“It is vital to learn how to stand before God,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel, explaining his participation in the famed 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. “Even without words, our march was worship.”
The late rabbi’s spirit was very much in evidence during a recent 10-day rabbinical student mission to the river city of Ciudad Romero in El Salvador. The mission, sponsored by the American Jewish World Service and led by its president, Ruth Messinger, was, for the 25 future rabbis who took part, a journey of labor and education. I served the interdenominational group, which was drawn from nine North American rabbinical schools, as a rabbinic adviser.
Worship — wordless and otherwise — was what this mission was all about. The students slept in humble quarters, prayed together outdoors with a devotion that was spiritually intense and musically joyous amid the cacophony of the surrounding domesticated animals, and then went to work. Side by side with our Salvadoran hosts, they took to the fields, hoeing land, fertilizing it, removing brush and irrigating fields. They also listened and learned about the history of El Salvador and the lives and rhythms of the people in whose midst we dwelt.
The village of Ciudad Romero honors the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who courageously exhorted the upper classes on behalf of the poor and oppressed peasants of El Salvador, and inspired his people to seek economic justice and a better life for themselves and for their children. It was Romero’s cold-blooded assassination, as he led his congregation in prayer in a modest church in the capital city San Salvador in 1980, that led to civil war and to the slaughter and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans. Created after the signing of the peace accords that ended the war in 1990, this small community is located near the banks of the Rio Lempa in the southeastern state of Usulután.
We observed the paradoxical nature of local life: chickens and dogs sharing space with pigs and cattle; livestock being herded by boys on shiny new bicycles on dirt roads sided by concrete curbs, or the ubiquitous access to the Disney Channel on televisions in homes that lacked indoor plumbing. And yet, we ultimately recognized that the narratives and aspirations that informed our hosts were in many respects not so different from our own.
When a weary yet dignified woman named Christina related tales of her people’s wartime sufferings — how 800 girls were rounded up by soldiers, raped by their captors and then forced into a home that was burned to the ground — nightmare visions of the Holocaust went through our minds. We identified with the hospitality of the villagers, who welcomed us into their homes and hosted all our meals, serving vegetarian foods using separate pans and dishes so that they could eat with us by observing our Jewish dietary requirements. Their extraordinary practice of what we would label hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) was not lost on any of us.
Our hosts were warm and caring parents, which made it all the more painful when one of them, a woman named Irma, told us that her children and others from the village would be unable to enter high school because the yearly $100 supply fees required for attendance could not be born by the villagers’ median annual household income of $1,500-$2,000. This sobering information made each of us more aware than ever of how crucial it is that educational assistance and aid be provided, for, as Irma observed through her tears, “Education is the only path to a better life.”
Chencho, a silver-haired, charismatic former priest and disciple of Romero, met with us in the church where his mentor had been murdered. An exponent of liberation theology, and a champion of land reform and economic amelioration of the peasant class, he had been persecuted for his teachings. He described how the book of Exodus had inspired him and spoke with a special moral authority to our group, which, together with all the citizens of the village, accorded him the greatest respect. Now head of the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, Chencho was a founder of La Coordinadora, a local nongovernmental organization that engages the residents of the region in a wide variety of projects — sustainable agricultural programs, disaster preparedness, anti-violence work, radio programming and reforestation.
La Coordinadora is currently headed by Aristedes, whose arms were scarred by years of guerilla fighting during the civil war. He spent an afternoon with us, describing how life in Ciudad Romero has evolved during the past decade. Ten years ago, the nascent village and its cardboard dwellings had been destroyed by flood and hurricane. Now there is electricity, and the buildings are made of concrete blocks that are able to withstand the ravages of weather in this semitropical climate. Progress is being made.
The genuine theological differences among these future rabbis disappeared in the face of an overarching common question they all posed again and again: “What are the qualities that are required to stand before God?” These young people came to El Salvador because they all believe that the command to work for social and economic justice for all people is a Jewish imperative. These future leaders reject the notion of Jewish isolation from the world and believe that Judaism must address all of humanity.
What fruits will ultimately flow from this trip? Will these future rabbis truly be able to mend our broken world? Whatever their paths hold, I know that they will work to have our community overcome hardness of heart and recognize that we are united with all humankind in accountability before God. As Romero once wrote: “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. This is what we are about. We plant seeds that will one day grow. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.