Traveling with American Jewish World Service

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Our work on the “labor lines,” as the palm-lined neighborhoods of plantation-provided row houses are called, begins at four in the afternoon, when the tea workers come home from the fields and factory. My wife, Tay, our two Indian translators, and I are usually invited into someone’s home (for a hot cup of tea, of course) before spending the next three hours walking from house to house, interviewing families about their diets, health, recent deaths, and what (if any) relief services they are receiving from the government. As the most disenfranchised of the country’s entire organized labor force, tea workers have suffered more than anybody else in the current industry crisis.

It is October now and our fieldwork is nearly complete. But we still have to write our report, a nutritional survey that our host organization, Jana Sanghati Kendra (Sanskrit for “People’s Integration Center), will use after we’ve gone, hopefully to bring some relief to the labor lines, where all is not well. The final, rainy-day stages of our three-month assignment in this far-flung corner of the subcontinent coincide with other events of closure and change, including the damp and moldy finale of the monsoon, preparations for the most famed and raucous puja celebrations in India (so say our neighbors), and, from afar, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

I recall my childhood religious education as more of an academic than spiritual tutelage. I lost interest in Junior High, right around the same time that my social studies teacher took me to a soup kitchen in Wyandanch where, in the basement of a Church, we doled out stew to a shuffling line of Long Island’s homeless. I remained active in various forms of community service through college and beyond. I was told it was a “good” thing to do, the “right” thing to do, sometimes that is was a “Christian” thing to do. It wasn’t until I was 29, accompanying a group of ditch-digging college kids to Honduras, that I was told, for the first time, that helping others (no matter their religion or nationality) was a “Jewish thing to do.”

There, on a coffee-carpeted ridge-top, I was astounded by the commitment of my students, some of whom were making the same discovery as I, some of whom had already developed the link between whatever form of Judaism they practiced and their dedication to service. They covered the full range of religious observance and opinion while remaining completely united in their openness to the experience, their ability to adapt to the conditions, and their eagerness to learn as much as they could—from me, from each other, and from our Honduran hosts.

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But it was the second leg that opened my eyes. After our time in Honduras, the trip continued with a one-month service-learning expedition in Israel. This was my first visit to the homeland and it was, predictably, filled with the kind of personalized, epiphany-laced discoveries typical of that powerful place. And yet it is the New York–based organization that sent me there, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), and not the State of Israel, that has stayed with me.

That summer trip was the first of AJWS’s various volunteer programs of which I have been a part over the last four years, always as a group leader—until now, in India’s tea gardens, where I am a participant in their Volunteer Corps.

My experience that first summer—and all my subsequent trip-leading stints throughout Central America and South Asia—have not made me a more religious person, not in any obvious or traditional sense. But these journeys (for they have all involved deep and engaged levels of travel) added a fresh element of Judaism to my evolving spiritual identity, one that was allowed—even encouraged—to be defined, or at least guided by, human rights and social justice work. I had not been taught this fundamental connection in Hebrew school, but there it was, 20 years later: “Tikkun Olam,” the Hebrew commandment to heal the world.

“Buddha teaches that from the day you are born there is suffering in the world,” Ola Banthu, our Tibetan restaurant-wallah, said last weekend as he stood over our table of momo dumplings and thukpa noodle stew. We were in Kalimpong, a cool enclave on the old Indo-Tibetan trade route, taking a break from our work in the tea gardens and from the sticky monsoon heat. Ola continued, “There is no denying that there is suffering in the world. So Buddhism is simple. It is to be aware of suffering and try to overcome it.”

Ola’s serendipitous reference to the idea of tikkun olam, reminded me of Jose “Chencho” Alas’ words six months earlier in El Salvador, on the first night of an AJWS Alternative Breaks trip I was leading. Chencho is a 70-year-old ex-Catholic priest with a brilliant halo of white hair and smiling eyes. We were sitting in a circle under the stars; I believe my students were from both Yale and UCLA. Chencho said, “Your presence, your solidarity, your understanding of the importance of interchange between people—that is beautiful. Yes. That is something I will call a blessing from God.” Later in the week, standing in the chapel were Chencho’s friend, Archbishop Oscar Romero was slain for helping the poor, he told us that the universal wisdom of the Jews was defined by our ability “to think of the other.”

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There it was again: to heal the world.

AJWS is, however, far more than its volunteer programs. That the organization has been able to send a few hundred youths and professionals into the Developing World, in the hopes of producing a fresh and compassionate crop of leaders from the Jewish community is gravy—a bonus matzo ball, if you will. AJWS also supports innumerable grassroots projects around the world (such as our current host organization), and is spearheading a superb anti-genocide action and awareness campaign in Darfur, which I urge you to investigate.

As for Tay and I, we have a report to finish before so many puja party invitations from our Bengali friends combine with the wild racket of the coming carnival to make work impossible. After that, we’ll travel on our own for a short time before reporting for duty at our next AJWS assignment—in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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To our fellow AJWS volunteers in the field; to the staff back in NYC that has made this trip possible; to our Indian counterparts; and to you, I wish a Happy New Year, Shubho Durga Puja, and a peaceful winter season.

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