Kentfield woman digs helping in Honduras

Allison Lewis prepared herself for a lack of electricity, running water and bedding before heading to Honduras three months ago. What she didn't plan for were "feelings not unlike those I had when I was 16 in Israel."

She credits the American Jewish World Service's Dig Honduras program for reviving those feelings: a sense of connectedness with other Jews.

Last January, after graduating from Connecticut College, the Kentfield resident was exploring options for volunteer opportunities abroad when she stumbled upon the latest addition to the New York-based AJWS Jewish volunteer corps — Dig Honduras.

The program is aimed at college-aged individuals proficient in Spanish who are looking to fulfill the Jewish responsibility of tikkun olam (saving the world).

Lewis, 23, is a former Greenpeace intern, a member of San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom and a fluent Spanish speaker. She fit the bill.

When she signed up for the program, Lewis says, she wasn't really looking for a Jewish experience. It was the price — $350 for 18 days, including airfare — that appealed to her.

Almost immediately after arriving in Central America, however, Lewis found herself engrossed in "great conversations about what it means to be Jewish.

"We had simple Shabbat services where we read poems and sang songs and talked about Israel and synagogue and religion — what we liked [about Judaism], what we thought was missing [from our religious experiences]."

And on the second Friday of her stay, Lewis and other volunteers met the Jewish population of nearby San Pedro Sula. The 20 or so Jews maintain a small Jewish Community Center and lead Friday night services which "felt like a beginning course in Sunday school," Lewis says.

Rather than reading from the Torah, the group sat around folding tables and talked about Jerusalem. They drank wine, lit candles and ate challah.

Afterward, they went out for a Chinese dinner.

Most of the time, though, Lewis was too busy laboring to ponder the effects of faith and culture on her life.

Each morning at 5:30, Lewis and nine other American Jewish volunteers rose to a breakfast of beans, rice, eggs, tortillas, pineapple, mango and "the best oatmeal." After filling their bellies they set themselves to building a potable water system for the 40 or so residents of remote La Pimienta, a village in the eastern part of the country, some three hours from the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Some days Lewis would spend eight hours stirring cement with a shovel and laying a foundation; others she spent hiking up mountains holding rocks in her arms. The sun was hot and the air sticky with rain.

"I was exhausted," she says of carrying boulders up the slopes. "It seemed so simple and yet when we were asked to do it again we all began laughing."

The volunteers formed a human chain instead, passing the rocks hand to hand up the mountain. Lewis stood at the top. Eventually the locals adopted this system themselves.

At the time, Lewis noted that she was "basically doing by hand what is done by machine in the United States." This realization led to others.

"First, we needed everyone's cooperation. Working with people with different problems was ultimately an opportunity to learn more about myself as an individual and as a part of the greater society," she says.

"I don't know if I was just raised by idealistic parents, but I need to know about other people, how they live, how we can join together and how each of us can contribute something to solve the problems of this world."

Now back in the Bay Area after two months of traveling through Central America, Lewis is still pondering her next step.

At times she'd like to pursue a singing career. Lewis often played guitar and sang in the evenings in Honduras. However, being in Honduras reinforced not only her Jewish spirit, but her longtime interest in social service as well.

"I really don't want to give up on my idealism yet," she says.