Category Archives: Children’s Rights

“And You Will Incur Guilt…”

From this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei:

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it, else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.  (Deuteromony 24:14-15)

In what can only described as irony of Biblical proportions, we read these verses on the same week that the Iowa attorney general brought a myriad of criminal charges against the owners and managers of the Agriprocessors kosher meat packing plant (where almost 400 undocumented workers were arrested in an ICE raid last May):

The complaint charges that the plant employed workers under the legal age of 18, including seven who were under 16, from Sept. 9, 2007, to May 12. Some workers, including some younger than 16, worked on machinery prohibited for employees under 18, including “conveyor belts, meat grinders, circular saws, power washers and power shears,” said an affidavit filed with the complaint.

…The complaint also charges that under-age workers were not paid for all the overtime they worked and were forced to work before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., a violation of child labor laws. Agriprocessors managers “participated in efforts to conceal children when federal and state labor department officials inspected the plant,” the complaint says.

The silver lining? There is growing evidence that the Jewish world – across denominational lines – is ready to respond to the shandeh that is Agriprocessors. On Wednesday, the Orthodox Union threatened to withdraw kosher certification from the company unless Agriprocessors replaced its management and CEO. For their part, the good folks at Hekhsher Tzedek added their “Amen”:

The pressure from the Orthodox Union added to criticism of Agriprocessors from a movement led by Conservative Jews that is seeking to create an additional seal for kosher food to show it was produced according to ethical standards for wages and worker safety. The movement, Hekhsher Tzedek, praised the Orthodox Union’s “no-nonsense action,” saying it showed that the concept of ethical standards in kosher food “transcends denominational boundaries.”

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a congregant how traditional Jews could justify being so scrupulous about their production of kosher meat while being so unscrupulous in their flauting of the Torah’s clear laws against worker abuse. I’m not sure I had such a good answer, but it is gratifying that Jewish leaders are now publicly asking the same questions and demanding a response.

Your Safety is Continually in My Thoughts…

Last week I noted that we are currently in the midst of reading the seven Haftarot of Consolation that follow the Jewish communal mourning of the Tisha B’Av festival. Our prophetic portion this week comes from Isaiah 49:14-51:3 – a prophetic address that begins with these powerful words of comfort:

Can a mother forget her babe, or stop loving the child of her womb?
Even these could forget, but I could not forget you!
Indeed, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your safety is continually in My thoughts.

It is not difficult at all to understand why these words were chosen to be among those that offer the Jewish people consolation in this seven week season. By specifically invoking the divine attribute of rachamim (“motherlove”), this week’s portion suggests that we never truly lose our childhood need for emotional attachment and safety. It also underscores the truth that children are among the most vulnerable members of society and it is thus our sacred duty to ensure their safety – particularly during times of conflict.

As last week, I’d like to take the lead from this season of our consolation and highlight the sacred work being done around the world to provide comfort and healing in the wake of trauma. Taking my cue from the opening words of this week’s portion, I want to introduce you to the good works of a joint Israeli-Palestinian effort called Project CHERISH (Child Rehabilitation Initiative for Safety and Hope.)

Project CHERISH is a multidisciplinary project that focuses on psychological and social rehabilitation created to address the trauma of Israeli and Palestinian children by helping them regain their confidence, their ability to function in daily life, and their hope for the future. (Project CHERISH is particularly notable for its unlikely project partners: the Israel Center for Treatment of Psychotrauma of Herzog Hospital, the Center for Development in Primary Health Care at Al Quds University and the Joint Distribution Committee.)

Wishing you Shabbat blessings of safety and hope…

We Are Strong, We Are Healthy, We Are Fine…

The highlight of our Sunday was a visit to the Islamic Center in Nyamyrambo, where we visited with the WE-ACTx children’s program. The young people from our group had already spent the morning with the WE-ACTx young people (above) while the adults went to visit with Mardge Cohen and several interns at their home in Centre Ville, Kigali.

When we caught up with the kids later on in the afternoon, they were all having a fabulous time at the Islamic Center field, playing Frisbee and soccer with joyful abandon. We joined them with a handful of hula hoops that Elaine and Kelsey Waxman had brought along. Aduts and kids alike proceeded to play together for over an hour before the WE-ACTx children’s program put on a special presentation they had prepared for us.

The children’s program is directed by a remarkable young man named Bertin Mulinda Shambo (bottom pic, in the yellow shirt) who guided it from a handful of kids to over 250. Virtually all of the children are either infected with HIV or have been orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. Bertin explained to us how many of these children originally came to WE-ACTx: angry and profoundly bitter about their fates. Seeing these engaged and confident children today, you would never even dream that they were living with HIV/AIDS. As one teenager from the program told our group, “We are strong, we are healthy, we are fine.”

At the presentation, we were graciously welcomed and treated to a girls’ dance performance. Our group reciprocated with the skills of JRCs teenage members Aaron Nachsin (juggling above) and Kelsey Waxman (hoop dancing). We stayed and visited with one another for hours afterwards, several of us enjoying a marathon (and steadily growing) game of volleyball.

Moday was our day to sample a bit of the natural beauty of Rwanda. One half of our group went gorilla trekking at Virunga National Park while the rest of us went on a brief safari to the Akagera National Park in the South Eastern part of the country where had seemingly endless interactions wtih impala, hippos, giraffes, and baboons. After lunch, our group visited the hospital run by the venerable Partners in Health – a state of the art community-based hospital founded by Paul Farmer. It was, as expected, beyond impressive – especially after our experience in Kigali’s public hospital.

Tomorrow is our last day in Rwanda and then we’re off to Uganda. I’m all too mindful that I’ve only scratched the surface with these posts – there’s so much more to say and so many more in our group that have stories to tell. Suffice to say we’ll all miss this beautiful country and its amazing people…

“Amahoro” Means Shalom

On Shabbat we began our day with a study and discussion of the Torah portion – the central themes of Parshat Pinchas (zealous violence and its complex aftermath) were uncannily appropriate to our experiences of the past few days.

The central experience of our Saturday was a visit to CHABHA (Children Affected By HIV/AIDS) – an NGO that supports youth-led initiatives serving children left vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. A myriad of local children turned out for our visit. CHABHA’s Rwanda director, Richard Mutabazi greeted us and welcomed us on behalf of the organization, and helped us to converse with the children. As has been the case everywhere we went, our presence in the town caused a great sensation: children sprinted up to us as their shouts of “Muzungu!” (“white people”) filled the air.

These particular children were part of a local youth-led initiative called Amahoro (“Peace” in Kiryawanda). Amahoro presents a remarkable model of young Rwandan leaders who support and educate children orphaned by AIDS. The AMAHORO Association now counts more than 2500 orphaned children, many of whom live with one parent or other family members.

By far the highlight of our visit was a dance performance by the children of AMAHORO. As we watched, transfixed, the girls went up to our group and invited us to join them. As I danced with one particularly gifted dancer, huge shouts of laughter went up from the crowd (and I don’t think they were responding to my dancing prowess…)

We had a similar experience in JRC’s last trip to Africa – I remember all too well how dancing can be the “great equalizer” for peoples from vastly different social contexts. I guess that is my fancy way of saying it was so wonderful to connect with these children in this joyous way, even for this brief moment in time.

PS: Another member of our group, Hannah Gelder (above), is blogging about our experiences as well. I encourage you to read her very eloquent personal impressions of JRC’s journey…

Abir’s Garden

Last year I posted a heartbreaking article by Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian whose 10 year old daughter Abir (right) was killed by a rubber bullet by Israeli border police in the West Bank town of Anata. Bassam is a co-founder of Combatants for Peace – an important coexistence organization made of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants – and in his article, he eloquently wrote of his desire to channel his grief to pursue justice and peace, rather than revenge:

We know that to serve our people, we must fight not each other but the hatred between us. We must find a way to share this land each people holds in the depths of its soul, to build two states side by side. Only then will the mourning end.

I will not rest until the soldier responsible for my daughter’s death is put on trial, and made to face what he has done. I will see to it that the world does not forget my daughter, my lovely Abir.

But I will not seek vengeance. No, I will continue the work I have undertaken with my Israeli brothers. I will fight with all I have within me to see that Abir’s name, Abir’s blood, becomes the bridge that finally closes the gap between us, the bridge that allows Israelis and Palestinians to finally, inshallah, live in peace.

If I could tell my daughter anything, I would make her that promise. And I would tell her that I love her very, very much.

An update: this past February, members of Combatants for Peace held a memorial service for Abir and dedicated Abir’s Garden – a playground at the Anata School for Girls. The project is being sponsored by the Rebuilding Alliance, an NGO that rebuilds homes and communities in areas of war and occupation.

At the the Abir’s Garden website, you can find out how to donate olive and fruit trees and paving stones for the playground. There is also information on how you can advocate for justice in the case of Abir’s killing, which has been officially closed by the Israeli authorities.

Of this latest effort, Bassam writes the following:

I’m not going to lose my common sense, my direction, only because I’ve lost my heart, my child. I will do all I can to protect her friends, both Palestinian and Israeli. They are all our children.

Inherent Dignity

image002.jpgAnother anniversary I can’t let slip by unnoticed: on this day fifty-nine years ago, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I know, I know: it’s a controversial document, it’s non-binding, the UN has left unfulfilled its promise on human rights, blah, blah, blah…

I don’t want to hear it. I don’t care what they say: I believe the Universal Declaration still remains the central moral conscience of the world community and one of the truly sacred documents of our day. In particular, its reference to the “inherent dignity…of all members of the the human family” is a powerful reminder that human rights ultimately begin at home. In the words of one of its drafters, the great Eleanor Roosevelt:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

In honor of the day, I encourage you to click above, read the Declaration, then send on the link to your friends.

May we realize its vision speedily and in our day.

On Passover, Parents and Children

joyful-children.jpgYesterday at our Shabbat morning minyan, I noticed a particularly large number of parents and children. Over here was an adult woman helping her elderly mother by pointing along to the transliteration in the siddur. Over there was a man with his four year old in his lap, his tallit falling down across her shoulders. There was also one family with three generations present: a member celebrating his sixtieth birthday, his parents who attended for the occasion, and his son who chanted Torah in his honor.

As it was Shabbat Hagadol (“The Great Shabbat,” the Shabbat which falls before Pesach) I thought of the special Haftarah we read for this occasion, Malachi 3, which ends with the classic passage:

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with parents…”

The image of reconciliation in these verses are meant to evoke a sense of the messianic era ushered in by the prophet Elijah. I couldn’t help but think yesterday, as I looked around our sanctuary, that we were all getting a little taste of messianic days right there in our modest little minyan.

Children, of course, are central to the Pesach story. The Torah commands us to teach this story to our children, and the seder includes numerous pedagogical exercises that help us instill its sacred meaning and relevance: the youngest child asks the Four Questions; we read about the four different kinds of children who respond differently to the seder experience; we add songs at the end of the seder in order to keep our children (hopefully!) interested and engaged. On a somewhat darker level, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the seder story also includes notable examples of children in peril. In particular, Pharoah’s decree to kill all newborn male children drives home the tragically familiar truth that it is inevitably children – the most vulnerable members of society – who are the first to bear the brunt of communal persecution.

This is for me one central but too often ignored lesson of the Pesach story: the sacred imperative to protect the rights of all our children. It is an imperative that goes to the very survival of society – for the very future of communities and nations are directly related to the extent to which they safeguard the well-being of their youngest members. (In this regard, I am intrigued by the full text of Malachi 3: “He shall reconcile parents with children and children with parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”)

Alas, in the 21st century, our global community is failing their children miserably. According to Human Rights Watch:

The global scandal of violence against children is a horror story too often untold. With malice and clear intent, violence is used against the members of society least able to protect themselves – children in school, in orphanages on the street, in refugee camps and war zones, in detention, and in fields and factories. In its investigations of human rights abuses against children, Human Rights Watch has found that in every region of the world, in almost every aspect of their lives, children are subject to unconscionable violence, most often perpetrated by the very individuals charged with their safety and well-being.

Here at home, the National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that

Twelve million children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level—which is about $16,000 for a family of three and $19,000 for a family of four. Perhaps more stunning is that 5 million children live in families with incomes of less than half the poverty level—and the numbers are rising.

The Children’s Defense Fund offers the following sobering data:

– A baby is born without health care every 52 seconds;

– A child is abused or neglected every 35 seconds – 906,000 a year.

– Over 3/4 of youths in detention have untreated mental health disorders.

– A child drops out of school every nine seconds of the school day.

– One out of every three Black baby boys born in 2001 will spend time in prison during their lifetimes.

If we do believe that Pesach compels us not only to teach our children but to keep them safe, then facts such as these should awaken us to resolve and inspire us to action. Please click the links above and find how how you can help make a difference this Passover.

May we find the means to reconcile ourselves to all our children; may we ourselves bring the Messiah, speedily in our own day.