Using shovels, hoes and pickaxes, we dug ditches in the smoldering heat. We were somewhat out of our element, donned in work pants, gloves and wide-brimmed hats, on Don Israel’s farm in the small village of Ciudad Romero, El Salvador. With the sun approaching high noon, the heat made it hard work digging even a few feet of the ditch that would hold the piping for the irrigation system to be installed on the farm. Sydney Bennet — a first-year economics major at UCSB and “water-girl” for the day — called for everyone to take a break from working to hydrate. We layed down our tools and as we headed for our water bottles, the community leaders overseeing the irrigation project picked up the tools and continued work on the ditch. We watched them as they accomplished in a few minutes what had taken us an hour.

“I don’t get it,” Sheila Ganjian — a fourth-year biology major who has plans of going on to medical school next fall — said. “How are we helping? Why do they need us?”

They were pertinent questions, and ones volunteers on short-term service trips don’t always ask themselves. How does spending a week in a Third World country doing work that could be better done by the people of that country actually help? Wouldn’t the money spent traveling to that country be put to better use hiring native workers who desperately need the money or building infrastructure that the community desperately needs?

The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) attempts to answer these questions by transforming the short-term volunteer service trip into a learning experience. An organization inspired by Judaism’s commitment to social justice, AJWS strives to secure human rights and eradicate poverty around the world through grants, service trips, education and political advocacy. Alternative Spring Break trips are just one of the many service-learning travel opportunities offered by AJWS. Twelve students (including myself) recruited from UCSB and SBCC by Santa Barbara Hillel participated in an AJWS alternative Spring Break trip to El Salvador this past March.

We knew we were going to a small village in El Salvador to do some sort of manual labor, but I don’t think anyone was fully aware of the type of experience AJWS had in mind. During orientation meetings we prepared for the physical labor aspect of the trip as well as the cultural side. We participated in activities designed to stimulate our cultural awareness and encourage us to immerse ourselves in the culture of the village. “Embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable,” they told us.

Each day we were bused over to the farm and given tools to dig ditches for the irrigation pipes and holes for mango trees to be planted. It is rare to see a work project through to completion on an AJWS Spring Break trip, but we were fortunate enough to see the entire process of irrigating a farm.

From AJWS’s point of view, however, the crux of the trip lays not in the labor but in afternoon and nightly discussion sessions aimed at getting us to reflect on our experiences and explore the meaning of social justice. Using a curriculum filled with Jewish texts and commentaries on global responsibility as our guide, we questioned our notions about global inequality and what our obligation really is to those in the world who are less fortunate than us. We learned about what it means to be in poverty, its causes and ways that we can help improve the quality of living for those in it. Through group dialogues we gradually came to understand that coming to El Salvador just to dig a few holes wasn’t doing enough. Rather, we’d be doing a greater good by learning as much as we could about the village and what makes it tick — what the biggest concerns are for its people and how they can thrive.

As the week progressed, we began to develop a sense of the daily concerns of the village, not the least of which included U.S. policy toward Latin America. We were also fortunate enough to meet with Estela Hernandez, a woman from the Lempa River valley deeply involved in the work of La Coordinadora (a local organzation that oversaw our work), who was elected to the Salvadoran legislature a few weeks before our trip. When asked about her top political goals for her term in office, Estela responded that her top priority was to alert other nations — the U.S. in particular — to the issues affecting her people, and that she was grateful to have students from the U.S. come to learn about her community.

These experiences helped drive home the point that we were there not to simply visit and then leave, but to bring back with us what we had learned and continue to help by gathering support for a just U.S. Farm Bill that promotes food sustainability in foreign countries as opposed to food aid, a short-term fix that undercuts local farmers.

But not everyone was as grateful to have us there as Estela was. A sobering moment on the trip came when we visited a clinician’s office to learn about their health care system and kidney disease, which affects a disproportionate number of workers in Central America. We sat in the clinician’s office and asked her an assortment of questions about how health care works in the village. She gave long-winded explanations on topics such as who the clinic serves, how she became a doctor and what treatments she gives. When it came time for her to ask us questions, she only had one: “Why are you here?” Our group leaders’ answers about service and learning did not seem to satisfy her. She responded that it was puzzling to her how we could come for only a week and expect to have any impact, that we could do more by staying longer and teaching the local youth about hygiene and sexually transmitted diseases. As we continued to struggle to give her an answer she liked, her piercing gaze slowly diminished us and broke our hearts.

Perhaps the clinician was right. Perhaps short-term volunteer trips have no point and are used more as an opportunity for us to travel the world than as a means to help. We did not need to be in El Salvador in order to learn about poverty, social justice, global responsibility and farming. Yet, each one of us was changed by the experience we had in the village. We went home feeling connected to El Salvador and to the people with whom we had spent each of our days there. You cannot connect with a group of people or learn what makes a village breathe by reading a book. You need to go there, eat their food, sleep in their homes and wake up to the sound of their roosters. You need to experience their daily work in the fields, put your hands in their soil and feel the singe of their scorching sun.

Danny Sheinson is a third-year graduate student in statistics.

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