Alumni Spotlight: Ita Paskind

 
Ita Paskind

Forever a kibbutz laborer at heart, I wanted to participate in creating something new, in aiding a community as it pushed itself to flourish. But after spending a week in the small village of Muchucuxcah, about a three-hour drive south from Cancun, I found that the giving was reciprocal and not one-way.

To Build and Be Built By It

The service aspect of the AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegation was what drew me to the trip. Forever a kibbutz laborer at heart, I wanted to participate in creating something new, in aiding a community as it pushed itself to flourish. But after spending a week in the small village of Muchucuxcah, about a three-hour drive south from Cancun, I found that the giving was reciprocal and not one-way. I borrow the old Zionist motto to describe what transpired: אנו באנו ארצה לבנות ולהבנות בה, I came to [Mexico] to build and to be built by it. Though I, along with the members of my cohort, did in fact repair and construct a dirt path that leads from the entrance to the visitors' campus into the community's botanical garden, I recognize now that I am much more transformed than the road.

My ten-day sojourn in Muchucuxcah reveled for me the stark reality lived by the majority of the world's citizens who struggle to survive on $1-2 per day. Now, the situation of the Maya in Muchucuxcah is not as desperate as that of many of AJWS's other grantees. Men and women work together in the fields to grow corn and beans for their families and for sale in the market, and each earns about $5 each day. This system works well as long as the rain falls regularly, but still, many families require more to survive. The village is pervaded by a deep anxiety that family members will have to leave to find work and may never return. Many cross the border to the United States, sending money home as often as they can.

Those people who leave Muchucuxcah—usually teenage boys or young men—most often travel three hours north to Cancun to find work in hotels and resorts. The working conditions that they find there are terrible, as are the wages. Even worse, the living conditions surrounding the resorts frighten the families in Muchucuxcah. Poverty and violence rage beyond the beauty of the beach, and HIV—a disease not yet found in Muchucuxcah itself—spreads freely. My RSD group heard a young man, Isaias, talk of the years he worked in Cancun in order to support his wife and three young children. He was brought to tears as he recalled the place he lived and the pain he experienced when he couldn't be with his family.

Contrasting my own experience with the stories I heard in Muchucuxcah was a wake-up call for me, a young adult from the Northeast. Eating in a Mexican home furnished with hammocks, a television, and a few hats and toys hanging on the wall evoked images of my own childhood bedroom of about the same size. Now I try to buy less, use less, waste less, all in an effort to synchronize my material possessions with what the earth has allotted me and not take from others what the earth has allotted them. At the very least, my practice helps to keep me aware of my privileged status in the world community and the great amount of work that remains to be done.

I came to Mexico to build and to be built by it. As a Jew, my passions have long been reserved for Israel—the people and the land. These passions were transformed—more accurately, put into perspective—during my time in Muchucuxcah. Much of our group time focused on AJWS's core curriculum, one unit of which is entitled "Expanding Our Universe of Obligation." Our facilitators skillfully juxtaposed rabbinic and modern texts about the people to whom we are obligated to aid, and the message was clear: While Jewish tradition does privilege the support of Jewish people, both physically and financially, there is a strong and definite imperative to offer aid to all people, beginning with those in closest proximity.

As I engaged with this message, I realized that the Maya in Muchucuxcah, as well as the hungry and homeless in Manhattan, needed to be bumped up on my list of priorities. The conclusion of our trip coincided very nicely with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and President Obama's call to service, and I began to apply my newfound passion for volunteering in New York. It's not that I've stopped caring for Israel; I haven't. I've just had my Jewish eyes opened to my brothers and sisters around the corner who need my support.

My training for the rabbinate consists of different types of study, one of which is learning to communicate essential messages and to inspire from within the Jewish tradition. Along with my colleagues from other seminaries, I learned a great deal about a community's struggle for economic and social freedom. Our rabbinical reaction is to transform the lessons from Muchucuxcah into Torah for friends, family and community. We began to create meaningful messages while we were together in Mexico and we will all continue to do so when we return, through speaking engagements and follow-up projects. I found that these continued-service obligations helped me to formulate my thoughts, feelings and opinions about what I had seen and learned in Mexico. I co-authored a middle-school curriculum about ethical consumption, spoke in a synagogue on Shabbat and raised money by helping others contribute to AJWS's hunger campaign.

My ten days in Muchucuxcah have tweaked the trajectory of my rabbinical training. I've gained 18 partners in tackling social justice issues from the rabbinate and have internalized a global message that I feel is imperative to communicate to others.

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