By Marisa Kalafer and Sophie Riegel, Mitzvah Corps Ecuador 2017 Participants
We entered this experience with uncertainty of how the indigenous community of Chilcapamba, Ecuador would react to our Jewish practices. The community here differs drastically from ours: almost completely Christian, with a deep history of indigenous ritual, including herbal and medicinal practices. Despite our initial differences, the community here has expressed a great understanding and respect for our practices, including Shabbat, Havdallah, Motzi, and evening sh’ma.
To further define our reasons for being here in Ecuador, particularly from a Jewish perspective, we participated in an evening program where we analyzed six quotations from Jewish texts. Since that evening, the purpose of our trip has intensified, supporting us in our volunteer work.
Before this activity, we knew the beauty and lushness of Ecuador, along with its need for support, but we were unaware of the impact that connecting that need to Jewish texts would have on our group. The first text we looked at, coming from the Midrash, said, “…when G-d created the earth and the first humans, G-d led them around the garden of Eden and said, ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are…For your sake I created them all. See that you do not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it’” (Eclesiates Rabbah 7:13). This passage emphasizes the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world. While working to do so by moving irrigation water and dirt, with the incredible views of the mountains and town below, we were reminded of the beauty in the world. In addition to our group, several members of the community participated in the project alongside us. This says a lot about the pride they have in their homes and natural surroundings. In this way, the Jewish practice of tikkun olam and the indigenous respect of Mother Earth, the pacha mama, coincide.
Another meaningful moment from our look at Jewish texts was related to respect and equality amongst humans. The text read, “When a person is walking on the road, he is accompanied by angels going before him. They proclaim, ‘Make way for the image of the holy one!’” (Tehilim [Psalms] Rabbah 17:7). This texts shows the equality and value of all humans in G-d’s eyes, meaning that we should treat each other as such. This idea has brought a spiritual and universal meaning to the similarities of all humans, such as a wish to be happy, safe, and healthy. While the indigenous community here in Chicalpamba has been extremely accepting and generous by being open to our Jewish practices and partnership in work, we have also spoken Spanish, learned Quechua, played Ecuadorian games with local children, and tried new foods. This mutual understanding, curiosity, and respect for each other’s culture has shown us the importance of and power in accepting others as equals.
In all, connecting our experiences to Jewish practices has made our time in Chilcapamba an even more gratifying and meaningful experience.