Here’s how it works with these service trips: They lure you in under the guise of work, telling you you’ll be helping to build a school, volunteering at a clinic, or contributing to the community in some meaningful way, and you get on that plane to incredible fanfare (mostly imagined), feeling like a hero for what you’re about to do.
But the moment you get there, you realize that they actually brought you there to give you something, a gift that you cannot possibly reciprocate in the short duration of your visit. There is no manual labor in Ethiopia that we can do better than the locals can. Trust me, I spent two days mixing cement with a master, and I know I slowed the poor guy down. I was there to receive. The real heavy lifting begins the moment of return – the moment we come home and open our mouths, and begin to formulate our experiences into stories.
Last fall (thanks to generous sponsorship from Moishe House and the JDC), I had the privilege of traveling to Ethiopia with a group of young professionals, on a trip organized by the JDC. On one of our last days in the country, we visited an old abandoned synagogue in the village of Ambover, which is accessible only by the kind of rocky dirt roads that would have had Indiana Jones himself regretting that second serving of injera.
Once you get past the initial shock of visiting town after town with no electricity, water, or even pavement, you then have to digest the fact that, hundreds of years ago, our ancestors built a synagogue here. The small stone temple at the top of a quiet hill sat in stark contrast to the mud-and-stick huts that made up the rest of the town (an architectural style I call retro-eco-chic). There are no Jews left in this village, but the synagogue remains intact, complete with old siddurim in the cabinets and Shabbat candles on the windowsills. It was incredible to be so far from civilization and open a book to find the old familiar words of the Shema waiting inside.
As we were walking back down the hill toward our caravan, a local school let out, and suddenly a hundred children, taking note of the farengies (foreigners) clumsily making their way down the hill, ran down and gathered around us. We exchanged a few high fives and handshakes with the kids, and a few people from our group took photos of some of the kids and showed them previews on our camera screens, eliciting awestruck giggles. But the energy turned from excitement to anticipation as we realized that we all deeply wanted to communicate and none of us knew how.
Most people in rural villages don't speak any English, and, given my knowledge of the Amharic language, the only thing I would have been able to do was ask for a soda, which didn't really seem right in a town with no refrigerators.
Instinctively, I started clapping my hands. Suddenly, a hundred kids were clapping their hands along with me. We all looked at each other. A young boy in a dirty green tee shirt seized the moment and yelled "Ya Ho!" I answered, "Ya Ho!"
Before we knew it, we were all engaged in an escalating call-and-response; everyone chanting and laughing, energy rising. After a few repetitions, it was hard to know who was leading and who was following.
When we say that music is a universal language, we miss the point. It is a human language, a language of connecting eyes and ears and hands and voices; of a guy from California and a boy from a rural village in Ethiopia in a dirty green shirt. Music, to me, symbolizes that great truth our hearts all know, the one we so often forget. Feel that. Listen to that. Let it capture your attention. Regardless of where we were born, where we have come from – right now, in this moment, we are here. That's music.
"Come on, we've got to load up the cars," our guide said. We smiled, waved, and boarded the land cruisers. I rolled down my window. The boy was still there, smiling. He started clapping again. "Ya Ho!" he shouted. "Ya Ho!" I returned through the open window. "They're never going to stop, you know," one of my friends laughed. The cars began moving and the dirt started flying up behind us. We closed our windows and began the trek back to Gondar. A few of the kids – including the boy in the green shirt- followed our cars for nearly a mile, sprinting effortlessly over the rocky terrain, chanting and waving their arms until we disappeared in the dust.
Martin Storrow is a nationally touring singer/songwriter and a Moishe House resident. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California.