Traveling has always been my sanctuary whether it be large-scale, crossing continents and oceans, or small-scale, crossing streets and blocks. It helps me gain perspective on the world and on my own problems. Prior to my trip I experienced various traumatic events and I felt as if this trip had been a god-send. A temporary ticket away from my misery. After traipsing through Panama City and the rain forest, navigating the canal, and eating mountains of glorious food (just wait till I tell you about it), I believe Panama truly lived up to its national motto “For the benefit of the world”, since it certainly benefited my world and various other parts of me, namely my soul and my stomach, as well.
The trip was with my temple’s 11th and 12th grade class, Jews Around the World, and the main purpose of this trip was to connect with the reform temple in Panama, Kol Shearith Israel, and to complete a service project. Ten teenagers and six adults all set off to a country none of us had visited before due to one single connection: our religion. This trip really illuminated the true significance of religion both in my life and as an overall practice. Religion is a thread that ties us together regardless of our ethnicity or country of origin. We might identify as an Israeli Jew or a Canadian Jew, but we are all Jewish.
Our first day in Panama, we stepped off the plane and into the synagogue, a large, beautiful building with a wrought iron gate to seal the deal. Of the sixteen of us on the trip, I, being the daughter of an Argentine immigrant, was the only one who spoke fluent Spanish and I noticed many of my traveling companions already felt out-of-place since every time they wanted to ask for something they needed me to translate for them. As soon as we entered the temple, however, they all felt right at home, not only because of the air conditioning, but because of the familiarity of it all. The synagogue had a library much like ours and the familiar talits, prayer shawls, and sidurium, prayer books. Even though we were in a country several thousand miles away from our home, we had still found a familiar place, a sanctuary. This rang especially true given the fact that the main halls of prayer in Judaism are called sanctuaries.
During the service, conducted in an interesting mixture of English, Spanish, and Hebrew, we were able to sing along to the prayers, sung to the familiar reform tunes, joining our voices with those of our Panamanian cousins. We all came from different backgrounds, including those of us in the travel group, yet we could all connect through prayer, through worship, and, most importantly, through belief.
Another welcoming aspect of the synagogue was the food. Contrary to popular belief, Central Americans do not survive solely on rice and beans. After both services, Friday night and Saturday morning, our senses were pleasantly assaulted by the scent of the most delicious food I have ever encountered on this planet. Platters of cheese empanadas, bowls full of salads, juicy brisket, chicken with mushrooms, and, of course, dessert.
It was during these meals that we got to talk and connect with the people of the temple. We learned about the background of Panamanian Jews. I was surprised to learn about the abundance of Middle Eastern Jews who dwarfed the Ashkenazi Jewish population 1 to 9. It was interesting to see the differences in Jewish practice as well as in their way of life. Unlike the Jewish communities in the US that permeate the rest of society, the Jewish community in Panama is a lot more self-contained particularly that of the Middle Eastern Jews. Although we were not able to meet any, the Jews from the temple we visited explained to us that they lived a secluded way of life with their own schools and grocery stores. However, it was nice to hear that whenever Judaism was threatened both communities came together in defense.
We spent the rest of the trip discovering all the nooks and crannies of Panama, straying from a Jewish focus and instead taking the time to explore. But at the very end of the trip we came back to our roots, to the very foundation of Judaism, of Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam means “repairing the world” in Hebrew and is considered to be one of the core concepts of Judaism. In order to give back to the community as well as do our duty in healing the world, we decided to paint the fence of a government-funded orphanage called Hogar del Divino Nino, Home of the Divine Child, as well as bring various gifts by way of food, hygienic supplies, and toys.
When I was first told of the task, I thought it would be simple. Little did I know the amount of hard work it would take. The fence itself was about 9 feet tall and went all the way around the orphanage. It took three hours of intense translating to get all the necessary supplies and upward 8 hours to complete the job. Once we were finished, the fence which had previously been a rust red color was a light, delicate green.
During those 8 hours, all 16 of us connected more than we could have imagined. Instead of settling for silent, monotonous work we sang together a medley of songs varying from old rock to pop to Jewish prayers. We sang as much to keep up our spirits as to please the children who ran around us as we worked.
The people who ran the orphanage and the 30 children who lived there are some of the sweetest I have ever met. I had never seen an orphanage before and I had imagined a sad, messy place with crying children, but came to find something else. Although the place was not in tip-top shape, there were certainly no crying children. There was an abundance of toys to play with and the caretakers really seemed to care for the kids, holding their hands and playing with them. The woman in charge of the orphanage, Maritizia, was so kind-hearted and welcoming. When we first arrived she told us that we were to treat the place as our own home and we were to do as we liked with the fence. I cannot imagine another person more fitting or more dedicated to their job.
By the time we were done, coated from head to toe in sweat and paint flecks, we couldn’t help by feel proud. The entire place seemed that much happier with the addition of the paint. As we packed into our travel bus, the children came out to bid us thank you and good-bye, their little voices saying “Gracias!” and “Adios!“. What divine children.
This entire trip has affected me in so many ways. I am first of all so very thankful for the life that I have. After experiencing the way of life in Panama and seeing the orphanage I gained a new perspective on my own issues, realizing how to better deal with them. Secondly, my Spanish has greatly improved and I know longer sound like a complete American. And thirdly and most importantly I have learned to much both about Judaism and the world. The world is now a much wider and a much deeper place dotted with people I have met and who have affected me in one way or another. I have seen the little things that connect us one person to another across countries, across oceans, across religions, and across cultures.