Don Israel speaks no English, and I speak almost no Spanish. But I understood him well enough to realize that, as I began to plant one of the mango trees that would be placed in his field that day, he obviously thought I was doing it wrong. Our mutual patience eventually conquered our communication barrier, though, and with time, I learned and understood. We went on to plant about a dozen mango trees together that morning.
Don Israel’s small parcel of land is in a rural village in the Lempa River region of El Salvador. I was there as part of a delegation sent by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), consisting of 16 extraordinary young people training to be rabbis, educators or leaders of Jewish nonprofits. (I was honored to be the scholar-in-residence for the group.) For 10 days, we labored alongside our hosts, planting trees, digging irrigation ditches and building latrines. But it became obvious fairly early on that our primary mission there was not to work (we were, after all, a fairly inexperienced work bunch), but rather to learn and to understand, as human beings and as Jews. Patience turned out to be our most important asset, as the story of the Lempa River region took time to comprehend. And though there is still much more to know, I left with at least the outline of a story of war and peace, of exile and return, of anxiety and hope, and of human courage and nobility. It is a story that has enriched my religious life and has expanded my sense of religious duty.
The story begins with an event that I had been embarrassingly ignorant about, the vicious civil war that wracked El Salvador through the 1980s. And although I had done some reading about it in anticipation of this trip, the event was still remote and emotionally inaccessible. But this changed suddenly and dramatically on our very first afternoon, as we gathered beneath the thatched-roof courtyard just outside Chungo Fuentes’ home. Fuentes is the bearer of the story, the embodiment of the memory.
Fuentes’ part of the story is rooted in the political dissent that had been growing throughout the 1970s among El Salvador’s lower economic classes. The dissent was fueled by bitter resentment against the military-backed government under whose rule the great majority of the country’s land was owned by fewer than 20 wealthy families, leaving much of the population struggling for sustenance. The Catholic Church became a major organizer of the political protest movement, whose voice was thwarted through the government’s rigging of elections, and the military’s tactics of physical intimidation and violence. The 1980 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a highly influential figure in the protest movement, helped to spark an all-out civil war between leftist guerilla groups and the Salvadoran military. Many rural villages whose civilian residents were sympathetic to the guerillas came under attack at the hands of military death squads, who killed indiscriminately, and who, in December 1981, carried out a horrific massacre of civilians at the village of El Mozote. (“Report of the U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador” is an excellent source of further information.)
As this was unfolding, Fuentes led a group of nearly 1,000 villagers across the border into Honduras, and from there to the mountains of Panama, where they were granted political asylum. As he recounts the story for us, Fuentes speaks of the faith they all had that this exile would be temporary, and that they would return to their homeland one day. That day came 10 years later, in 1992, when the two sides signed a peace accord in which the government, among other things, agreed to distribute land to the common people, including Fuentes and his fellow refugees.
It is worth noting that all of us in the group reflexively drew parallels between the story we were hearing and our own national story. It was only the following week that we realized that we were far from the first to make the connection. The massive mural in town depicting the story dedicates one panel to the oppression at the hand of the government. It prominently features an image of the Egyptian pyramids.
As dramatic as it was, though, it was not primarily a story of war that we had come to El Salvador to learn and understand, rather a story of how people recover from war. It took time and required patience for the details of this story to come together, but when it did, what we learned is that recovery only happens when people on the ground are able to summon up the very best of what makes us human, and when people from the outside bring their core moral and religious convictions to bear on the situation of strangers.
The peace accords were far from a panacea. Yes, men and women now came to the Lempa River region to claim their new parcels of land. But as many of these men and women had been on opposite sides of the fighting, distrust and the potential for further violence came with them. In addition to which, no one had money to invest in farming, and nobody was trained in modern agricultural methods. The area lacked even the most basic infrastructure — to this day, in fact, most of the roads are unpaved, streetlights are few, there are no sanitation or postal services, and the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away — and on top of all of that, the new landowners were living, without any evacuation plan, right next to a river that regularly overflowed its banks. I can still see Fuentes holding his palm to his waist when he described the devastating floods of this past October.
That people aren’t fighting and aren’t starving in the Lempa River region today is due to a small group of residents who convened right after the war, pledging to create a peace zone in which grievances could be aired, but also that a commitment to putting aside past differences in the name of community-building would prevail. They pledged to go from village to village to hear what people most needed and also to enlist them in a voluntary cooperative through which they would become trained in sustainable methods of farming and environmental protection. They also would agree to work collectively to market their agricultural output, thus maximizing profit for all. They drew up an evacuation plan for the next flood (last October they succeeded in evacuating 7,000 people, losing not one soul to the disaster). A parallel women’s group created an NGO that provided micro-loans for war widows, enabling them to purchase livestock. (Today it provides all kinds of economic and social services to the women of the region.) People, scarred by years of poverty and war, with every reason to be untrusting and suspicious of one another, instead formed a democratic, self-governing organization to forge a better life for everyone. Two of the organization’s directors today serve in El Salvador’s parliament.
But this is only one half of the story.
The other part is that none of this could have unfolded without outside help. There was plenty of evidence on the ground of the impact of USAID, most dramatically in the person of our local guide, Chema Argueta, who was plucked as a high school senior from a poor fishing village on the Jiquilisco Bay, trained for two years in Portland, Ore., in the management of natural resources, and returned to his community where he today humbly leads the effort to preserve the bay’s mangrove ecosystem, thus securing the future for the bay’s fisherman and their families. And then there was the ubiquitous presence of the AJWS, which has been making grants for community organizations in the Lempa River region for decades. One group after another gratefully acknowledged AJWS’ impact. It’s difficult to describe, by the way, the sense of pride we felt each time AJWS was mentioned by people who otherwise would never have had any contact with Jews, but who now know us as a compassionate, smart and forward-looking humanitarian partner.
And this is the other half of the story we had come to learn: that visionary outsiders empower visionaries on the ground. It can’t happen any other way.
Torah study was woven through our 10 days in the country. Within our group we learned and analyzed texts concerning the halachic responsibility to respond to human beings in crisis, the imperative to extend justice to the disadvantaged, the command to preserve the dignity of those who are receiving aid, and the very complex question as to where tzedakah directed toward the wider human community fits within our tzedakah obligation toward our fellow Jews. As leaders and future leaders of Jewish institutions, we all intuitively understood how important this latter question is.
The story of the Lempa River region is far from over. Next year, hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. economic development aid will flow into El Salvador through the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). Local leaders are worried, though, that the MCC’s requirement that the recipient government invest the funds in a manner that will attract international private sector investment (not a bad plan in and of itself) might undermine their work by creating incentives and pressures on farmers to grow crops that will bring short-term profits but long-term soil depletion, or to sell their parcels to larger land owners, which will ultimately land them back where they were before the war. Good news might be bad news. Everything is complicated.
And of course, as the autumn approaches, everyone there will be keeping a wary eye on the water level in the Lempa.
On the plane ride home, I thought a lot about Don Israel, Chungo Fuentes, Chema Argueta, and the many other men and women we met. I thought about the nobility of their common struggle, the fragility of their gains and the vulnerability of their livelihoods. And about the wise teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, who taught that while it is not ours to complete the task, we are not free to desist from it either.
For more information about American Jewish World Service, visit ajws.org.
Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.