Far from the Guatemalan Rooftop
Editor’s Note: Due to Hamas’s unprovoked terrorist attack on Israel, this article, along with many other Commentator articles, was delayed in favor of prioritizing Israel coverage.
This summer, I joined a group of 30 YU students heading to Guatemala and El Salvador organized by Rabbi Daniel Coleman, then-assistant director of career advising at the Shevet Glaubach Center for Career Strategy and Professional Development. We went to visit the people there, Jews and non-Jews, with the aim of providing some measure of aid and goodwill.
Early on in the trip, I found myself in a small tin-roofed house, bending low and close to an elderly man sitting near a dirt floor. We were in a village in Guatemala, a few students huddled together beneath the scarred ceiling of a makeshift shelter. In a quiet and unassuming voice, barely audible over the harsh rain outside, the old man spoke about his life. He told us how he had raised children in this place, struggled and survived for them, and learned, through his struggle, deep and lasting faith.
As I stood there, captivated by what the man had to say, I suddenly became self-conscious. I had ostensibly come on this trip to give, but what could I possibly give this man in the few minutes we had together? He had lived a long and varied life. His words carried a wisdom that I, in my youth, couldn’t hope to return. I started to feel then that whatever I could offer, the people we would meet would give me much more. Throughout the trip, in ways big and small, this proved to be true. Through their perseverance, commitment, friendship and love, the people of El Salvador and Guatemala showed me the best of humanity.
During the first week we visited a school called Safe Passage, intended for underprivileged children in Guatemala City. The school, founded by one woman in 1999, originally served 46 children. Incredibly, the school now provides over 500 children and 100 parents with education and social services.
When I first entered the school, I felt completely foreign. So much separated me from the school kids. We didn't share a language, history, or cultural identity. But as soon as we began interacting, everything changed. Somehow, with a fist bump or balloon animal, there was no gap anymore, no language barrier separating us. What had stood between us now brought us together; our differences encouraged curiosity and exchange.
As the trip went on, I found this feeling of kinship and community wherever we went. A STEM fair at a public school in El Salvador became a meeting of cultures, at various points fading into demonstrations of traditional and popular music and dance. A soccer match put us in contest with and introduced us to the Jewish community of El Salvador, who embraced us as brothers and sisters. At Cassa Jackson, a recovery center for malnourished children, Baby Shark, of all things, broke through the linguistic divide. Even strangers we met on the street or in some remote village greeted us with warmth and friendship.
As a Jew, I found it especially meaningful to experience Jewish life in El Salvador and Guatemala. In many ways, these visits were among the most surprising of the trip for me. Having spent much of my life in a so-called bubble, I had little idea of just how vibrant and impressive these communities are. While each community exhibited a unique character, they all displayed a strong communal bond and a deep and active connection to their Judaism. Some of the most inspiring community members were those who had converted to Judaism, many of whom had to leave their homes and families in order to pursue their faith.
Before leaving Guatemala, our group visited the town of Antigua. For nearly 200 years, the city served as the seat of Spanish power in Central America (and conveniently enough for us, currently has a Chabad). Partly due to its historical significance, the city contains much distinctive architecture, with towering cathedrals and low bell towers punctuating the landscape. At nightfall, a few of us went up on a rooftop overlooking the town. From up there, the city was a scattering of street lights. Above us, the silhouettes of three volcanoes could be seen, their figures dark and almost hidden in the night.
An American doctor visiting the region accompanied us onto that roof. She told me that she now comes often to Guatemala, after an inspiring trip nearly two decades prior. She told me that after this trip, my life would never be the same.
Photo Caption: The author teaching a child how to play guitar
Photo Credit: Shlomotzion Rubin