Living on YU’s doorstep, we are fortunate to host many international students at our home for Shabbos and Yom Tov. These students sometimes feel like “strangers in a strange land” living a long way from home, just like I did when I was an international student at YU 20-plus years ago. Our family enjoys the frequent opportunities to learn about Jewish life around the globe. When the students shared that flights to many parts of Latin America are frequently found for under $200, flying time is barely four hours, and weather almost guaranteed to be in the 80s, not to mention accommodations that’s a fraction of the price of domestic destinations, I was sold. And that’s how I found myself during Yeshiva Week as the stranger this time on a father-son trip to El Salvador. My seven-year-old and I visited the small Jewish community and explored the beautiful country, climbing volcanoes, spelunking, ziplining, and rappelling along the way.
We grow up in great privilege in the U.S., with a wealth of religious and educational resources and healthcare infrastructure. Not so in a country like El Salvador, where over-the-counter medications can be hard to get (and very expensive), and opportunities for a college education – let alone a Yeshiva University style education – are extremely limited. I am deeply grateful to Jewish Press readers, friends, my dentist Michael Khan and Teaneck’s Parkview pharmacy, who enabled us to bring 200 pounds of basic medical and dental supplies in addition to mezuzahs to El Salvador. We also brought several refurbished Chromebooks, which were particularly needed as, with no rabbis in the country, the primary way the community learns Torah (and other subjects) is online via electronic devices.
A trip highlight was being able to share Torah and meals with the small Sephardi community in the capital city of San Salvador over Shabbos. Descended from the Jews of Spain who fled from the Inquisition, it’s incredible how they have survived against all odds. A community member drives most months to Guatemala – a 10-hour round trip – to buy meat, wine and grape juice for everyone. (They don’t have to go far for guavas or avocados, though, as these grow in the shul’s yard.) Given that no one lives within walking distance of the shul, everyone stays on bunk beds in dorm-like rooms at the shul each Shabbos.
Even more fascinating was our trip to their flourishing sister community (El Salvador’s only other Orthodox shul) in the beautiful countryside about half an hour outside the capital. Most of the adults sell wares in the market or are engaged in manual labor, e.g., in construction, and they had built the simple tin-roofed shul and neighboring mikvah with their own hands. My son enjoyed using a coconut to play soccer with the kids, who rarely get to meet Jews from other countries. When we davened mincha I had to share a siddur with my son as there aren’t enough to go round. Since returning home, I’ve been looking for Sephardi shuls willing to donate 20-30 Yechave-Daat siddurim, and I’d love to raise funds for Chumashim with Spanish translation. If flights to Latin America remain low, it will likely be cheaper to courier these than to ship them.
When I go back again, Iy”H, I hope to take with me more Chromebooks, mezuzahs, and hopefully several pairs of tefillin. Perhaps I’ll even make a stop along the way to visit the communities in neighboring Nicaragua or Guatemala. But first, I hope to learn some Spanish. I have a Chromebook so no excuses.