Service Project in Costa Rica

Ask the teenagers in Congregation Shir Hadash’s Jews Around the World Class, “Do You Know the Way to San José?” they would likely respond, “Sí, Mishka! (“Let’s go!” in the language of the Costa Rican indigenous Bribri people).

In addition to visiting a sanctuary for rescued sloths and ziplining through the canopy of the rainforest, these eleventh and twelfth grade students helped with service projects in the Costa Rican capital and in the rainforest near the Caribbean coast. In addition, the group participated in Shabbat services and related activities with the Jewish Community of the Reform Congregation Bnai Israel in San José.

Becky Barryte, Carlos Dell, Lyla Pack, Megan Pappas, Jessica Safran, Rachael Snyder, Daniel Spool, and C.J. Weil, accompanied by Rabbi Melanie Aron, film maker Tricia Creason-Valencia, chemistry teacher Ken Porush and parent chaperone Ellen Hudson-Snyder, gave up their spring break to participate in the expedition led by Matt Cook of CASE (Central American Service Expeditions).

Friday evening was spent at Kabbalat Shabbat services at the small more traditional Reform synagogue, including a sermon by Rabbi Aron, followed by home hospitality for Shabbat dinner with the Rabbis, temple President, and congregational members. Saturday morning services included a lengthy discussion of the Parshah in English, Spanish, and Hebrew, followed by the Torah service in which several Shir Hadash students participated. Saturday evening the Temple hosted a screening of the Spanish language film, “My Mexican Shivah,” with English subtitles.

Sunday morning the Californian Jewish teens were joined by youth from the Bnai Israel congregation for the first service project, mixing and pouring cement for the continuation of a road in the district of La Carpio. All participants took advantage of the opportunity to practice their English-Spanish skills while helping this immigrant community of mostly Nicaraguan refugees. La Carpio is a Los Gatos-sized barrio located between to the municipal airport and sanitary landfill, where houses are small tin-roofed structures, education goes through elementary school and the daycare center is the central meeting place. The 18-year old sector began as a squatter community, and other community service projects have assisted the residents build houses and roads and add electricity. Following a warm and humid day of construction, students made a presentation of school supplies, baby clothes, and money to the community leaders, all of which were gratefully acknowledged. In exchange, students heard about how the residents have used and are continuing to use community organizing to bring progress to their neighborhood, including the possibility of land ownership.

Monday’s travel to the coast included a stop at the Sloth Rehabilitation Center where injured or abandoned sloths are brought for care and where appropriate for preparation for re-release. Destruction of the local rainforest is a major contributor to the decline of the sloth population; the group got to see some permanent resident sloths as well as recent arrival as young as a few weeks old.

From the coast, travel continued upstream in dugout canoes to the tiny community of Yorkín. This community of some 200 Indigenous people is located deep in the rainforest, in an area one traveler described as “it looks like we’re in a postcard!” The community is sustained by the production and sale of organic bananas and cacao, used to make chocolate. The community is also bolstered economically by sales of hand-made jewelry and crafts, as well as donations from outside groups and some support from the Costa Rican government. This community established a collective dedicated toward three main goals: to maintain and continue teaching the Bribri language and culture; to establish a scholarship fund for local youth to go to college—the first high school graduation was held last spring; and to live in ways that are not damaging to the physical environment. The Shir Hadash contingent came prepared to help, with donations similar to those at La Carpio.

The service project in Yorkín involved arduous work on a hot and humid day. The teens divided into groups and the process began with digging rocks and sand from the banks of the Yorkin River. Umpteen bags of these materials were carried uphill and over the muddy unpaved paths to a location about half a mile from the river where they were used to extend a path through the forest. The tired, sweaty and sunburned diggers, carriers, and path makers then planted two native trees each to help prevent deforestation in the area and compensate for the carbon impact of their air flights.

Cameras were flashing throughout the weeklong journey, and many students helped film the work and conduct interviews for the documentary, funded in part by Bechol Lashon, which was screened for the congregation in early August. The excursion ended where it began, back in California with a troupe of tired teens. The lessons learned about crossing boundaries—physical, economic and linguistic—to spread social justice, and the friendships made with both Jews and non-Jews will remain important memories for years to come. Thanks to CASE and the people of La Carpio and Yorkín, these kids now DO know the way.