Posted on March 18th, 2013 No comments
Last month, I had the opportunity to lead the 11th-12th graders of my synagogue on a mission to Panama. We had been learning about various Jewish communities across the globe all year as part of our post-confirmation class, and this would be our chance to experience Jewish life abroad firsthand. The trip was designed to combine elements of Jewish learning with a few more “traditional” tourist experiences. It was quite an endeavor to coordinate such a trip, but all the effort was well worth it. This was a “once in a lifetime” kind of experience that enriched the lives of all who participated.
After a red-eye flight to Panama from San Francisco (with a brief six hour layover in Las Vegas, where my students swear they saw Ryan Seacrest…), we were picked up at the airport and driven to our first destination – Congregation Kol Shearith Yisrael. We spent a beautiful and inspiring Shabbat with this vibrant liberal Jewish community in Panama City. The congregation welcomed us with open arms, not to mention fed us very well! Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik and Ernesto Motta were kind enough to give us an overview of the history of the synagogue and Jewish life in Panama as we sat down to a delicious traditional Panamanian Shabbat dinner – rice and beans, sautéed beef, salads, and, let’s not forget some of the best tasting challah we ever had.
The services were so meaningful, even though not one word of English was spoken. The service was held in Hebrew and Spanish, but we were all able to follow along, particularly because the melodies were all familiar to us. More than anything else, the Shabbat services at Kol Shearith Yisrael truly underscored the concept of amcha, of Jewish peoplehood, for my students; that wherever you go across the globe, you can find a synagogue and feel at home.
Over the next couple of days, we took in a couple of the popular tourist attractions of Panama, including taking an educational cruise on the Panama Canal, visiting the Embera, a local indigenous Indian village, and strolling through Casco Antiguo, one of Panama’s oldest cities. Each sight was more breathtaking than the next. But the last day of the trip would prove to be the highlight of the entire experience.
An essential part of this voyage was an opportunity to engage in the sacred work of tikkun olam. After searching for just the right project, we made arrangements with a local orphanage to come and paint their fence and make a donation to the children. Now, when we agreed to this, I had imagined a plain, worn, wooden picket fence. However, when we scouted out the location, we found a much bigger challenge in front of us – a huge metallic enclosure with hundreds of thin bars, some of which were rusty! But we buckled down, bought all the necessary materials, and spent the entire day hard at work, sweating it out in 95 degree heat and humidity until we had succeeded in painting the fence a vibrant lime-green. As we were working, the toddlers of the orphanage were waving and calling to us from the windows, shouting encouragement in Spanish, driving us to work even harder. It was immensely gratifying to see the transformation of the façade of the orphanage.
The service project also provided one of my favorite moments of the trip. As they painted the fence, the teens starting singing in order to pass the time. In the beginning, they chose to sing different pop songs from artists you would expect – Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and more. But as they were painting, all of a sudden, a different melody rang out and my face broke into a wide grin. Here in Panama, painting a fence, my teens were singing Mi Chamocha. Oseh Shalom followed, then Shalom Rav, and Veshamru. Something about this work resonated with them as young Jewish leaders. In their hearts, they knew they were performing an intrinsically Jewish task – creating, quite literally, a brighter world for the underprivileged children of Panama. They weren’t only doing a nice thing. They were doing the Jewish thing!
By any measure, this trip was a fantastic Jewish experience, one that our teens will never forget. I encourage every synagogue to explore a mission to a community outside of the United States. In particular, there are congregations in Latin American and the Caribbean that long for a greater feeling of connectivity and relationship to synagogues in the U.S. But believe me, the benefits for our teens are much greater. During a standard vacation, we bring back souvenirs, little trinkets to remind us of our voyage. But during a journey like this, our teens bring back something much more valuable – a stronger understanding of the concept of Jewish peoplehood, the satisfaction of having a lasting impact on a community, and, perhaps most importantly, a greater sense of their own Jewish identity.
Rabbi Joshua Lobel is the associate rabbi at Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.