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Sutay Berman treats a child.
The author's wife, Sutay Berman, RN, measures a child as part of a malnutrition survey of unemployed tea workers.

Our work on the “labor lines,” as the palm-lined neighborhoods of plantation row-houses are called, begins at four in the afternoon when the tea workers come home from the fields and factory. My wife, Tay, our two Indian translators, and I are usually invited into someone’s home (to drink tea of course) before spending the next three hours interviewing worker families about their diets, health, recent deaths, and what (if any) relief services they are receiving from the government. As the most disenfranchised of India’s organized labor force, West Bengal tea workers have suffered more than any other part of the industry in the recent plantation closure crisis, with reports of starvation deaths in the hundreds.

The last rainy days of our 3-month assignment in this far-flung corner of the subcontinent coincide with other events of closure, change, and renewal, including the damp finale of the monsoon, preparations for Durga Puja (the most renowned and raucous puja celebrations in India), and, from afar, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As my own family gathers to celebrate far away in New York, Tay and I eat egg curry and rice with our fingers—as we do two or three times a day—with our Indian counterparts, sitting on the floor of the small apartment the four of us share. For dessert, we teach our friends the Jewish custom of dipping apples in honey to usher in a sweet New Year.

This is our first assignment as members of the New York-based American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Volunteer Corps, a program which places Jewish professionals (and in our case, their non-Jewish spouses) with grassroots organizations in Africa, the Americas, and Asia to provide skills training to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This emphasis on technical assistance through skills training helps NGOs work toward their overall mission in a way that continues after the volunteer has moved on (assignments are usually three to 12 months long).

Tay is a registered nurse and public health worker who has worked on a range of issues during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa and as a nurse in downtown Baltimore. I am a freelance writer who has worked as a researcher in the U.S. Park Service and also as an environmental educator during my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua. Our skills mesh perfectly to carry out this malnutrition survey in India. Tay develops the questions and assesses the data, I write it up, and we are able to teach a great deal to our work counterparts—though we probably learn even more, as they are savvy and experienced labor organizers from Calcutta.

The AJWS Volunteer Corps is a great opportunity for us, a chance to work together as newlyweds. We agree to two more assignments, in Sri Lanka and Ghana, as we continue our extended honeymoon around the world. Our experience volunteering overseas and our accrued professional skills make finding our places within each of these organizations easier, but every assignment is unique and carries its own set of challenges.

Alternative Breaks and Beyond

One of the goals of AJWS service programs is nothing less than to create a new generation of compassionate, volunteer-minded Jews who choose to dedicate their lives to social justice work around the globe. So it is no surprise that many of the organization’s volunteer opportunities are aimed at students and young adults. My first experience with AJWS was to accompany 15 ditch-digging undergraduates to Honduras as their group leader. There, on a coffee-carpeted ridge, I was astounded by their commitment to the task at hand (building a school alongside our village hosts). Their levels of religious observance ranged from secular to orthodox but they were completely united in their openness to the experience, their ability to adapt to the conditions, and their eagerness to learn as much as they could—from me, from each other, and from our Honduran hosts.

Since then, I have led more AJWS Alternative Breaks (AB) trips, in which undergraduates use their spring and winter vacations to travel to sites throughout Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. It is a chance for them to experience grassroots sustainable development and to focus on the connections between social justice, service, and Judaism. Many students go on to join the AJWS Volunteer Summer, in which they spend seven weeks in Africa, Latin America, or Asia, and then continue with a year-long domestic component or with the World Partners Fellowship, AJWS’ new program for recent college graduates.

Healing the World

During my previous years of community service (from soup kitchen field trips in high school to AmeriCorps and Peace Corps tours after college), I’d been told that helping others was a “good” thing to do, the “right” thing to do, sometimes even a “Christian” thing to do. But it was AJWS that told me, for the first time in my life, that helping others (no matter their religion or nationality) was a “Jewish thing to do.”

However, AJWS does not proselytize or preach Judaism—neither to the less observant participants in their programs nor to the host country nationals with whom it works. AJWS provides opportunities for members of the Jewish community “to explore social justice and human rights issues as they relate to Judaism.” For me, during my travels with AJWS, this has meant learning that tikkun olam, the Jewish mandate to “heal the world,” is a concept shared by many faiths.

“Buddha teaches that from the day you are born there is suffering in the world,” Tay and I were told in northern India. “So Buddhism is simple. It is to be aware of suffering and try to overcome it.”

This reminded me of the words of Jose “Chencho” Alas during the first night of an AB trip to El Salvador. Chencho, a 70-year-old Catholic ex-priest with a brilliant halo of white hair and smiling eyes, told our group, “Your presence, your solidarity, your understanding of the importance of interchange between people—that is beautiful. Yes. That is something I will call a blessing from God.”

Later in the week, standing in the chapel where Chencho’s friend, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was slain for helping the poor, he told us that the universal wisdom of any religion was defined by the ability “to think of the other.”

If little is the same between the far-flung assignments, it is this commitment—from all kinds and colors of people—to think of the other.

A Final Blessing

AJWS is far more than its service programs. The organization also supports more than 250 grassroots groups and NGOs in 40 countries around the world and is currently spearheading an extraordinary advocacy and education campaign to stop the genocide in Darfur.

Today, walking back from our last day of field work on the tea plantation, Tay and I pass a Hindu shrine to Sunni, or “Saturn.” A long-haired, shirtless priest is performing a puja in front of a small gathering of villagers and we stop to watch. He mixes water, flower petals, and spices in a cup made of folded leaves and, with his fingers, flings droplets into the crowd. We lower our heads as we see everyone else do, and feel the cool drops land on our necks.

“Om shanti, shanti, shanti,” he says as he performs the blessing. “Peace, peace, peace.”

Learn more about American Jewish World Service at www.ajws.org.

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