Category Archives: Children’s Rights

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.

Rwandan Youth Ending Stigma

Our Sunday began with a visit with the leaders of the WE-ACTx “Peer Parent” program. Peer Parents were created in 2010 with the hope of creating youth leaders from within the ranks of WE-ACTx youth, creating constructed family units of children and young adults with HIV-AIDS who could provide bonding and support in nurturing group settings. There are currently 12 groups ranging in age from 10- 15 – there are also some groups for younger adults from 24-30 as well.

The Peer Parents themselves are clinic patients at WE-ACTx as well, which gives them the ability to serve as very real role models for the children: healthy, strong young adults who can can their trust, educate them on the importance of taking their ARV meds, and give them hope about their future. The Peer Parents are truly an impressive community unto themselves – smart, charismatic young people with remarkable leadership skills and sensitive understanding of how to live with a serious chronic illness with dignity and purpose.

Since it was Sunday, we meet with all the Peer Parents for their “Supervision Sunday” session, which they devoted wholly to a discussion with our group.  Each of them spoke with us openly and honestly about the challenges and joys of being a “parent” to their “families” – helping them to open up about issues such as stress, depression, family issues, drug abuse, and the importance of taking their meds regularly.

Our session ended with the Peer Parents leading us all in a group game similar to the one we did on the previous day. In my previous post, I referred to the “power of silly games.” I know now they were much more than that. These kinds of exercises built trust, skill, self esteem, and most of all, I think, as sense of safety in a group that becomes an important surrogate family for many of these children.

After lunch we visited Islamic Center in Nyamyrambo, (one of the sites we visited four years ago) where WE-ACTx rents the extensive grounds for many of their ongoing youth programs. We brought along forty yoga mats that we brought from home, as WE-ACTx has recently began a successful youth yoga program, Project Air. Due to a shortage of mats, the younger children could only do standing poses – so our arrival with forty five mats occasioned no small excitement among the children.

They watched as we laid them down in rows; when we were done, they lept on them as if they were jumping into swimming pools. They then were led in a fabulous yoga session by Joseph (top clip) a Peer Parent and extremely talented youth yoga teacher, who clearly knew how to make yoga real and fun for young children.  It was almost as much fun for us to watch – especially knowing that many of the kids were clearly relishing the opportunity to show off their skills for their guests.

Immediately afterward, our group met with several of the Peer Parents who were part of self-created support/awareness group called YES (“Youth Ending Stigma”).  Because of their common experience of HIV/AIDS, these young people have experienced all too often the stigmas associated with this disease in Rwandan society. They formed YES in order to give support and strength to one another and to raise awareness as role models of healthy living with HIV.  They are also collaborating to write about their personal experiences in a narrative project in a work-in-progress book that they hope will demystify the issues around HIV-AIDS through personal testimony. (In the pic above: Peer Parent and YES  member Aime, who himself was once a part of the WE-ACTx youth program.)

I can’t say enough about these young leaders, possessed of formidable skills attained against all odds, now mentoring the children of their own community. As is sadly the case in so many communities throughout the US, I can only begin to imagine how far they’d go in applying their gifts if they lived a society that afforded them greater opportunities.  In the meantime, they’re making a very real and transformative difference, child, by child, here in Rwanda. And that in itself is truly an inspiration.

Below, two more amazing people who truly inspire us: WE-ACTX’s Mardge Cohen (Left) and Mary Fabri (right).


New Report on Israel’s Abuse of Palestinian Children

I strongly encourage you to read Guardian reporter Harriet Sherwood’s devastating new piece, which investigates allegations of human rights abuse of Palestinian children inside Israel’s Al Jalame prison.

I’m already anticipating the angry comments I invariably get when I share this kind of information. But what else should I do?  As an American Jew, what else am I supposed to do with the news that that Israel – the Jewish state, the “only democracy in the Middle East” and America’s “special ally” – is abducting, abusing and torturing Palestinian children?

I don’t know anything else to do but to bring this information into the light of day, urge you to share it, and encourage you to voice your outrage to your elected leaders.

Here’s the start of the article:

The room is barely wider than the thin, dirty mattress that covers the floor. Behind a low concrete wall is a squat toilet, the stench from which has no escape in the windowless room. The rough concrete walls deter idle leaning; the constant overhead light inhibits sleep. The delivery of food through a low slit in the door is the only way of marking time, dividing day from night.

This is Cell 36, deep within Al Jalame prison in northern Israel. It is one of a handful of cells where Palestinian children are locked in solitary confinement for days or even weeks. One 16-year-old claimed that he had been kept in Cell 36 for 65 days.

The only escape is to the interrogation room where children are shackled, by hands and feet, to a chair while being questioned, sometimes for hours.

Most are accused of throwing stones at soldiers or settlers; some, of flinging molotov cocktails; a few, of more serious offences such as links to militant organisations or using weapons. They are also pumped for information about the activities and sympathies of their classmates, relatives and neighbours.

At the beginning, nearly all deny the accusations. Most say they are threatened; some report physical violence. Verbal abuse – “You’re a dog, a son of a whore” – is common. Many are exhausted from sleep deprivation. Day after day they are fettered to the chair, then returned to solitary confinement. In the end, many sign confessions that they later say were coerced.

These claims and descriptions come from affidavits given by minors to an international human rights organisation and from interviews conducted by the Guardian. Other cells in Al Jalame and Petah Tikva prisons are also used for solitary confinement, but Cell 36 is the one cited most often in these testimonies.

Between 500 and 700 Palestinian children are arrested by Israeli soldiers each year, mostly accused of throwing stones. Since 2008, Defence for Children International (DCI) has collected sworn testimonies from 426 minors detained in Israel’s military justice system…

Human rights organisations say these patterns of treatment – which are corroborated by a separate study, No Minor Matter, conducted by an Israeli group, B’Tselem – violate the international convention on the rights of the child, which Israel has ratified, and the fourth Geneva convention.

Locking Our Children Away: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5772

Cedric Cal was born to a single mother, in a family that lived below the poverty line on Chicago’s West Side. His father had left the family, married another woman and had very little to do with him. His mother Olivia worked constantly, doing her best to keep her family together. As the oldest of four, Cedric became the de facto father of the family and was entrusted with protecting his younger brother, who was legally blind.

Cedric’s family moved around a lot and he learned very early on how to make friends quickly. He liked sports, particularly baseball – and when his family lived on the West Side, he played sports in the local Park District. When they moved to the South Side, however, there were no Park District services available, so sports were not an option for him. Still, no matter where they moved, Olivia became very adept at finding ways of getting Cedric and and brothers into decent public schools. From 5th to 8th grade, he attended Alcott Elementary. Minding his younger brother, he took the public bus every day on a long trek from the West Side to Lincoln Park.

Cedric’s mother taught him how to fill out applications and interview for jobs, but there really weren’t any to be found. And those that were hiring certainly weren’t hiring African-American teenage boys. He was never really successful at finding a real job, but when he was 14 he learned that he could make money dealing drugs. He knew that his mother would be beyond furious if she ever found out, so he made sure to keep his drug dealing and his growing gang activity secret from her. Cedric never, ever, brought his earnings into their home – his mother had made it clear that drug money was not welcome anywhere near her house. Even when he bought a car, he parked it far away from their home.

I met and spoke with Cedric two weeks ago at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He explained to me that as he continued to sell drugs, as he continued the gang life, little by little, he became “desensitized to the things my mother had taught me.” It was quite poignant and sweet to listen to Cedric speak about his mother. “My mother,” he said, “has a lovely spirit,” adding: “I was scared to death of my mother.” He told me of one instance in which Olivia confronted drug dealers on a street corner with a two by four in her hand. Cedric laughed and said that even the toughest gang members in the neighborhood were scared of his mother.

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Banning Circumcision: When Religious Rights and Children’s Rights Collide

Though I’m well aware that the practice of circumcision has been facing growing resistance over the past several years, I was fairly bowled over by the news that San Francisco is putting a proposal before voters that would make it a misdemeanor to perform circumcision on a male under the age of 18. (My own hometown of Santa Monica also flirted with a similar ballot measure, but has since withdrawn it from consideration.)

As a rabbi and the father of two (circumsized) sons, I’ve been following the press commentary on this one with some interest. Some thoughts:

It’s certainly true that some of the anti-circ activists (aka “intactavists”) behind this measure are kooks. (Exhibit A: Matthew Hess, who publishes a comic book about a handsome, blond superhero named “Foreskin Man,” who battles “Monster Mohel” – a bearded, black-hatted villain who wields bloody scissors.) Having said this, I think it’s unfair and wrong to tar all supporters of this initiative as anti-Semites or zealous nutcases.

Witness, for instance, the opinion of blogger Freddie deBoer, who makes what I find to be a reasonable and well-articulated argument against male infant circumcision in a democratic society:

People can practice their religion all they want, as long as they are not trampling the rights of others in doing so. That is a settled question in this democracy. Your religion does not permit you to force your daughter to wear a headscarf – and a headscarf, at least, can be removed. Few things are odder to me than the spectacle of atheist liberals arguing to continue a strange religious ceremony that is forced upon people who are completely unable to resist or understand it, and which has permanently altering consequences…

Belief in individual sovereignty over the body is incompatible with infant circumcision. If you want your child to be circumcised, wait until he is old enough to understand the procedure and the choice, present the evidence, and let him choose. If he says no, he can always change his mind. Making the decision to circumcise in his infancy ensures that he will never have a choice at all.

Whether or not you’re convinced by his argument, there are many important issues to consider in this complex debate (the collision of religious rights vs. children’s rights, the medical pros and cons of male infant circumcision, to name but two.) I’m also well aware that the essential Jewish rationale for brit milah (i.e. that the Jewish people has practiced it from time immemorial to mark its covenant with God  and that being uncircumcised sets boys/men apart from the rest of the Jewish community) is becoming less and less compelling for increasing numbers of Jewish parents.

Actually, deBoer’s point about “atheist liberals” might well be broadened to include religious liberals like us Reconstructionists.  Indeed, I’ve certainly been asked by more than one congregant why, if we believe in reconstructing Jewish ritual in accordance with changing attitudes and mores, do so many of us consider circumcision off limits?

It’s a fair question. As I rabbi, I’ve come to fully respect Jewish parents’ good faith decisions on this issue. I’ve already done several covenant ceremonies for uncircumcised male babies – and fully suspect that I’ll be officiating at increasing numbers of such rituals in the future.

Here’s an interesting collection of pro and con articles on the subject from New York Magazine. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on this one…

Report from Beit Ommar

14 year-old Mohammed Awad arrested by an Israeli soldier in Beit Ommar, 11/20/2010. Picture: Anne Paq/ActiveStills

As promised, here is a report from my good friend Father Cotton Fite, who is currently visiting Israel/Palestine. In this post, he personally testifies to the issue of child arrests/detentions in the West Bank village of Beit Ommar:

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IDF Arrests/Detains Thirteen Children in Beit Ommar

Demonstration in Beit Ommar 1/19/11

To continue from my last post regarding the arrest and detention of Palestinian children on the West Bank, please read the press release below that was sent out yesterday by the Palestine Solidarity Project.  I will soon be posting a piece from my friend Father Cotton Fite, who is currently in Israel/Palestine and has dear friends in Beit Ommar.

Here is an excerpt from a post Cotton wrote about the family during his visit to the area last year:

Jamal told us the story of his 15 year old nephew, Ibrahim, who was recently awakened in his bed at home at 2 AM by Israeli soldiers and taken for questioning. While in prison he was severely beaten and had electrodes attached to his genitals with the threat he would “become like his sister” and never marry. Jamal and his brother finally gained Ibrahim’s release with a fine of 500 shekels and their signature on an agreement that Ibrahim would be returned for questioning within an hour of notification by the IDF.

It is profoundly painful to read about Israel’s state abuse of children. The pain is all the more when you consider that none of us in the Jewish community seem ready to say anything about it.

13 Boys Arrested From Playground after Army Represses Beit Ommar Demonstration

On Saturday the 19th of February at 1 pm, the Beit Ommar National Committee held a large demonstration to protest the Israeli government’s decision to expand settlements, with support from the United States. They were joined by Palestinian Popular Committees from Hebron, Al-Masar’a, Beit Ola, Tuwani, Surif, and Wadi Rahal, as well as members from the Beit Ommar municipality. The gathered Palestinian activists were also supported by a large number of Israeli and International solidarity activists.

The army arrived in several jeeps from Karmei Tsur settlement and immediately began shooting tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. Israeli Forces also threw sound bombs at the crowd, hitting a few people directly. A minister from the Beit Ommar municipality was injured in his leg, and a member of the National Committee was injured after a sound bomb exploded on his back. The army continued their attacks, while a group of settlers gathered behind the Karmei Tsur fence to watch the repression. After an hour and half, the demonstrators successfully delivered their message to the soldiers and media and returned to the village with no arrests.

At around 3pm, half an hour after the demonstration had ended, an undercover military vehicle came into the village near Karmei Tsur and soldiers attacked the residence of Husni Za’qiq. Soldiers occupied the house and prevented anyone from leaving. Other soldiers, accompanied by special units, invaded a park full of children between the ages of 12 and 15 years. The Israeli Forces attacked and shot rubber bullets and sound bombs at the children so they could not run away, and then proceeded to arrest 13 of them. Several army vehicles came into the area for support, attacking houses and cars to frighten people so they could not come to the children’s defense. The army shot tear gas and sound bombs toward women who attempted to rescue the youth, and then beat the group of women, including Mona Abu Maria. The army succeeded in taking the arrested children, all of whom are under the age of 18, out of the village. Their families do not yet know where they are being held.

Children are Disappearing in Nabi Saleh

http://vimeo.com/19782878

Over the past month, Israeli activist Joseph Dana has been chronicling Israel’s practice of arrest and detention of Palestinian children in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. I don’t know what to say except that his reports have left me numb:

“They come for our woman and our children,” Bassem Tamimi, the leader of the Popular Committee of Nabi Saleh recently told me, “they [the Israeli army] know that woman are half our population and half our strength and so they target them along with the children.” Tamimi, a gentle man with a warm smile spoke to me about the repression of his village as we sat in his home overlooking the settlement of Halamish. “They know where to apply pressure on our resistance. It has become really difficult since the last wave of arrests.”

Israel is devoting maximum effort to the repression of Nabi Saleh’s determination to demonstrate against the Occupation. The specific method of repression has been in development for the past eight years and is not only designed to break the demonstrations but to leave permanent psychological scars on the next generation of Nabi Saleh villagers. In short, children are used to implicate the leaders of the Popular Committee for incitement in demonstrations, providing evidence for their long term incarceration. In the last month, six children have been arrested or detained in Nabi Saleh by the army.

The video above shows the capture of eleven year old Kareem Tamimi who is chased down and grabbed by Israeli border police before he is shoved into a police van. The voice you hear screaming in the background is his mother.

Other videos on Dana’s site are no less disturbing. Two clips document late night home raids by the IDF, who go from from house to house photographing children and recording their names and ID numbers. As Dana explains:

14 year old Islam Tamimi, one of the children seen being photographed in a night raid, has been in jail for the past three weeks. Days after the video was shot he was arrested and detained for a number of hours at the Halamish military base. Two days after he was detained, the army raided his home at 02h00 and arrested him. He was left in the cold, blindfolded and bound for the rest of the night and then taken imminently to interrogation without lawyer or parents present. The interrogation lasted eight hours. Incidentally, the day that Tamimi was arrested the IDF Spokespersons office tweeted that ‘a wanted suspect was arrested overnight and taken for security questioning.’

In another post, Dana reported that fourteen year old Islam had a hearing on February 14 (in which he was brought before a judge while wearing an over sized adult prison uniform). While he originally was held in a cell with his 24 year old brother (who was jailed on stone throwing charges), he was subsequently moved away to another prison.  His trial is scheduled to take place next week.

This is not only an issue for Nabi Saleh. According to the Middle East Children’s Alliance, thirty two Palestinian children were arrested by Israeli authorities in the first two weeks of February alone. A recent report by Defense for Children International (Palestine Section) has concluded:

Each year approximately 700 Palestinian children are arrested, interrogated and detained in the Israeli military court system, and reports of torture and ill-treatment are common.

My friend Father Cotton Fite, who is currently visiting Israel/Palestine, has dear friends in the village of Beit Ommar. Shortly before he left, he heard from them that the IDF had come to their home and was targeting one of their young sons. The family was understandably terrified.

Cotton is visiting the family now and is also meeting with B’tselem field workers to find out exactly what is happening on the ground. He promised to send in a post about his experiences. (In the meantime, you can read this report from last summer that claims that over a dozen youth from Beit Ommar were arrested in less than a month’s time.)

Nelson Mandela is famously quoted as saying,

There can be no keener revelation about a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.

Bear these words in mind as you watch the film clip above…

Ta’anit Tzedek Sponsors “A Conversation About Women, Health, Children and Human Rights in Gaza”

The next fast day sponsored by Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza will take place on Thursday, August 19. To mark the occasion, we will host “A Conversation About Women, Health, Children and Human Rights in Gaza,” a conference call with Dr. Mona El-Farra, Director of Gaza Projects for the Middle East Children’s Alliance.

Dr. El-Farra is a physician by training and a human rights and women’s rights activist by practice in the Gaza Strip. She was born in Khan Younis, Gaza, and has dedicated herself to developing community-based programs that seek to improve health quality and link health services with cultural and recreational services throughout the Gaza Strip.

Our conference call will take place on Thursday, August 19, at 12:00 pm (EST).

Call info:

Access Number: 1.800.920.7487

Participant Code: 92247763#

There will be a question and answer period during the call.

Confronting Immigration Policy in Israel and America

The LA Times reports:

Israel moved Sunday to deport the offspring of hundreds of migrant workers, mostly small children who were born in Israel, speak Hebrew and have never seen their parents’ native countries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the new policy was intended to stem a flood of illegal immigrants, whose children receive state-funded education and healthcare benefits, and to defend Israel’s Jewish identity.

“On the one hand, this problem is a humanitarian problem,” Netanyahu said during a meeting Sunday of the Cabinet, which had debated the move for nearly a year. “We all feel and understand the hearts of children. But on the other hand, there are Zionist considerations and ensuring the Jewish character of the state of Israel.”

My two cents:

In many ways, this story is reminiscent of the immigration policy debate here in the US. (I encourage you to learn about and support “The Dream Act” which has been considered by Congress in one form or another since 2001 but shamefully, has yet to be signed into law).

Still, there are important differences between the American and the Israeli situations.  Perhaps most critically, although Netanyahu cites concern over illegal immigration, Israel is moving to deport children of immigrants who entered the country legally.

As the article points out, Israel began allowing Chinese, Thai, Filipino and other workers into the country in the 1990’s to replace Palestinians as a source of cheap labor in the wake of the First and Second Intifadas. Today there are 250,000 to 400,000 foreign workers in Israel – but now that they have (quite naturally) begun having families of their own, Israel is growing increasingly concerned over the “demographic makeup” of the Jewish state.

To be sure, every nation has the right/responsibility to regulate its own residency and citizenship laws. Nonetheless, the criteria it uses to maintain these regulations is crucial. And this raises another important difference between the American and Israeli immigration policy debates. Here in America, no one but the most abject racist would openly suggest it is appropriate to cite the religious/ethnic identity of immigrants when considering their children’s legal status.

In this regard, Netanyahu’s comment – framing it as a choice between humanitarianism and Zionism – in profoundly telling. Is this indeed Israel’s ultimate choice? And if so, which will it ultimately choose?

Bravo to Rotem Ilan, chairwoman of an Israeli advocacy group for migrant workers’ families, who is quoted in the article thus:

It’s the deportation of children that threatens Israel’s Jewish character. The obligation to act with kindness and compassion to foreigners is the most frequently repeated commandment in the Torah.