? he said as he placed a cement block on top of the hand-mixed mortar used in the building. ?I?m not a big fan of our society. So many people have gotten caught up in ?society? in the U.S.; so many people want to show off their material possessions.?

After a hard day?s work, knowing that all that awaited them was restless sleep under mosquito netting on slabs of foam laid over wooden planks in accommodations without electricity, the teens still seemed energized. They scoffed at the suggestion that they were doing a mitzvah.

?This is just something I?m doing because I have a responsibility to do it,? Frankel said.

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