Hear Our Voice

The Congregation Shma Koleinu Blog.

Al L’hitalem – Do Not Be Invisible – Final Nicaragua Blog Post

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If Sunday was the fun day, Monday the emotional day and Tuesday the journey to the center (or top) of the earth day and the depths of our empathy, today was WORKDAY! Wow! Are we exhausted! Dispatched to either the clinic for more wheelchair and bike repair or a school in Nueva Vida for “charlas” (health education “chats”), our delegation made the rounds. I am not sure how many wheelchairs and bikes we repaired today, but suffice to say that all told, we spent a day and a half non-stop making repairs. Imagine a shady area outside the clinic in the dirt, makeshift repair stand (by means of a rope strategically tied from the low hanging tree limb to hold a bike aloft, above the ground) and wheelchairs and bikes of all kinds appear one after the other. Between the white plastic lawn chair turned wheelchair (very common here in Nicaragua) with axels, knobby tires, foot plate and casters and the long since antiquated mountain bikes that shift into only one gear, dry rot tires and tubes, and cables missing their cables, there are a lot of much more mobile people in Nueva Vida than before we arrived! And Danny Savitzky is a true master “bikeman.” As a matter of fact, that is what they called him down here, “Maestro de bicicletas!” The Master of Bicycles.” With Mollie, Brandon, Max and myself working as his trusty servants, all of us triaged, changed tires and tubes and let Danny deal with the “fun” stuff (such as many a “jerry-rigged” repair as hearbreaking as they were ingenius. One man, pointing to the sky, declared, “Thanks to God” for having sent Danny to fix his bike (his only means of transportation). (Many of these bikes by the way are used to get to and from work, usually at least a 5-10K ride in one gear. Not on paved roads.)

On this same morning of Day 5, several of our team spent the second half of the day at the clinic with the first half of the day spent at the school. Following is a description of that part of the day by Max and Brandon:

Our first impressions of the school in Nueva Vida were that the school community felt like a family. Upon entering the school, I noticed all of the children playing together. Then I noticed their pet dogs, not a usual school site. The children were wonderful and so full of energy and life, it just made my (Brandon) day. I woke up in a bad mood in fact and just by being with those kids completely turned my whole day around. With skits and songs we had prepared with Dr Lorinda Parks (head of the group from Rochester that was staying with us at JHC) we taught sex ed sessions to the 4th and 5th grade classes. All in all we had a wonderful time and we were very happy to make an impact on the children of Nueva Vida.

Our very hot, sweaty, long and tiring day concluded with a jump in the JHC pool! Yes, they have a pool. Apparently, in the shadow of the most wonderful irony one can imagine, the JHC “compound” which includes the main house, the volunteer quarters, a basketball court, a pool, etc. was decades ago the property of the dictatorial and abusive Somosa family who were kicked out of power by the Sandanistas. With the Somosa family exiled and this property laying vacant and idle, it seemed the perfect place for a decidedly anti-capitalistic cadre of crazy gringos to establish themselves in Nicaragua to attempt to serve as change agents.

In his book, “The Chutzpah Imperative,” Rabbi Eddie Feinstein writes:

“Sight is a reflex triggered by light striking the eye and sending an impulse through the optic nerve to the brain. But vision is much more complicated. Vision is conditioned by culture, by personality, by expectation. Vision is not passive. We see what we are trained to see. We overlook what we are taught to ignore.   We perceive through screens erected by our culture. It was expected that a black woman would give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1954 Montgomery, Alabama. It was normal. No one noticed until Rosa Parks refused. When I was young, boys could dream of becoming astronauts, firemen, scientists. Girls were offered three choices: teacher, nurse or mommy. Women went to college to obtain a “Mrs.” degree. No one noticed until Betty Friedan made us see. Every culture labels certain social facts as inevitable and “normal” and relegates them in invisibility. Every culture relegates certain people or classes of people to invisibility.”

Perhaps the most important part of our very brief journey into and through Nicaragua is that never again will the 9 of us be able to “unsee” the people we met, the lives they live and the blessings and curses of their lives and not entirely opposite blessings and curses of ours. There are so many people in the world and yet we are so “not in charge.” There but for the grace of God, luck, blessing, the genetic lottery, are we not living in Nueva Vida. There is absolutely nothing that truly separates any of us from “them” but geography and historical circumstances. I am not suggesting that “God plays dice with the universe” or that as Ecclesiastes teaches, “All is hevel v’reek,” “dust and ashes.” But I am saying that the only reason why we don’t know and understand the depth of the challenges in life “other people” live is that we aren’t looking. In today’s age, when any and all aspects of human life anywhere in the globe can be seen, studied and reflected upon, invisibility is a choice.

The Torah teaches that when we see our neighbor’s donkey gone astray or even our enemy struggling to raise his donkey because it has fallen from the load on its back, “al l’hitalem.” “Do not be indifferent!” But the root of the word, l’hitalem (indifferent) means “invisible.” Let us not be invisible to those who need our help or at least our recognition. And let us not be blind to those who need our regard. Not so that we can save their lives. They are not asking to be saved. But what we do to make them visible to us, that may very well save ours.

Peace out and thank you for reading these blog posts. The ability to share our journey has been an honor.

Rabbi Scott

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