Why I Brought 10 Young Jewish Professionals to Guatemala for a Weekend

Why I Brought 10 Young Jewish Professionals to Guatemala for a Weekend

By Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, Chabad Young Professionals Houston

“You went where?” 

That—or something like that—is the question I get often when people hear that I took a group of young professionals to Guatemala. 

It’s a fair question. As a shliach for young professionals tasked with bringing them closer to Judaism, it would make sense to lead a trip to Israel or Crown Heights. Judaism is natural and organic in these places, and bringing people there to experience it first-hand has obvious benefits.

But Guatemala? What were we looking for there? Why schlep a group of inspired young Jewish adults to this Central American spot? 

Yes, Chabad Young Professionals International at Merkos 302 was offering to take care of all the logistics, and they created a truly enticing program that raised our young professioinal’s eyebrows and was hard to turn down. But still, why Guatemala?

I’ll tell you why. On such a trip, I readily saw how these young Jews experienced Yiddishkeit in a real-life way that could never be had in their regular lives—not even in my Chabad house. Over the course of a few days in that exotic location, the lessons of Yiddishkeit went far beyond anything that could be learned in any classroom. 

Here are some of the lessons we learned. 

1. Emunah is a Real Thing 

Of course it is, right? We all believe in G-d, is that not so? 

Well, sort of. 

It’s true that many believe in G-d in their minds, but in reality, on the gut level of everyday life, it’s not so easy to really feel it and see it. I have taught concepts of Emunah for decades, to varying degrees of success, but there in Guatemala, the lesson landed so much deeper and truer.

Imagine witnessing a volcano erupt in the middle of the night, with thundering noises that shake the very earth beneath you, and then seeing a shower of lava sparks dazzle the night sky. We saw all that—and then immediately loudly and emotionally declared the brachah, “עושה מעשה בראשית—the Creator of all nature!” We took our time saying the brachah, reflecting on the awesomeness of what we just witnessed and realizing that it comes from an almighty G-d that is far greater than anything we can ever comprehend. 

At that moment, G-d was very real. A thousand sermons couldn’t match that. 

2. We Have so Much to be Thankful For 

Guatemala’s natural beauty is really something to behold. But the physical comfort of many of the people who live there doesn’t come close to the level of beauty around them. Spending time in this luscious atmosphere and seeing the contrast of that backdrop to the people living there was a powerful lesson in gratitude.  

We all say “Thank you” every day. Each morning, we begin our day with Modeh Ani. But how many of us reflect on what we’re saying? How many of us truly appreciate what G-d gives us? Is it possible that we’re taking a lot of what we have for granted? 

Well, after hiking the entire night up a mountain and then setting up camp on top, the conversation around the bonfire with the volcano thundering in the background wasn’t trivial. Drawing from the Rebbe’s deep teachings in kuntres inyanan shel toras hachassidus (on the essence of Chassidus), we spent a long time reflecting on every word of Modeh Ani, hammering home the depth and breadth of how much gratitude we ought to feel. 

Once again, the ideas came to life, far greater than if I had taught them in just an ordinary setting. 

3. We’re One People with Shared Identity 

Guatemala is a tourism hot spot, drawing people from every corner of the globe. Over Shabbos in the Chabad House, we spent time with every type of Jew imaginable. And despite the many different cultures, languages, and ethnicities, we all felt like family.  

We talk a lot about Jewish unity, how every Jew is family, and how we’re all connected. But ensconced in our daily lives and boxed into our fixed environments, we often don’t really feel that way. There are even some Jews we may feel we can’t relate to —for whatever reason. But in Guatemala, that all dissipated. 

The Lecha dodi was the same. The Shalom aleichem was the same. Whether it was Moroccan fish or gefilte fish, it was the same thing: a bunch of Jews keeping Shabbos and its customs. That feeling was very palpable. 

4. Happiness Doesn’t Come from Stuff 

As I mentioned earlier, the Guatemalans aren’t very well off by Western standards. For many of them, it can be said that they live in squalor.  

And yet, as we walked around, took ATVs around the Mayan villages, and generally interacted with the locals, one thing was obvious: on the whole, they’re quite happy. No latest smartphone, no penthouses, and no fancy cocktails. And yet, they’re simply content. 

I asked the young professionals with me why they think that’s so. Again, the classroom answer is printed in the books. But that’s hard to relate to when you think you need a nice car and a lucrative career to be happy. But in the dusty narrow roads of Antigua and its surrounding villages, the answer became clearer: A sense of purpose, community, and family. These people are connected to something, to each other, and to their families. That makes them happy. 

This is in stark contrast to the millennial culture so prevalent today. So many are clamoring to stand out, to divorce themselves from their families, their communities, and their past, so as to be successful and distinguished. Many isolate for months at a time, cultivating a fake online persona meant to impress others and ostensibly bring them happiness. This is a mistake. And there, in Guatemala, it was a lot easier to bring that point home. 

As Jews, we have a shared family, a natural community, and built-in sense of purpose. The more we lean into that, the happier we’ll be. 

5. We Have a Sense of Purpose 

Building on the theme above, the general camaraderie we shared and the sheer exuberance we experienced together coalesced into one overarching theme: we have an inborn sense of purpose, and we would do well cultivating it, it’s fun, relaxing and meaningful.  

We’re Yidden! Hashem gave us so much to work with and lead purposeful, happy lives. Of course, there are hardships and challenges, but with patience, a little work and a bit more wisdom, we can learn to ignore those hardships and focus more on the purpose of it all, in peace. 

The euphoric Yiddishkeit we experienced for those few days, with a healthy dose of (Shabbos) relaxation in Guatemala, provided just that purpose. As they say locally, tranquillo.

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