El Salvador visit proves eye-opening experience


During my week in El Salvador with the Takkana Social Justice Fellowship and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I was constantly plagued by the knowledge that my life was changing as every moment passed.

Through the generosity of individual donors, St. Louis Hillel sent eight Washington University students on a completely subsidized service trip to Central America.

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The eight Takkana Fellows and our three leaders worked side-by-side with the community of Buena Vista constructing the floor of a community center. The project benefited the local branch of CMNC-CONFRAS (Comit é Nacional De Mujeres Cooperativistas de CONFRAS), a women’s committee that is semi-autonomous from CONFRAS, a federation of Salvadorian farming cooperatives.

The 13 village women gained momentum several years ago to start their own cooperative store, and with help from AJWS, began construction on an outdoor center for community activities such as education.

The women have fought for their success against cultural stigmas, poor education and the everyday struggles of the rural poor.

Do ña Sonya, one of the dynamic leaders of the cooperative, only had a first grade education. Some of the women had less. Most of the women had three or more children to care for and several spoke of how difficult it was for them to convince their husbands to even let them leave the house. These women strive for a better life for their children, with greater access to education and the power to control their own land and economic destiny.

While the members of CONFRAS told us their dreams of better futures for their families, we spent much of the day laying cement. Joanna Stephanie, an 8-year-old who lived across the road, spent most of every day assisting us with our work. During our week with her, she refused to go to school the entire time.

One day, we convinced Joanna Stephanie to take us to her school. We climbed the long, steep, unpaved road to the school while Joanna invented detours and distractions to keep us from getting there. After several false stops, we arrived at a long low building set back from the road. Sad, skinny dogs curled up in the shade under laundry-laden trees. Joanna dragged me to her classroom where she shyly sulked as her teacher reprimanded her attendance. Her teacher then explained to me that Joanna simply did not want to go to school. After that experience, no matter how many times I told her and her mother that she should go to school, there was no way to convince them that it was essential that she return and continue her education. Arguing, forcing and even dragging Joanna back to school was not going to convince her that she should go. It was a decision she would have to make for herself.

As I worked alongside these women, I learned that tikkun olam did not mean that I was responsible for changing other’s lives through my actions, but rather it is my contribution of service that assists them in reaching their personal goals. Through their tremendous dedication and hard work they had decided to change their lives for the better by doing it themselves. I learned through this experience that I can offer myself in service to help others reach their goals, but could not create those goals for them.

In the few months since I’ve returned to the United States, I’ve committed myself to giving back in as many ways as I can. As a Jew, I feel that I have a responsibility to be a part of the process of world change in a respectful way. This experience has given me a glimpse of how to contribute and I look forward to a future where I can apply the lessons I learned during my week in El Salvador.

Liz Kramer graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in May 2008.