During my interview for the University of Maryland Hillel and JDC alternative break to Ethiopia, I was asked why I wanted to go on this trip. My freshman year I spent my spring break volunteering to help the hungry and homeless men and women in the Chicago area, and last year I lead the University of Maryland alternative spring break trip to Nicaragua alongside the American Jewish World Service where we built a water reservoir and spent the week getting to know the local community. So what now? I have had the deep conversations about social justice and why we go on these trips. I have had the moving pluralistic shabbos that helped me understand how my peers relate to their Judaism, even though it is so different from my own. So why Ethiopia? Why was this different?
My response was because I wanted to feel uncomfortable. My last two trips were truly amazing, and I did have many experiences that were difficult to see and comprehend. However I never had a strong feeling of discomfort. That moment where I just wanted to get out. How am i supposed to understand the struggles that others endure if I feel perfectly fine in the same environment? I wanted to feel how others felt. Understand what their lives were like. I thought that Ethiopia would be the perfect place for this experience and that is why I wanted to go.
After spending 8 day in Africa, I can tell you that I was able to accomplish my goal. Ethiopia is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen, and one of the most impoverished as well. We spent 4 days in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and a place filled with urban poverty, and 4 in Gondar, a spectacular mountainous city that epitomizes rural poverty.
Our days were jam packed. In Addis, we spent some time in a small room that acted as a clinic. The doctor and patient both stood during the visit, as there was not enough room to fit a chair or an examination table. We also went to visit the WISE center, an organization run by the JDC that provides Ethiopian women with the funding and education needed to run their own businesses. This was only one of the several micro finance projects run by the JDC that we had the opportunity to visit.
In Gondar, we donated school supplies, helped build a laboratory and a library, went into 3 different classes where we ran english programs, games, and learned about life in Ethiopia, and we worked at a clinic run by the JDC where we helped de-worm kids who hope to one day make Aliyah. We also had a chance to visit the village that Ethiopian Jews used to inhabit, including the shul where they use to daven.
Though there were many of them, when I think back on my discomfort throughout the trip 2 stand out in my mind. The first took place in Addis, only several hours after we landed. We went on a walk through the mercado - a massive market place that is reminiscent of the shuk in Israel, but about 5 times the size and with much narrower alley ways. As the 25 of us walked through the largest market in Africa, we were stared at by almost all of the locals. While I understand that we were an unusual sight for those who usually inhabit the mercado, it made me feel like an outsider, like someone on display. They would yell things at us and when we would respond with a hello or a smile, as none of us spoke Amharic, they would laugh in return. We were called "firenge", which means "white person". Though it is not meant to be derogatory, no one has ever referred to me by my skin color, until then. I spent 30 minutes trying not to slip, get lost, or have anything stolen all while feeling like I was in an exhibit, a feeling that I had never had before.
The second took place in Gondar. Everywhere you look there are children. Sometimes we saw them because they came to our worksite. We would start off the morning with 20 kids, and end with 70. Other times we would see them every 40 or so feet on the side of the road. Children ages 3 - 8, with no adult. Children standing outside in the heat, without shade or water. Boys without pants or underwear, and girls with torn dresses and broken shoes. And almost every single one of them asked us for money. It was as if that was the only English word they knew. And for some, it might have been. What do you do? If you give to one you must give to all. But how could I not give? Think about how far $5 can go when the exchange rate is 18 burr per dollar, and a liter of water is only 9. But will handing several children money really solve anything? Or will it cause problems amongst friends and family members, who believe that they deserve the money more. For every 5 kids that I give to, there will be at least 20 more asking for the same courtesy. Alternatively, what will those $5 actually accomplish? That bill is temporary relief. It doesn't teach the value of work, but rather that if you ask enough times you will have dinner that night. It is far more effective to act in a way that will support the country's overall economy or education system, a sustainable investment. Give them the tools to take care of themselves, instead of allowing them to be entirely dependent on American tourists. But the child in front of me still doesn't have dinner. What do I do?
One conversation that takes place on every alternative break asks the question "what's next?" How can we take this experience, and put it into effect when we return back to our comfortable and privileged lives in America? How do we continue to help others, and tell the stories that we were told? What do I do with these feelings of discomfort?
I'm honestly not entirely sure. It is different for each person, and changes at every stage of ones life. What I can tell you comes from one of the texts that we learned on the trip. After discussing quotes from vayikra, the Talmud bavli, and d'varim, we ended our conversation with final words from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, "we have a duty," he says, "not just to ourselves, our families, and our friends, but also the ever widening concentric circles - community, society, humanity - of which we are a part. We are responsible for what we could do, but did not, to alleviate the human condition. To be sure, these responsibilities are not open ended: we can't do it all. We have limited time, energy, and resources...but what applies to community applies to society, and ultimately the world: we are worth what we are willing to share. Each of us has a contribution to make."
Not only because we are human, but because we are Jews, do we have an obligation to help those less fortunate. Even the poorest is required to give. But what to give? What you can give is different from what I can give which is different from someone else can give. And that's the point. Yes, donating money is great. And so is giving of your time. But those aren't the only ways to help. Give with what you have - are you an artist? A singer? Do you have a story to tell? While in Ethiopia we spent a lot of time with Dr. Rick Hodes - a Jewish American who immigrated to Ethiopia over 20 years ago in order to help those who need medical help. I personally can give by sharing what I saw, and I hope to also raise money to help build a well or to sponsor a child so that he or she can go to school. I hope that i was also able to give through my actions, through everything that we did while in Ethiopia. By showing them that we care. Everyone can give something. And it is through that giving that we can improve the world.
My discomfort has helped me think. It has inspired me. And I hope that it has inspired you as well. Because it is only through caring for one another, including the stranger, that we can really repair the world.
Lexie Kahn is a Junior Supply Chain Management and Communications double major from New York, New York. Last year, Lexie was an Alternative Break Fellow, leading a program along with AJWS to Nicaragua. This year, Lexie is a Tzedek Fellow who is working to strengthen Challah for Hunger and encourage all Hillel student groups to give their time to others. In addition, she is on the Jewish Leadership Council and involved in Israel programming on campus. This past summer she was an intern at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation through the CLIP program. She loves to eat, dance and hang out with friends. Lexie’s experience was supported in part by Repair the World, Maryland Hillel and the JDC.
This post originally appeared on the Maryland Hillel blog.