Travel dreams will take moms to El Salvador on AJWS trip

In the past few years, Ruth Donig-White has encouraged her children to travel. One went to Israel with the Bureau of Jewish Education's Diller Teen Fellows program, and the other ventured to Ghana and Israel with American Jewish World Service.

While these were wonderful opportunities for her sons, in the back of her mind, she thought, "I wish I would have had the opportunity to do something like that. I thought that if an opportunity like this came up, it was something I'd want to do."

Donig-White is getting her chance. On Saturday night, the 52-year-old San Francisco mother will leave for El Salvador on a trip under the auspices of AJWS.

The trip was initially intended for young adults at San Francisco congregations Beth Sholom and Emanu-El. As it turned out, a few women who are old enough to have young adult children of their own signed up.

"When I sat in the group interview, I said 'I'm old enough to be some of your mothers!'" said 53-year-old Carol Nathan, another San Francisco mother who is going on the trip.

Dorothy A. Richman, assistant rabbi at Beth Sholom, led the AJWS trip to Ghana and Israel as well as a trip to El Salvador last year. She will be conducting this program with Heidi Winig, who led the Diller teen trip to Israel several years ago.

"I had been speaking about the program at synagogue, and people who were not young adults said they were interested, so I told them to apply," said Richman. "They were very compelling applications, and there was no reason to discriminate."

Rounding out the trip roster are a married couple as well as a doctor who will stay an extra week to share his medical expertise.

"We were excited about the diversity of the group and decided that everyone would have a lot to contribute," Richman said.

In all, 21 people will go on the trip, which runs through April 14. The group will stay in Ciudad Romero, the same village in the Usulatan region that Richman visited last year.

Based on what she did there last year, Richman said participants' activities would include working in an agricultural nursery, building homes for the villagers and meeting with officials of non-governmental organizations.

Richman will lead Torah study, and the group also will explore "how we can bring what we've learned back to the Bay Area, and what we can do as a community to be Jewish global citizens."

The trip appealed to Donig-White for a number of reasons. Although she attended a girls' school in Switzerland after high school, "I've never really gotten to know the people and culture from the inside," she said. "It's an opportunity to go somewhere to be with the people and experience a different culture, and try to understand another culture and the problems it's facing."

Also, she said, after hearing about her son Billy's experience in Ghana, going to El Salvador "was a way to have a taste of the kind of program my son experienced."

It was Donig-White who found out about the Ghana trip for Billy. In his month there, he helped to build a school and taught music. "He fell in love with the people," she said. Listening to his excitement made her think she'd like to do the same thing.

Donig-White said she did have some concerns whether a week was adequate time, but because of her job, it was all the time she could afford to take.

She is a special education teacher and speech pathologist for the San Francisco school district, and often works with disadvantaged youngsters. This trip drew her because, like her career, "I wanted to do something with some humanitarian value."

Donig-White pointed out that this destination in particular was exciting to her since many of her students have El Salvadorian roots.

Nathan, whose background is in social work, said she was inspired by her daughters Sarah, 21, and Molly, 17, both of whom have been doing community service for years.

Nathan and Donig-White are good friends, and their children Sarah Nathan and Martin White were Diller teens together.

Nathan was active in the social movements of the '60s and '70s, she said. In 1972 and again in 1973, she and her husband lived in rural Kentucky, where they helped bring health care services to the poor. This trip would offer a chance to engage in a similar kind of hands-on activism, she said.

Since becoming a mother, the nature of her volunteer work switched to serving on boards, including those at Emanu-El, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and those at her daughters' schools. Nathan, however, often went along when her daughters performed community service projects through the synagogue.

With one daughter out of the house now and another soon to be, Nathan said the trip to El Salvador couldn't come at a better time.

"I think it's no accident," she said. "This one week is just the beginning of how I'm going to give back in my 50s and 60s."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."