By Deborah Pehr, Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, TX

Before leaving for ten of the most memorable days of my life, Rabbi Asher Knight left us with an important question to consider throughout our trip: For whom are we responsible?

As a group of teenagers, we went into the trip really just wanting to be responsible for having an awesome vacation. When we were asked what we were looking forward to the most, answers that came up repeatedly included zip-lining, going to the beach, and seeing monkeys. While all of those things were wonderful (though we unfortunately didn’t see any monkeys), if I could go back in time, I would have to change my answer.

For whom are we responsible?

I would talk about becoming a family with nearly twenty strangers over the course of two weeks. In reality, it took us maybe two hours. The literal instant bond that all of us shared was something so incredible that I am still in disbelief three weeks later. I have no idea how it happened, or if this will be something I could ever recreate with any other group. Even before we started team bonding activities, we all automatically clicked with each other, and it was amazing to see how it affected our trip. Changing hotels? It didn’t matter who we roomed with, we were going to have a great time. Four hour bus ride? Not a problem, we’ll play some games and have a fluid conversation that involves everybody in the group the entire time, never having even two people off in a different conversation. Salsa lessons? Well, it’s a great thing that we were all so comfortable with each other, because none of us can dance. It was vital to the trip that we would all become friends, but the fact that we did it so quickly allowed us to become all the more vulnerable with each other. Throughout our ten days in Costa Rica, each one of us let down our walls and discovered what it really feels like to be loved and accepted.

For whom are we responsible?
I would talk about the hope of doing something that matters. What changed me the most during our service expedition was a time we were cleaning and scraping rust off of the fence surrounding the high school we were working with, during which a funeral procession passed us. We all stopped working for a minute to stand and show our respect to the people moving to the cemetery by foot–people with tears streaming down their faces and emptiness in their hearts, who wouldn’t look at us, keeping their heads angled toward the ground. Just watching them walk through the streets was the most heartbreaking thing that I’ve witnessed all summer. Once the last of the procession passed, we went straight back to work. Two hours later, the people who were part of the procession began walking back to their homes, passing by us again, either holding urns or the hands of their children. Only this time, they actually looked at us and watched as we scrubbed dirt off of a wire fence. And they smiled. For whatever reason, seeing us work gave them so much joy that they smiled during a moment when they were supposed to be sad. That’s what shocked me so much. We weren’t in Costa Rica to house the homeless or to feed the hungry. We were just painting a fence and building a trail. Yet for some reason that has yet to hit me, the community that we were helping was so gracious for our work that the people of La Fortuna put aside all of the problems they were dealing with just to tell us thank you, and that we were doing a great job. That was the moment that I knew we really were making a difference.

For whom are we responsible?

I would talk about being able to teach and learn from my new friends. The second thing that changed me the most was being given the opportunity to give a presentation to my peers with two of my fellow group members about the ins-and-outs of gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, and romantic attraction (which we felt was very important considering the discrimination the LGBTQIA+ community faces, even with the legalization of gay marriage, especially for transgendered individuals.) Instead of responding with aversion or apathy, the night was filled with countless questions arising out of pure curiosity and interest. The life-changing part actually occurred a little after our presentation, when our group moved on to a different activity, where we went around in a circle and we each stated an “oy and joy” of the day. One of my group members’ joy was, to paraphrase, “It was amazing to see everybody here be so accepting, and I hope that one day I can be as open-minded as all of you.” There is no way to describe all of the feelings I had when my friend said that. The only thing I can say is that nothing else has ever inspired me so much in my life.

So, to whom are we responsible?  We are responsible for anybody we can extend love and acceptance to, whether we think they really need it or not. We are responsible for anybody we can create a happy memory with. We are responsible for anybody we come across who is sad. We are responsible for those who need more beauty in their lives. We are responsible for those who want to learn. We are responsible for ourselves in that we are constantly bettering who we are, and in that we are making sure that we are taking the responsibility of helping others. We are responsible for everybody we have the potential to affect, directly or indirectly. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shenatan lanu hizdamnut l’taken et ha’olam.