Sabbatical in Guatemala rewarding but no vacation for Berkeley teachers

When Joshua Weintraub and Irisa Charney-Sirott lived together in a remote corner of Guatemala, they practiced what Weintraub calls “creative water management.”

“That meant showering at work,” he says, “or saving dirty dishwater to flush the toilet.”

Life in the Third World was no Club Med vacation, but the experience proved highly rewarding for the two Berkeley Jewish natives.

Taking a year off from their jobs as Oakland teachers, the two volunteered last year to help the Achi, an indigenous Guatemalan tribe.

Recruited through American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Volunteer Corps, Weintraub, 28, and Charney-Scott, 27, spent months perfecting their Spanish in Mexico before arriving last January in Rabinal, a town in Guatemala’s arid central region.

Spanish is a second language for them. It’s also a second language for the Achi, who speak their own native dialect and practice the ancient Mayan religion (with a sprinkling of Catholicism thrown in).

None of the residents had ever met a Jew before.

“In Guatemala,” says Charney-Sirott, “people ask you, ‘Are you Catholic or evangelical?’ We’d say, ‘Neither. We’re Jewish.'”

Adds Weintraub: “People there relate to the idea that Judaism is ‘Old Testament.’ That fits in their conceptual framework. What didn’t fit was that people like us didn’t believe Jesus was God.”

Still, the two were struck by the similarities between some Jewish and Mayan religious practices. Both religions are big on candles, bread and wine. The Mayans even have their own version of apples dipped in honey.

“We went to a bunch of Mayan ceremonies. Mayan priests use sugar, candy, candles, bread and flowers,” recalls Charney-Sirott. “

“They have a local home brew made of sugar cane. They put the wine, bread and candles on the altar as an offering on holidays and the Mayan New Year,” adds Weintraub. “The Mayan spiritual guide we knew was fascinated by Rosh Hashanah.”

The two spent their days designing a curriculum for Achi students. “We worked with an educational organization called Nueva Esperanza [New Hope],” says Charney-Sirott. “Our goal was a model lesson reflective of their culture.”

They lived in a house with an Achi woman, and though the cultural gap was wide, both Weintraub and Charney-Sirott felt warmly welcomed.

“We met these incredible people,” says Charney-Sirott. “One family we knew had eight children all living in one room built of sticks. The average salary is about $3 a day. Some people glamorize poverty, but it’s not glamorous.”

Both Weintraub and Charney-Scott attended Berkeley High School, graduated from Brown University and went on to teaching careers in the Oakland schools. They decided to take a one-year sabbatical to improve their Spanish language skills and, as Charney-Scott says, “offer some sort of support to people in Central or South America.”

Back in California about a month, the two have begun taking stock of their lives post-Guatemala. They are engaged to be married next year and will return to teaching middle school in September. Meanwhile, Weintraub is in graduate school earning a master’s in education at U.C. Berkeley.

The trip provided the couple a lot to consider — as teachers and as Jews. “We have reflected on the experience through a Jewish perspective,” says Charney-Sirott. “It was an important reminder of tikkun olam, tzedakah and being a good person.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.