Trip participants relaxing at their hostel in Montezuma, Costa Rica. (Be'chol Lashon)

Zip-lines and Tikkun Olam: A Very Jewish Spring Break Adventure

Hillel trip to Costa Rica gives students new perspective

Zip-lining, waterfall hikes and sunset on the beach—what more could one want from spring break? The opportunity to spend a week in Costa Rica is more than enough for most. But the chance to give back and to learn about Jewish life from the perspective of the communities in this small Central American country were additional draws for the students who participated in the recent alternative spring break (ASB) trip that Be’chol Lashon ran together with San Francisco State Hillel.

Latin America is an enticing destination for students who are looking for ways to have fun and give back during spring break. Landing in Costa Rica, the participants went off to hike through the lush rainforest, picked up trash along the way, and talked about identity, faith, philanthropy, and community. This is what happens when you bring adventurous, thoughtful young people with intention and purpose to an exceptional place.

The students enjoyed dancing at the Amor Solar/El Sotano club by night and participating in community service work by day, an important part of Be’chol Lashon trips. At the Spanish-English Puedo School in Santa Teresa, they led arts and crafts activities with the pre-K through 3rd-grade students and role-playing games that explored the different kinds of family structures, including single parents and same-sex couples. Congregación B’nei Israel, a synagogue in the capital city of San José, connected the participants with a program for low-income families, and they spent a meaningful morning playing games with the children.

Alternative Spring Break trips are an opportunity to travel to different cultures and experience new things. Em Wilson was looking forward to the challenge, explaining, “I thought this would be a good way to make friends. Change is always scary, but I wanted to push myself outside my comfort zone and immerse myself in a whole new culture. And I was also interested in learning about Judaism in a different context than I’m usually in.”

Wilson is involved in Jewish life at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco but was not strongly connected to Jewish life on the San Francisco State University campus, nor at Hillel. A highlight of the trip was spending Shabbat at Congregacíon B’nei Israel and meeting Rabbi Dario Feiguin. “Throughout the trip, we were go go go, so Shabbat felt like taking time for ourselves,” Wilson reflected. “It was amazing to think that across the globe people are saying the same prayers. Maybe there is a different melody and they are speaking Spanish, but it is the same.”  

Students coming on Be’chol Lashon trips are often intrigued by the lesser known Jewish communities of Latin America and elsewhere. The Jewish populations in countries like Costa Rica, Panama, or Colombia are tiny by American standards. But they are also vibrant in ways that defy American expectations. Seeing Judaism in this different context, which included engaging with Orthodox as well as Progressive Jews (as Reform Jews are called outside of North America) in San José, helped Wilson better understand the Jewish community in California.

And it was not just Jewish students who found these conversations and explorations engaging. Several of the participants on the San Francisco State Hillel trip were not Jewish but accompanied Jewish friends. They were glad to engage in conversations about identity and community that, while Jewish in tone and focus, made space for them to tell their stories and expand their understanding.

The students were also acutely aware of the politics surrounding the election in Costa Rica, which included an Evangelical candidate who ran on an anti-LGBTQ platform that emphasized “traditional” family values and religion. Wilson remarked, “We saw extraordinary political artwork protesting the violence. I realized San Francisco is kind of a bubble. As a queer Jew, I have a renewed appreciation for its politics and ideals.”

Though the ASB Costa Rica trip is already in the rearview mirror, the participants continue to build on the bonds they created. They spent Passover together at the Be’chol Lashon-University of San Francisco seder last month, and this Friday they will be coming together at San Francisco State for Shabbat dinner. But they are not an exclusive bunch; they welcome one and all to join them for a continuation of the fun and meaning that they shared while in Costa Rica.

Asked what advice they might offer students considering participating in future ASB trips, such as the upcoming Be’chol Lashon trips to Colombia, Wilson says, “Come with an open mind and an open heart, step outside your comfort zone and take it all in. And bring sunscreen.”

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