Yehuda Bar Shalom, Dean of the Hebraic University in Mexico City, reflects on a recent visit to Chiapas with CADENA:

On the second day in Mexico, almost two years ago, serving as Rector and President of the Hebraica University in Mexico City, Daniel Fainstein, our Dean of Judaic studies, approached me and told me about this wonderful graduate, Benjamin Lanjado, who started a humanitarian aid Jewish organization named Cadena.

It was not long after that we had a meeting with Benjamin, in which we decided to launch a unique masters program in International Humanitarian Aid. A few weeks ago, Amira and I had a Shabbat lunch with Benjamin and his family. He challenged us with “Why don’t you join a mission?” and we immediately said “yes.” I am not sure about Amira, but I was always curious about our younger friends in Israel, such as Shira Langer, Temimah Bassel, and Matan Gross, who went to humanitarian aid missions with Tevel Betzedek and other organizations, in Nepal, the Dominican Republic, and more. Also, I remembered that my colleague from ONO Academic College, Yuval Elbashan, also went on a few trips to help the young volunteers in Nepal.

So, Friday last week, very early, we flew from Mexico City airport to Chiapas, for a mission led by a charismatic 22-year-old Jewish young man named Yair. Yair, being, among a million other things, a teacher in 2 Jewish day schools, led the mission masterfully. He reminded us of a good, young , value-oriented, Israeli commander. Benjamin, who was supposed to join, aborted from the mission at the last minute, so Amira and I found ourselves as the older elements in this mission. There was a 42-year-old Jewish male professional, and a 25-year-old female Jewish professional two 25-year-old Mexican psychologists and a bunch of 16 and 17-year-old Jewish students of Yair from the high schools were he teaches. It seems that they would have followed him to the North Pole.

We arrived at the airport, bought some supplies at the supermarket, and headed off to a complicated ride among high mountains in unpaved roads which brought us to the first village, where we gave them supplies, clothing, hygienic materials, baby materials, etc. Amira and I joining the other Mexican therapists, led some group activities, translated from the local Zochil language into Spanish.

The culture is very patriarchal, with strong segregation among the sexes. We listened with empathy to the men and women who told us that it is THEM in the other village who are to blame for their misfortune, they started to shoot at us when we were working our land, harvesting our coffee, etc…. Many were killed. The irony is that in the other village, we heard the mirror story about THEM. A few days later, My Team CBT colleague, Daniel Mintie, commented that the challenge using cognitive methods is how to try to work out these mental distortions not just on the intrapersonal level, but also on the inter-village (and international) level. Unfortunately, we know so many politicians who blame it all on THEM.

Anyway, it was sad to realize that the government does not reach out to these places, the teachers, who used to come from San Cristobal, are afraid of violence and so the school is closed, like many other social institutions. The only people who arrive here, and helped Cadena set up the mission, are the Civic Protección people, and also the Secretaria de Pueblos Indigenas. The Civic protection folks were very kind and helpful, mediating all the encounters.

Yair kept his hyperactive leadership in the full load zone day and night, cooking, cleaning, administering, interacting with locals. We saw the wonderful effect that the mission had on his students, who now understand better how protected and privileged their life is. Amira and I also joined to the physical jobs of distribution, and in one case, when the adolescents needed a break from playing with the local kids, Amira and I demonstrated together with a Shotokan Karate Kata.

The teenagers were wonderful. Being teenagers, there was the usual friendly banter among them at the campfire, but total seriousness and dedication when working with the adults and children.

We ended our trip having a nice meal in San Cristobal de las Casas, a deep contrast, this ex-Colonial and now hipster town, to the deep poverty and despair we found in the ten communities we visited in 3 days. I know that this is a grain of sand, but it is a transforming experience to be so close to the reality and witnessing it, versus dislocated dialogues in the ivory tower.

It’s a very strong experience in the context of raising awareness about issues of poverty, culture, and inequality. I plan soon to organize a mission for our University community and friends who would be interested. I met Benjamin in the University briefly, and I promised him a debrief of the mission in the near future. I feel very grateful to have an organization like CADENA in the Jewish community, who managed to reach out and help in many humanitarian crisis settings all around the world.