New Haven college student works the Mayan fields
By Cindy Mindell
The day starts in a typical rhythm: wake up at six, daven Shachrit minyan, eat breakfast, go to work. Except that this is in a village on the Yucatan peninsula, 3,000 miles from Yeshiva University, where the routine usually begins.
During the school’s most recent January intersession, 91 undergraduates found themselves in locations far from Manhattan, engaging in service-learning, experiential-education, and humanitarian-aid missions around the U.S. and in Israel, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The program is run by the university’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF).
Among those who boarded a plane to the Cozumel Airport in Mexico was sophomore and New Haven native Nechama Dreyfus, a 19-year old biochemistry and pre-med major who is a graduate of Hillel Academy in Fairfield. Together with 15 fellow students and four group leaders, Dreyfus spent a week in Muchucuxcah, a Mayan village on the Yucatan peninsula, exploring the relationship between social justice, service, and Judaism through hands-on community-building projects.
The group worked with Hombre Sobre La Tierra (“Humankind on Earth”), a local non-profit organization that works within the Mayan community to promote environmental sustainability, advance the integration of women in the economy, and strengthen the capacity of grassroots groups. Continuing the work of previous student visits, the group assisted on a variety of projects, including farming and harvesting in local private and public gardens, building pools for aquaculture development, and contributing to the community’s ecotourism project.
The CJF winter missions are run with support from and in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, Repair the World, and the American Jewish World Service.
“Following a strong, multi-faceted student-led Hurricane Sandy relief effort, our students are energized and excited to pick up where they left off, exercising their hearts and bodies as they work to empower individuals and transform communities,” says Aliza Abrams, assistant director of CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education, and the staffer who guided the recent massive relief effort in New York and New Jersey. “While pitching in to repair these corners of the world, our student leaders will undergo an expedited process of growth and self-discovery that will lay the foundations for their future social-justice engagement, including opportunities for public speaking, writing, advocacy, and volunteer service.”
Dreyfus decided to participate in the mission on the recommendation of her sister, who had gone on a CJF mission to Germany. “I knew I wanted something definitely way out of my comfort zone, a totally new experience,” Dreyfus says of the Mexico option. “I’ve never done agricultural work and the experience would help me see this way of life, as agriculture is a crucial and central part of the Mayans’ lifestyle.”
The group would wake up at six a.m. and conduct morning minyan, then work with the villagers in the fields. The Mayans have long employed “slash and burn,” a technique often used in subsistence agriculture that depletes soil nutrients. Following guidelines of the Hombre Sobre La Tierra organization, YU students planted trees with the villagers – a more sustainable agricultural alternative over time – and dispersed organic fertilizer.
After a lunch break, the students would have a different afternoon activity every day – visiting schools, playing soccer with the villagers, meeting the local healthcare worker and members of Hombre Sobre La Tierra. They ate dinner with village families and observed Shabbat.
“The organizations CJF works with build from the bottom up,” Dreyfus says. “We didn’t want to create a relationship of the ‘good Americans’ saving the day. Our work was to help implement sustainable farming techniques that will slowly build up their economy, instead of flooding the society with American money. I knew I wasn’t the savior coming in, but to actively disprove that was comforting: the villagers have as much to give to us as we bring to them.”
Dreyfus says that the most eye-opening experiences came in conversations with teachers and young students in village schools that extend through eighth grade. Children who want to go on to high school must leave the village, incurring great cost to their families. “We asked how many want to go and they all did, but out of a graduating class of nine, only 50 percent can afford the expense. The percentage of Mayans who go on to university is even lower. Even the question, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ is unfair and unrealistic for most of these children, because it’s not in their control and they have so few opportunities. It was a wakeup call for me that made me value my education. I am now putting more responsibility on myself to do something with it.”
Dreyfus is thinking a lot more about how she might use a future medical degree to get involved in public-health efforts and future travel to other underserved communities.
“I would definitely recommend the mission to fellow students,” she says. “It was a 100-percent active experience. You’re exposed to all these different realities and not in a passive way. Through our work and group discussions, I was constantly thinking, ‘Where is my responsibility in this and how do I act on that responsibility?’ The experience gave me awareness about how much we have and a new way of looking at issues of social justice.”
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