By Josh Kahn
I started the day by shining a flashlight into my hiking boots to check for scorpions. It was dawn in Questa Del Neo, Honduras. I was one of a pioneering group of 14 Jewish high school students sent by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) to help construct a potable water system in a village devastated by Hurricane Mitch.
For six weeks in July we woke at dawn to the sound of the roosters who, contrary to popular belief, had been up for hours before us and whose chorus accompanied us throughout the day. At the moment my clock struck 5:10, I hopped out of bed to have time to daven. Walking up the mountain to meet our group were our working partners from the village, shovels and pickaxes on their shoulders, calling out to me as I prayed in my tallit and tefillin, "Adiós, Josué!"
When we first arrived in our village we tried to cram four people into a five-by-six-foot room. After one night of sleeping almost on top of each other, my roommates and I were invited into another house. Once we got there we realized that a seven-person family had moved out of their bedrooms to accommodate us. This type of hospitality is something I have rarely seen among friends, but all the people in my Honduran host family were appreciative and welcoming even before they knew us or how we would help.
Over the course of our stay, our group dug roughly two kilometers of trenches, connected PVC pipes through the entire length and then covered the pipes with dirt. We also dug a very large hole in the ground for a water tank. While we worked, we discussed our favorite reality shows and our ways of connecting to religion—sometimes in the same conversation.
I had known before I left New York City that I would be in the minority, since I keep kosher and observe Shabbat. This meant that I would have to be responsible for maintaining the religious standards that I have chosen for myself. I learned how to build an eruv using some folding wooden poles and dental floss, and I looked up the times that Shabbat would begin each week. I also packed enough matzah, grape juice, cans of tuna, and candles for every weekend when we were away from our town. I did not have any extra room for snack food, but luckily I had Murray oatmeal cookies and chocolate chip cookies, one of very few kosher foods I was able to find in Honduras.
Fortunately, I was able to eat heartily enough during the week— thanks, in no small part to Doña Erlinda, a Honduran woman who worked with our group in the kitchen to ensure food safety. She had worked with many Jewish groups in the past and knew how to avoid the very few kashrut issues that arise when people are eating only rice, beans, potatoes and vegetables.
For the first four weeks of our summer, our constant talk fueled conflicts that were brewing among the very different people in our group. We argued about politics, about Judaism and also about more superficial issues like cliques. These divisions were the main topic during most of our group discussions and games that were meant to bring us closer. I was sure that the tensions would never be resolved. And I was thrilled to be wrong.
On our second-to-last Friday in Honduras, we drove up to a village on the Caribbean coast for Shabbat. Something about the mix of the gorgeous setting and laid-back atmosphere made this the perfect location for reconciliation. By the time our last group-building activity of the weekend was finished early Sunday morning, we had been transformed into a family.
The sense of complete unity that had developed both within our group and between us and the members of our Honduran family made saying goodbye two weeks later one of the most emotionally trying experiences of my life.
No one would have dared to utter it, but there was a clear understanding that we would never see these incredible Honduran people again. I am not a person who is prone to large displays of emotion, but as I looked into the shimmering eyes of my host mother while she tried to stifle her tears long enough to say "Adiós, Josué" for the last time, I felt a wrenching jolt.
I came into the group very nervous about whether I would be accepted, shunned or judged by the others. By the end, they were all not only accepting me, but were watching out for me. Every now and then I would hear one of them say: "Wait, before we do this, Josh, is it okay for you?"
By joining this group, I gained a greater appreciation for how other kinds of Jews practice and feel a connection to Judaism. Not only did we live Jewish values through our work in Honduras, but now some of my fiercest debating partners are my closest friends.
Josh is a senior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan.
Reprinted with permission from the "Fresh Ink" section of The Jewish Week