Chicago Jewish Delegation Stands Up for LGBT Rights in Uganda

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Members of the AJWS Chicago delegation delivering letter to the Ugandan Consulate

Today marked a day of global action of protest against the Ugandan Parliament’s so-called “Anti Homosexuality Bill.” It was my honor to participate by delivering a rabbinic letter to the Ugandan consulate in Chicago along with 15 other members of the the Jewish community, including five rabbis.

This bill, which was passed in December 2013, is a hate-filled piece of legislation that threatens the health and lives of LGBT Ugandans and is a grave violation of human rights. First introduced in 2009, the bill seeks to strengthen existing penalties in Ugandan law against homosexuality. Among the bill’s many cruel and unconscionable provisions is life imprisonment for “repeated homosexual behavior.” It also criminalizes what it describes as “the promotion of homosexuality,” which includes funding organizations that provide basic services such as healthcare to LGBT people.

Our action today was a sponsored by American Jewish World Service, who responded to a call from its partners in Ugandan Human Rights NGO by organizing in communities throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, similar actions took place in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Here’s the text of the letter we delivered to the Ugandan consul in Chicago:

Dear President Museveni,

I am writing to implore you, respectfully, to veto Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was recently passed by the Ugandan Parliament.

As a rabbi, I honor the inherent dignity of each and every person. Jewish theology, tradition and history compel me to uphold the values of kavod habriyot, respect for all of creation, and btzelem elohim, the notion that all people–including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people–are created in the Divine image. Tragically, I know from our history that the stripping away of human rights from specific minorities is often a precursor to targeted destruction.

If this bill is signed into law, it would be a grave violation of human rights and would be one of the most abhorrent manifestations of discrimination against LGBT people worldwide.

My LGBT friends and colleagues in Uganda are frightened–and I believe they have every reason to be. I do not believe they should live in fear just because of who they are or who they love. I hope you share the same view.

I urge you, Mr. President, to use the power of your position to uphold the human rights and human dignity of all Ugandan citizens. Please stand on the right side of history by vetoing this bill.

I encourage you to click here to sign a similar letter currently being distributed by AJWS. (If you are a rabbi and you have not yet signed the rabbinic letter, click here.)

It’s time to stand with LGBT Ugandans – and all who are targeted by hate-legislation.

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Members of my congregation, JRC, in front of the Ugandan consulate: (left to right: AJWS-Chicago Executive Director Taal Hasak- Lowy, Michael Sehr, Tina Escobar, me, Gonzalo Escobar)


Why I Support the ASA Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

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The recent decision of the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the academic boycott of Israel has engendered increasingly intense press coverage and social media conversation over the past several days. I’ve already engaged in more than a few of them via Facebook –  but now I’m ready now to weigh in and offer some thoughts in a more systematic fashion.

First, some background:

The ASA is according to its website, “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” According to a released statement, the ASA has been discussing and debating whether or not to endorse an academic boycott since 2006. On December 4, the ASA National Council announced its support of the academic boycott. Then this past Monday, the ASA membership endorsed the boycott resolution by a two to one margin. 1252 voters participated in the election – the largest number of participants in the organization’s history.

Because there is so much misinformation regarding the precise nature of the boycott, I think it’s important to quote the ASA statement at length:

The Council voted for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions as an ethical stance, a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.

We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

For all of the concern over the resolution’s attack on academic freedom, it is important to note, as the ASA statement does, that Israel actively curtails and denies the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students on a regular basis. Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, scholars and students have been deported and even killed. Palestinian scholars and students have their mobility and careers restricted by a system that limits freedoms through an oppressive bureaucracy. Many Palestinian scholars cannot travel easily, if at all, for conferences or research because they are forbidden from flying out of Israel.

Though many are excoriating the Association’s decision as a denial of Israeli academic freedom, their resolution does not endorse a blanket boycott of individual academics and institutions – as was the case with the academic boycott of South Africa, for instance. The ASA endorsement responds to the call from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which explicitly targets institutions, not individuals.  It does not endorse limiting the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars to participate in conferences, lectures, research projects, publications etc.

Why is the ASA refusing to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions? Because it knows that every major Israeli university is a government institution that is intimately tied to the Israeli military, furnishing it with scientific, geographic, demographic and other forms of research that directly supports Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.

This 2009 report by the Alternative Information Center cites a myriad of such collaborations. For example, Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the Israeli security service) and members of the military and Shin Bet have served on administrative boards of Israeli universities. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology has strong ties to Israeli military and arms manufacturers such as Elbit Systems.  And as of the date of the report, Tel Aviv University had conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.

Many criticize the ASA boycott endorsement by asking why, of all the odious regimes in the world, are they singling out and targeting Israel? This is probably the most commonly heard refrain against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement in general, and I’ve addressed it numerous times in previous posts.

I’ll repeat it again: this accusation is abject misdirection. The academic boycott is part of a larger call for BDS that was sent out in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian political parties, organizations, trade unions and movements – the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society – to support their resistance against Israeli oppression through classic, time honored methods of civil disobedience.  The ASA did not initiate this boycott – it made a principled, good faith decision to respond to the Palestinian call for support. Thus the real question before us when addressing BDS is not “what about all of these other countries?” but rather “will we choose to respond to this call?” To miss this point is to utterly misunderstand the very concept of solidarity.

One of the most widely read criticisms of the ASA boycott endorsement came from Open Zion’s Peter Beinart, who wrote that the “real problem” with the boycott was the problem with BDS as a whole:

BDS proponents note that the movement takes no position on whether there should be one state or two between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it clearly opposes the existence of a Jewish state within any borders.  The BDS movement’s call for “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties” denies Israel’s right to set its own immigration policy. So does the movement’s call for “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality”, which presumably denies Israel’s right to maintain the preferential immigration policy that makes it a refuge for Jews. Indeed, because the BDS movement’s statement of principles makes no reference to Jewish rights and Jewish connection to the land, it’s entirely possible to read it as giving Palestinians’ rights to national symbols and a preferential immigration policy while denying the same to Jews.

This is the fundamental problem: Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.

This is classic Beinart: while he writes in the reasonable tones of a liberal Zionist, when you actually deconstruct his analysis, it’s really quite draconian. Beinart condemns the majority of Palestinian civil society for asking that their right of return be respected – a right that is enshrined in international law. Then he goes on to criticize Palestinians for not respecting Israel’s “right” to create preferential immigration policies that keep them from their own ancestral homes (a right that is enshrined nowhere in particular.)

As ever, Beinart seems galled that the BDS movement is not J St. No, the BDS National Committee does not respect preferential treatment for Jews. No, it is not actively lobbying for a two-state solution. While Beinart remains imprisoned in the vagaries of national rights, the BDS call is grounded in the values of universal human rights.

From the BDS National Committee Website:

The campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is shaped by a rights-based approach and highlights the three broad sections of the Palestinian people: the refugees, those under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinians in Israel. The call urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

This call takes no stand on the final political parameters of the conflict, nor should it. As a rights based call, it recognizes that the first order of business is to pressure Israel to end its violations of human rights and to adhere to international law. If at the end of the day, a two-state solution is made impossible, it will not be because of the Palestinian people’s desire for their legal right of return to be respected and recognized – rather it will be due to Israel’s ongoing colonization and Judaization of the Occupied Territories.

I’ve heard many say that this one little resolution by one American academic organization is really no big deal and doesn’t really amount to much at the end of the day. But if this was truly the case, why are so many people talking about it so often and so fervently?  Yes, the ASA is but one humble scholarly institution. But by endorsing this boycott, it is clearly becoming part of a movement – and one that is gaining in strength. Just last April, the Association for Asian American Studies broke the ice to be the first American academic institution to endorse the boycott. And immediately on the heels of the ASA, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has now signed on as well.

I realize that it is painful for many to see Israel isolated in such a fashion. But in the end, as long as the US government remains unwilling to use its leverage to end its oppressive behavior, this movement will only gain in strength and influence. For those who doubt its effectiveness, we have only to look at the way the international BDS campaign against apartheid South Africa eventually reached a tipping point until the Pretoria regime had no choice but to dismantle apartheid.

As the world mourns Mandela’s death, we would do well remind ourselves of the ways popular movements can help bring institutional systems of oppression to an end.


Guest Post by Rabbi Brian Walt: Welcoming My Grandson, Micah Mandela

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In memory of Nelson Mandela, I offer you this breathtaking Yom Kippur sermon that was delivered three months ago by my dear friend Rabbi Brian Walt. Brian grew up in South Africa and his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle was a defining aspect of his own spiritual/political evolution. I can think of no better tribute to Mandela’s legacy than to share the words of this visionary rabbi, whose grandson now bears Mandela’s name.

In June, when Chana and Lincoln, my daughter and son-in-law, announced at the naming/covenant ceremony that the name of their second child would be Micah Mandela Ritter, I was deeply moved. I never imagined that I would be blessed with a grandchild named Mandela. I feel so blessed to be the zeyde (grandfather) of a child who carries the name of a moral hero of our time, a man who has been central to my own life and has inspired me in so many ways.

I grew up in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My family’s home was in Sea Point, a suburb that lies between the mountain and the ocean. Our home, number 14 Queens Road, was just a few houses from the ocean. If you looked up the road you could see the mountain; in the other direction, the ocean. The natural beauty that surrounded us was nothing less than spectacular: miles of oceanfront in both directions, lush vegetation, gorgeous flowers and the mountain in the background. In Habonim, my Zionist youth group, we sang, “We come from Cape Town, land of sea and mountain!” Yes, we lived in a spectacularly, beautiful place, “a land of sea and mountain” and much more.

Our family loved to go for walks on the beachfront. We would pass swimming pools, restaurants, playgrounds — all restricted to whites.  The only people of color allowed to live in our neighborhood were domestic servants who lived in separate servants quarters.  Blacks who worked in Sea Point lived in townships far from the city, came in during the day to work and had to carry a pass book confirming that they had a job in our area.

On clear days, we could see an island in the distance: Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and many of his African National Congress comrades were imprisoned for decades. The gulf between our comfortable and glorious suburb and the prison island we could see with our own eyes was enormous. It seemed unbridgeable. That tragic gap reflected the gulf between the reality of most white South Africans and that of majority of the people who lived in South Africa.

At that time it was illegal to quote Mandela or to print a photograph of him. Merely mentioning his name could make one the subject of suspicion. White South Africa and the Western world, including the United States, considered him persona non grata. He was a “communist” and a “terrorist.” The United States never took Mandela off the terrorist list until 2008 and kept the ANC on the list but made it possible for the status to be waived at times.

It was clear that if there were to be peace in our country it would involve freeing Mandela from prison, legalizing the ANC, and entering into negotiations. When I was growing up this seemed beyond any possibility. We all feared that our country was on the road to a massive and bloody civil war.

Growing up in South Africa, a country with so much racial hatred and devastating poverty and suffering alongside extraordinary privilege and wealth, was very painful for me as a child.   But I also feel profoundly blessed to have grown up in a country with moral heroes like Nelson Mandela and so many others, people who devoted their lives to the pursuit of justice and dignity for all. I am also very fortunate to have grown up in a country that went through a miraculous transformation brought about by thousands of human beings all around the world who put their lives on the line for justice.

I believe that my grandson and all of us have much to learn from Nelson Mandela. And so tonight I want to share three of the many lessons I learned from this extraordinary man: first, about justice and moral vision; second, about compassion and forgiveness; and third, about hope, community and social change.

These lessons are directly relevant to us this day as we reflect on our lives, our own moral vision and issues of forgiveness and change.  Many of us are the beneficiaries of economic and racial privilege and live in a country with a history not so different from South Africa’s.

Lesson #1:  A moral vision of justice

The Torah commands us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” The prophets of our tradition call us to justice. “Let justice well up like water,” says Amos. “You know what God has commanded you,” says Micah, “to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.” The prophetic tradition which is the core of Reform Judaism and much of liberal Judaism puts justice at the center of our religious vision.

Nelson Mandela, although he is not religious, is in the line of the prophetic tradition. His life was devoted to justice and guided by a clear moral vision of a democratic country, a non — racist South Africa, where all people would enjoy equality, dignity and justice. In 1963, when I was 11 years old, Mandela was convicted along with 10 of his comrades, five of whom were Jewish, in the Rivonia Trial, which ended with Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment.

In a moving statement at the trial he articulated this moral vision. First, he described the injustices Africans suffered and what they deserve.

Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own. Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettos.

African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. African women want to be with their menfolk and not be left permanently widowed in the reserves. And then he articulated the most important demand:

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela’s vision of a “democratic and free society in which all persons live in harmony and with equal opportunities” was not only Mandela’s personal vision; it was the vision of a broad movement that was articulated in the Freedom Charter.  In 1955 the African National Congress sent 50,000 volunteers out into the countryside to ask people what freedoms they wanted. Based on this, they drafted the Freedom Charter, which was then adopted by the multiracial South African Congress Alliance.

The Charter began:

We the People of South Africa declare for our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” The document includes demands for basic human rights (many of which are still not part of the moral vision of the United States): a forty – hour week, equal pay for equal work, a national minimum wage, free compulsory universal and equal education for all children, universal health care.

The document is so inspiring. Most of it, except for the clauses that deal with nationalizing industry or redistributing land, was incorporated into South Africa’s extraordinary constitution in 1996.  Mandela’s vision was not based in any religious tradition, but it is consonant with the central core values of all religion as we understand it: that each and every human being is a child of God entitled to dignity, equality and justice.

Mandela pursued this moral vision relentlessly and at enormous personal cost. When he was offered a deal that would free him but would not guarantee voting rights, he chose to remain in prison and did not emerge until that most basic demand was met.

Mandela’s dedicated commitment to justice was integrated with a profound compassion for all people, even his enemies. This is evident in his unrelenting commitment to a non-racial democracy but also in his greatness of spirit and the forgiveness with which he approached his white oppressors. This is best exemplified in two stories about his relationships to those his enemies and those who supported him.

Lesson #2: Compassion and Forgiveness

In his inauguration address as president of the new South Africa, Mandela urged South Africans to forgive one another and to move beyond the hatred of the past. He declared:

The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.

He called on South Africans to work toward a country in which “all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, sure of the inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

On that inauguration day, one of the guests of honor who received a personal invitation from the new president was a man by the name of James Gregory, one of Mandela’s jailers on Robben Island. Gregory worked there for nine years, from 1967 till 1976. When he was transferred to Cape Town, he continued to censor the letters of inmates on the island. Later he was transferred to Pollsmoor prison, and when Mandela and four other A.N.C.leaders were transferred there, Gregory was assigned to Mandela.

Gregory talks about his extraordinary relationship with Mr. Mandela during this period of time:

When he was alone I used to go and sit with him in his cell for hours at a time. We spoke about everything – his family, my family. But never politics and never trying to convince me of his views.

He always called me Mr Gregory and I addressed him as Nelson. When visitors came I would address him as Mr Mandela. After he was released he phoned me here at home and I said, “Hello, Mr Mandela,” and he said, “Where does this mister suddenly come from? You call me Nelson as you always did.”  He now calls me James.

When Mandela was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1993 James Gregory received a white card to ‘W/O Gregory’. In neat, rounded handwriting, it said: “The wonderful hours we spent together during the last two decades end today. But you will always be in my thoughts.”

In explaining the reason for the invitation to Gregory and two other former prison wardens , Mandela said, “I invited them to come because I wanted them to share in the joys that have emanated around this day. Because in a way they have also contributed.”

What extraordinary forgiveness! To forgive those who have served as your jailers. What a powerful story for this day of forgiveness when each of us is called to ask for and grant forgiveness.

Can we forgive those who have hurt us? Will we?

Alan Brigish, a friend of mine who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and who also grew up in South Africa, tells another extraordinary story about Mandela. His father, Harry Brigish, gave Mandela a job as a law clerk in 1947 .

In 1999, Mandela’s final year as president, Alan took his dad to the doctor who told him that the President had asked him about his father and wanted to see him. Alan immediately called Mandela’s and left a message that he was Harry Brigish’s son and that he had been told the president wanted to see him. He wanted to let him know that Harry would love to see him.

A day later, six cars arrived at the apartment block and Mandela came over for a cup of tea. Alan’s mom asked the president what he was going to do now that his term of office was over. “I am going to be doing much the same as what I am doing now. I am going to find the people who helped me and meet with them to thank them personally and I am going to find the people who hurt me and meet with them and forgive them face to face.” What compassion! What humility! What menshlichkeit!

Do we have the same capacity to thank those who have loved and helped us and to forgive those who have hurt us. Will we do so?

Lesson # 3. Hope and Change

Growing up in South Africa, it was hard to imagine any future other than a massive civil and racial war in which thousands of people would be killed. And yet the determined resistance of millions of South Africans and people around the world made possible what seemed impossible. The apartheid government, facing mounting pressure from the resistance inside the country and from those around the world engaged in Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment, decided to free Nelson Mandela and the other leaders of the resistance and to negotiate with them. The relatively peaceful transfer of power in South Africa was nothing short of miraculous and it is a source of great hope for all who seek social change. Social change takes a long time and demands huge devotion, courage and many sacrifices, but it is possible. Mandela and the movement he led always held to their moral vision and their belief that change could and would happen.

What we can learn is that change is possible when people join together in movements to make change. There is an extraordinary seven-part documentary made by Connie Fields, “Have You Heard From Johannesburg”, that describes how actions in the country and around the world engaged in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against South Africa  made that happen.

In July, my sister Yda, a fabric artist who lives in Johannesburg, gave me a shirt she had designed with a quote from Mandela. It reads: “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”

A Blessing for Micah Mandela:

And so, my dear Micah Mandela: the man after whom you are named is a winner, a dreamer who never gave up. I hope carrying his name brings you blessings in your life: the blessing of living your life according to a moral vision of justice, your heart filled with compassion for all people, always offering forgiveness. A life of hope, that you always know deep in your heart that people joining together can make a difference in the world. I hope you find your particular way of joining with others to make our world a more just and decent place, and the blessing of honoring the prophetic voices of your Jewish legacy, your own prophetic voice and the prophetic voices in your world.

Always remember the Jewish prophetic legacy that you have received as a gift. Remember what the prophet Micah taught us all. It is not complicated. You know what God desires of you: Act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.

This is my blessing to you and to all your buddies, the next generation who will inherit this world.

And so my dear friends, this is my blessing to you as well. May we always follow a vision of justice, justice that is integrated with compassion and forgiveness, and may we join together in this place with others in the world who are devoted to creating a more just and democratic and peace-loving United States and a just and peaceful world.   May we forgive those who have hurt us and thank those who have helped us.  May we have compassion for those we perceive to be “enemies.”

As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration address:

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.

Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.

And let us add: May God bless us all.

May we all be sealed for a sweet, joyous and healthy New Year.


Rabbi Margaret Holub Explores Life During and After Apartheid

Jsmalltown jews4My dear friend and colleague Rabbi Margaret Holub (who recently joined me as co-chair of the JVP Rabbinical Council) has just traveled to South Africa to spend the next six weeks in Cape Town. It’s her second sojourn there and in addition to reconnecting with old friends, she’ll be spending her time interviewing clergy in the Dutch Reformed Church about their life during and after the fall of apartheid.

The DRC is the Afrikaans-speaking church which was famous – or notorious – for more or less inventing apartheid and upholding it all the way through to its end in the 1990s.  The Church has come a long way since then – their leaders recanted the doctrine of apartheid, appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to publicly ask forgiveness and have made moves to integrate their churches.

As a self-described rabbi “edging into the world of organizing about ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” Margaret is particularly interested in learning more about the experience of white South African clergy:

What was it like, I wonder, for the rest of them as the world’s banks and universities and entertainers boycotted South Africa, as other churches condemned and isolated the DRC?  What was it like as it became clear that white rule and the separation of the races were going to end?  Did they feel cornered?  Did these ministers have misgivings about their church’s teachings?  Did they  feel like they had to defend them even so?  Were their certain messages that penetrated their defenses?  What would they say to rabbis today, twenty years after apartheid ended, about being on the wrong side of history?  Maybe, with all this hindsight, they’d even have some advice…  I really don’t know, but I look forward to asking.

The quote above came from Margaret’s blog, “Summer in Winter,” in which she promises to faithfully chronicle her experiences on this amazing trip. I plan to follow her adventures faithfully and recommend that you do too!


Rwandan Cultural Preservation (aka Joyful Abandon in Volcanoes National Park)

On Sunday, we headed northwest, winding our way through a long, gorgeous mountain pass, to Volcanoes National Park, where we spent an incredible afternoon at the Iby’Iwacu Cultural VillageIby’Iwacu was founded by Rwanda Eco-Tours, the visionary tour agency that has shepherded us along our trip (as well as our last one in 2008).  During the course of our tour, we’ve been so appreciative of RET’s skillful readiness to help us organize such a complex and unorthodox tour of Rwanda’s NGO world. The real bread and butter of their organization, however, is their eco-tourism mission.

From their website:

Rwanda Eco-Tours was founded and is run by native Rwandans who are passionate about their country, their people, their natural resources and providing you with the highest quality yet educational tourism experience that responsibly contribute to the conservation of Rwanda’s beautiful natural resources – her parks, lands and indigenous animals, most notably the endangered mountain gorillas – as well as the development and socio-economic well being of local people.

The Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, one of RET’s signature projects, was founded to allow ex-poachers the opportunity to embrace conservation and cultural preservation, while still being able to make a living and strengthen the economic sustainability of their local community. It is quite remarkable to consider that this effort has allowed these local Rwandans, whose existence previously depended upon poaching and bush meat, to become transformed into environmental and cultural conservationists.

Immediately upon exiting the bus at the village, we were greeted by a wave of local children selling original crayon-drawn pictures of gorillas, elephants and other local species (above).  The compound itself was built to resemble a traditional Rwandan native village. We then met our guide, John, who started our tour in front of the King’s hut.  In a semi-solemn ceremony, Rich was elected king, I was made King’s Advisor, and Katia Waxman, Queen. After the three of us were dressed in Rwandan royal finery, were were all walked through an interactive simulation of Rwandan social/political/cultural protocol.

When we emerged from the royal hut, we were joyfully greeted by singing, drumming, dancing Rwandan “tribesmen.” After joining in the celebration (above), we were treated to a demonstration in a medicine man’s clinic and honed our native archery skills (below).

Then the real celebration began. (See bottom pic and the fabulous clip up top).

For anyone contemplating a trip to Rwanda, I can’t say enough about Rwanda Eco-Tours – an important agency that truly embodies the best of the eco-tour movement. And I highly, highly recommend a stop at Iby’Iwacu Village, a place that definitely hits the sweet spot between local community development, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and joyful abandon.


Celebrating the Creative Spirit of Rwanda’s Children

On Friday afternoon, we visited another CHABHA-sponsored neighborhood association, AJESOV (an acronym for “Association des Jeunes Volontaires Pour Les Soutien Aux Orphelins du VIH/SIDA” or “Association of Volunteer Youth Helping Orphans Affected by HIV/AIDS”).  After breaking up into groups and going on more home visits, we return back to the AJESOV office in Nymata for lovely English language and musical presentations by youth program participants. Afterwards we made a presentation of soccer jerseys that were collected and brought over by delegation participants for the AJESOV children (above and below).

Saturday was dedicated to the AMAHORO association (located in the Kucyiru district of Kigali, more home visits, and later, a truly astonishing visit to a local primary school that serves as the location for AMAHORO’s English/Drama program.  We were treated to yet another presentation by participants, though truthfully, nothing could have prepared us for the nature of this particular performance.

After greeting us, the young people of AMAHORO put on a drama presentation that utilized specific situations as the centerpiece for their original skits.  In one, a teacher dealt with an unruly student by punishing everyone but the actual culprit. In another, a new student (named “Shut Up”) brings his misbehaving dog (named “Trouble”) to class. (As you might guess, Abbott and Costello hijinks ensue). In still another (below) a restaurant patron discovers too late that he doesn’t have the money to pay for his meal, so he tries to get off for free by putting a cockroach on his plate. (He doesn’t succeed).

I’m not exaggerating when I say the skits were utterly hilarious – almost worthy of Second City. It was so clearly obvious that the dialogue was written through the improvisatory efforts of the students themselves, which made their performances all the more inspired. Their humor – and spot on comic timing – quite simply left everyone doubled over with laughter.

Considering they have only been learning English since March, their performance was truly something to behold. This remarkable achievement was due in no small measure to their enormously talented teacher, Caroline, who later explained to us that she strongly believes in helping her students learn English by appealing to their own innate creative talents. The children’s love for this program – and their teacher – was palpable. It was yet another example of the inspiring efforts currently being invested in a new generation of Rwandans.

Below, the class poses with Caroline (front row, middle).


“If You Really Knew Me and You Really Knew Yourself, You Would Not Have Killed Me”

On Friday morning we headed south to visit the AJESOV association in Nyamata. On the way we stopped at two prominent massacre sites of the Rwandan genocide: the churches at Ntarama and Nyamata. We visited the Nyamata site in 2008 and I wrote at some length about the experience.  While this time around I had some idea of what awaited me, our visits to these sites were emotionally overwhelming nonetheless.

Ntarama is the smaller of the two churches, located in an area that had historically witnessed violence toward Tutsis prior to the genocide. As our tour guide explained to us, Tutsis were able to find sanctuary in this church during the upheavals of 1992. In 1994, however, even churches did not offer protection from the killers – and 5,000 Tutsi men, women and children seeking refuge were eventually murdered in the Ntarama church. (According to a 2002 report issued by Rwanda’s Ministry of Local Government, eleven per cent of the country’s genocide victims were killed in churches).

The Ntarama church has been preserved in much the same condition as it was following the genocide. White and purple banners (white being the sign of hope and purple, symbolic of mourning) are draped throughout the compound. In the main sanctuary the bloody clothes of the victims are draped over the pews. Skulls and bones are arranged on shelves in the rear of the room and multiple caskets line the center of the sanctuary. Across the podium on the pulpit hangs a banner quoting a poem written by a genocide survivor: “If you really knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”

Outside the church remain holes in the walls created by grenades (see top picture). In a smaller building, that once served as the religious school, the blood of slain children remains splattered across the walls. The church kitchen’s interior remains charred – the burned mattress used to set it ablaze lays crumpled on the floor. Before leaving the church, we stopped at a spot designed as a prayer/meditation space (below) to say Kaddish.

The larger church in Nyamata (below), where thousands were likewise killed after seeking sanctuary, remains much the same as it did during our 2008 visit. Like the Ntarama site, the main sanctuary of Nyamata church contains rows upon rows of arranged clothes of the victims. Beneath the sanctuary is a room created to display some of the remains of the victims (bottom pic) as well as a casket containing the body of a young woman whose torture and murder is considered to be paradigmatic of the abject brutality displayed during the Nyamata massacre.

We said Kaddish once again at the mass grave in the rear of the church before signing the guest book and getting back on our bus. An inexplicably poignant moment: we saw and heard the joyful voices of young children playing in a primary school located directly across from the church. This cognitive dissonance seemed to epitomize our experience in Rwanda: it is utterly impossible to reconcile this beautiful country of brave and gracious people with the history of unimaginable brutality its citizens unleashed upon one another less than two decades ago.

The lessons of this paradox are by not means simple.  At times such as this, the words “Never Again” come to us almost reflexively, but I must confess that given the tragically chronic reality of human rights abuse, these two familiar words ring increasingly hollow for me. I can’t help but think we must dig much deeper – and face more painful truths about ourselves – before uncover the the light that will that will show us the way out of the legacies bequeathed to us by places such as Ntarama and Nyamata.

What are the lessons?  These words provide as good a place as any for us to begin:

If you really knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me…

Photo: Rwanda Genocide Archive

 


Contradictions and Complications: A Guest Post from Rwanda by Ben Feis

As promised here is a guest post from one of the youth participants on our trip.  Ben Feis, 18, is a recent graduate of New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

My experience in Rwanda thus far has been truly remarkable and eye-opening. At first, I was struck by how developed certain parts of Kigali are – I suppose that like many, I was expecting a dirt runway at the airport, very few automobiles, and certainly no tall buildings. This is simply not the case. Parts of urban Rwanda actually have quite a bit of infrastructure.

As the days have gone by, though, it has become more and more apparent that there exist two worlds here. You may walk through a suburb of Kigali and find that directly across the street from a newly-constructed mansion (by African standards), a single mother is trying to raise eight children in a tiny room buried among hundreds of others in a filthy shantytown. Our home visits have shown us firsthand the extreme poverty in which so many Rwandans live. Many of WE-ACTx’s  peer parents themselves, who manage to dress nicely and carry a sunny disposition by day, return to the slums at night, where sewage runs through the alleys and electricity is considered a luxury. As if this isn’t enough of a hardship, many of the people we have met are suffering from HIV/AIDS.

What I find most amazing, however, is the ability of a surprising number to remain positive despite their setbacks. In a country that was ravaged by vicious genocide and pure hatred less than two decades ago, so many Rwandans we have met are incredibly genuine, kind, earnest, and polite. Whenever we enter a room, every single person, young and old, is there to extend a hand and welcome us. Most are quite soft spoken, but as they have shared their life experiences with us, I feel that I’ve developed a personal connection with each and every one by the time we have to go on to the next house.

Not everyone is able to maintain such a positive outlook on life, though. As we were visiting several homes today in one of the rural, mountainous regions, we met one woman in particular who seemed on the brink of despair. She could not bring herself to smile and appeared in pain as she told us of the financial difficulties of putting food on the table and sending her children to school. Mind you, the cost of sending one child to secondary school for a year might be around 36,000 Rwandan francs (or $60). Still, these costs are often too much for a family to handle, and so the children are left with nowhere to go but to continue the cycle of poverty.

As we were leaving this woman’s home, she asked us, “Now that I have told you about my family and our circumstances, is there anything you can do to help us?” Most families we visited did not have the audacity to come out and pose such a direct question, but it is indeed the reason we are here. David (from CHABHA) assured her that several of the NGOs in the area would try to implement some type of economic self-sufficiency programs in the near future, but I can’t help but think that most of us would have wanted to hand her a $20 bill (or the equivalent in Rwandan francs) right then and there. But therein lies the fundamental problem of what it means to be charitable in a third-world country: is it better to give a man a fish, or teach him how to fish? Fortunately, there are already a number of organizations doing excellent work here in vocational training, co-ops, and so on.

Clearly though, it’s not enough. I’ve said it again and again over the past week: this has been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve learned an incredible amount about what the world is really like on this trip. But has it truly been a life-changing trip? As I return to my cushy lifestyle on the North Shore, the question still remains: how am I going to make a difference? If learning about the world for my own sake is all I take away from my experiences, then I really have accomplished nothing. Judaism teaches the value of Tikkun Olam or repairing the world. I would argue that not only is it a value that should be encouraged, but a responsibility that each and every one of us needs to own.

Until this problem is fixed, we cannot sit idly by and expect others to take action. It is everyone’s duty and I can assure you, there is much work to be done.


Coaxing Dignity Out of Despair

On Thursday we shifted our volunteer efforts to CHABHA (“Children Affected by HIV/AIDS), an international NGO that supports grassroots projects in Rwanda and Burundi that care for orphans and other children affected by HIV/AIDS. In Rwanda, CHABHA works with three neighborhood organizations: AMOHORO, which is located in in Kucyiru, Kigali, AGAPE, in Kicukiro, Kigali, and AJESOV in Nyamata (about an hour south of Kigali).

On Thursday morning we first met with the remarkable CHABHA staff: Executive Director David Loewenguth (above right), Coordinator of Associations Micheleine Umulisa (above left), and Patrick Nimubona, who coordinates the Bright Future Program for CHABHA. Bright Future International is an independent NGO that serves underprivileged children around the world. BFI partners with CHABHA, who provides the children for their programs in Rwanda. (Untangling the enormously complicated international NGO/local organization partnerships has been a popular subject of conversation on our bus rides…)

One of CHABHA’s most important functions is to accompany association workers on their regular home visits to the families they support. These visits help CHABHA and local association staff to track the status, needs and conditions of these households – on a deeper level, they clearly enable workers to establish deep and lasting relationships with those they are serving. In some ways it seemed to me that these regular connections provided nothing short of a spiritual life line to these families.

For our first series of home visits, we traveled to the AGAPE association in the Kicukiro district of Kigali and and accompanied CHABHA staff person Micheleine (above left), AGAPE administrative assistant Anna-Marie (middle) and AGAPE worker Grace (right). It’s hard to describe the emotional impact these home visits had upon us – and we’re still having a hard time sorting through the intensity of visiting these families, home after home.

On our first stop, we visited a single mother of four. Her home, like almost all the homes we visited, was made of mud brick. She welcomed us graciously and our group crowded in her small, very dark living area. Her home only had one other room – a smaller bedroom area separated from us by a curtain. Anna-Marie spoke with her and Micheleine interpreted for us.

The mother and her children were all HIV positive. For her regular job, she washed clothes for her neighbors, but at the moment she was too ill to work and as a result, she has no food to feed her children. (Malnutrition is a huge problem for individual with HIV/AIDS because the ARV medications do not work if they are not taken with food.) She also told us that she used to have some rabbits (that CHABHA supplies to be raised, bred and sold for food) but they were recently stolen.

We were overwhelmed with the enormity this mother’s despair. At the same time I couldn’t help but be struck by her innate sense of dignity. Though she was clearly feeling unwell, she was deeply gracious to us and obviously wanted us feel welcome in her home. At the end of our meeting, Anna-Marie said a prayer for her and her family in Kinyarwanda. I asked if I could say a short prayer for her in Hebrew; Anna-Marie said of course. After I concluded a Mishabeirach (Jewish prayer for healing), the mother then offered a prayer for us.

We five more homes before we finished. By the end, we were overcome by familial circumstances more dire than any of us could ever comprehend. While it sometimes felt as if the support offered was but a drop in the bucket of in terms of their sheer need, by the end we came to realize that NGOs such as CHABHA and local neighborhood associations such as AGAPE are the real front line heroes in addressing the scourge of extreme poverty. Anne-Marie, for instance, is far more than a neighborhood association worker – she is clearly is a spiritual matriarchal figure for the families of AGAPE.

There are many more similarly powerful stories I could tell about out myriad of CHABHA home visits that we made between Thursday and Saturday and I hope perhaps I’ll try to add one or two more before I’m through blogging our trip. (One postscript about our first visit: at the end of the day, we returned to the CHABHA office. When we told David about the mother’s situation. He said that in extreme cases like this – i.e., in which families were unable to feed themselves – CHABHA workers revisited immediately with emergency food provisions).

After lunch one of our groups visited an organic learning farm and agronomy class run by CHABHA in partnership with (yes, yet another international NGO), Gardens for Health. The garden and class were located at a school on the edge of Kigali. Getting to the site was an adventure in itself, bouncing up and down in a truck up and down a winding rutted road until we reached the school in the Bumbogo district.

We met with Samuel, the agronomy teacher, who showed us their learning garden (above), which was lined with rows of beets, cabbage and carrots. The ground was dry and rocky, but the crops appeared quite lush. Samuel (back row, middle) said that as part of their organic farming curriculum they raise local livestock and use the manure for composting. Though few of these children have much land to speak of at their homes, the intention is for them to take this knowledge and cultivate kitchen gardens for food and income generation in their communities.

We then went into the school yard with Samuel to sit in on the class. (It took some time getting there as school was just letting out and we were immediately engulfed by excited young students. By the time we got to the class, Samuel had just started the lesson, the subject of which was eggplant. (One student explained to us that there are two kinds of eggplant – and that in Rwanda they grow the smaller kind for local consumption and the larger purple kind for export.)

Samuel shared their very extensive agronomy curriculum with us, after which the students introduced themselves to us one by one. More than a few explained that they were taking this class to help their communities with their new-found skills. We were then asked to introduce ourselves to the class – and asked to mention our favorite vegetable. (Elaine: swiss chard, Rich: cabbage, Me: tomatoes).

During Q &A, Rich Katz, ever the passionate Middle School teacher, asked the students too divide up into four groups and decide among themselves what they thought were the most effective methods for retaining moisture in earth after watering. (One boy looked at me, smiled, and said “No problem!”) They came up with a variety of spot on answer: spreading leaves next to the crops, using plastic, using drip irrigation, etc. By far our favorite Q &A moment occurred when they were asking us questions. One boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen asked Liora if she was single. As you might expect, hilarity immediately ensued.

While we were in Mubogo, the other half of our group stayed at the CHABHA office, where they sat in on classes with Project Independence, CHABHA’s after school vocational training program. Another smaller group went back to Nyaconga, to put the finishing touches on the WE-ACTx jewelry coop space. There was, needless to say, much to share around the dinner table on Thursday night.

Friday morning, we’re visiting AJESOV, another CHABHA-supported association located in Nyamata. On the way we will be visiting two well-known genocide sites that are now maintained as memorials. More on this in my next post.


Our Final Day with WE-ACTx


On Wednesday we were back at the WE-ACTx office to finish assembling the new children’s library. The library itself was originally the brainchild of JRC member Katia Waxman, who created the idea for her Bat Mitzvah social action project last year.  Through her efforts, 450 books were donated, which she and her mother (trip coordinator Elaine Waxman) brought over from Chicago. (That’s Katia above, second from right, Sara Fox, far left, Brenda Feis, third from left, Seth Fox and Rachel Pinkelman).

When we arrived at the office Wednesday morning, we discovered that William had finished the mural (below) and the wall shelves had been finished and installed. We spent the morning sorting through the books and arranging them. When we finished, Katia’s project was finally complete – a wonderful legacy to leave to the children of WE-ACTx.

After lunch, we traveled to the WE-ACTx house for a very cool Rwandan dance lesson (Full disclosure, I sat this one  out and merely watched, sensing my moves wouldn’t have been a very pretty sight…)

Afterward, we split up into groups and visited the homes of three different Peer Parents, giving us the very special opportunity to get to know them and their families in a more personal setting. These visits completed our last full day with WE-ACTx, although five of our group will go back tomorrow to the jewelry cooperative to complete the work in their showroom.

A few words on this particular project: it began when a group of women met through a “Preventing Mother to Child Transmission Program” at WE-ACTx’s Nyacyonga clinic. The women (with us, below) decided to form a craft collective to generate income to buy baby formula as an alternative to breastfeeding in an effort to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their babies.  They initially produced woven plastic shopping bags, but eventually settled on craft jewelry – they are now a fully licensed cooperative that they named, “Ejo Hazaza” (“Tomorrow”).

Speaking of tomorrow – our volunteer efforts will focus on the work of CHABHA – another inspiring Rwandan NGO.


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