Shout out

Alternative winter break on Navajo Nation blends social action, adventure

Aodhan Lyons volunteers at a food bank on the Navajo Nation

I went to the Navajo Nation on Young Judaea’s alternative winter break program with few expectations except that it would be a fun time. It ended up being that and more.

We did a lot of local volunteer work for the Navajo Nation, in Tuba City mostly, but also in a rural area of the reservation in northeastern Arizona. We started out with some icebreakers to get to know each other. Everyone was fantastic and I slept in a hogan with nine other high school guys. We all ended up becoming good friends. The Navajo nation is divided into areas called chapters, and on the first day, we helped prepare land for the building of a subchapter house so the people nearby could go there for information instead of walking many miles to get news. Afterward we walked to some nearby cliffs, did tefillot (prayers), and played on a large sand dune where I fell off and hit my face hard on the ground. That led me to learn a new Navajo custom: “It is important to laugh at someone when they get hurt, before you ask them if they are okay,” our guide and site director said.

The next day we split up and my group went to the Hopi senior center to help take down Christmas decorations and converse with the elders. One of them, named Ellis, showed me how to play a game called rummikub. All of the people there were women who loved the final activity we did with them, Israeli dancing. The next day, my group went to the food bank where we split up into two smaller groups. One group went to help cut down a dead tree and plant a new peach tree in its place. My group helped sort products from large cardboard units into smaller plastic boxes. We also helped put products into cardboard boxes to give to families.

On the final day, we visited some museums and a sweat lodge. The sweat lodge was fantastic, with a prayer session aloud in the middle of nowhere, inside a tiny dugout mud hut with steam constricting my breathing, and intense heat. It was “pain for the sake of others.” I imagined that it was kind of seeping the perfect wellness out of us and moving it to the people who needed it more. We went off to Phoenix to sleep in a hotel near the airport, then returned to our respective homes after doing reflections on the week, with a lot of goodbyes. I will really miss all the friends I made, and hope to see them again. I also hope to see the impact I made on the people I met. This was a great way to spend my winter break, because I made a lot of new friends, and it makes me feel good that I helped a lot of people.

Aodhan Lyons, a freshman at Tucson High Magnet School, raised $700 to participate in Young Judaea’s alternative winter break program by soliciting donations from members of the board of Hadassah Southern Arizona and others in the local Jewish community, family and friends, supplemented by a subsidy from Young Judaea. Young Judaea, a Zionist youth movement managed by Hadassah, added the Navajo Nation this year to its winter break program, which it has operated in New Orleans for several years.