Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Freidson
When reflecting on my AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation to the Mayan village of Muchucuxcah in Yucatan, Mexico, I don't just think about the community of like-minded rabbinical leaders I've built or the knowledge and resources I've gained to be a leader in the Jewish social justice world. I also picture little José peering into the window of the house where I ate my meals, ready for our daily game of hide and seek. He was fast and sneaky, peeking inside and quickly jumping away. José was about five, and his mom helped cook our meals. He didn't seem to mind that I didn't speak Spanish or Mayan; some things can be communicated without words.
As I think about José, I picture his big brown eyes and his huge grin, missing a front tooth. We played everyday, and José would run to give me a hug when he saw me. Once, he showed me his prized possession—a little broken piece of red plastic with a small battery-operated light in it. When he pushed on this scrap of plastic, it lit up. Someone's discarded junk was his treasure, and he wanted to share it with me. What a privilege.
I think about José's future in Muchucuxcah, where schooling is mandatory, but spotty at best. When the teacher can't come in for the day, class is canceled. The government broadcasts lessons by satellite, but the school in Muchucuxcah lacks the proper equipment, so the kids there don't learn the material.
I wonder what José's future holds. Will he spend his life doing agricultural work, dependant on the rainfall for his livelihood? If there isn't agricultural work for José, perhaps he'll have to work in Cancun, doing manual labor in a dangerous part of town. There, he'll certainly be treated with disrespect because he's Mayan, living and working in dangerous conditions, and making almost no money. One man we met cried when telling us about his time working in Cancun. Is that what my young friend José will face in ten years?
I'd like to think that there's hope for him, because his family is part of the local NGO, Hombres Sobre La Tierra, which promotes sustainable development in his village and 20 others like it. It provides training in sustainable agriculture, beekeeping, animal husbandry and artisanal crafts. In Muchucuxcah, they are working on building an ecotourism industry. My group worked every day to help build the dirt road and path into and through the botanical garden, which features native plants, the only garden of its kind. Creating the garden is a way to bring money into the community, while promoting and preserving Mayan culture.
My experiences in Mexico will affect my rabbinate in numerous ways. The Torah teaches us to pursue justice and care for the disenfranchised. Working in Muchucuxcah has given me a picture of the injustice and poverty in the world. I hope our actions will help to bolster this community, and result in a brighter future for José and other children like him.
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