Category Archives: Global Activism

Why Be Jewish?: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5773

From my Yom Kippur sermon yesterday:

Let me leave you with this vision: the vision of a people who have over the centuries learned to build a nation without borders, a multi-ethnic nation suffused with the beauty of a myriad of cultures, a nation inspired by a religious tradition it constructs and reconstructs in every age and in every generation. At its heart, a nation committed to the struggle for meaning in our lives and justice in our world. And in the end, a nation that has nothing to fear and every opportunity to gain from the remarkable changes underway in the 21st century.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

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On the Rachel Corrie Verdict and Doing the “Reasonable” Thing

I’m sure many people find it perfectly reasonable that an Israeli court recently ruled Palestinian solidarity protester Rachel Corrie caused her own death in 2003 by standing in front of a moving bulldozer. After all, as Judge Oded Gershon pointed out, she knew the risks. She “chose to endanger herself” by going into a “closed military zone” to try and stop the destruction of a Palestinian home in southern Gaza.  Then she refused to step aside, as “any reasonable person would have done.”

If this verdict all sounds perfectly “reasonable” to some, I believe it is only because it was presented devoid of any real context. It utterly ignores the fact that it is the Israeli military – and by extension, Israel itself – that creates the rules that govern the “reality” of this situation. The court could rule any way it pleased – even despite all evidence to the contrary – because at the end of the day it answers to no one but itself.

Why was this civilian area deemed a “closed combat zone?” Because the Israeli military deemed it as such. This, despite the fact that no combat was taking place in the area on that day and no closed military zone order was ever presented in court. This despite the compelling claims that these home demolitions have nothing to do with Israeli’s security and everything to do with collective punishment.

If you have any doubt about the length and breadth of Israel’s military impunity, I urge you to read this article by the Guardian’s Chris McGreal – to my mind the most important article about the Corrie verdict thus far:

The case laid bare the state of the collective Israeli military mind, which cast the definition of enemies so widely that children walking down the street were legitimate targets if they crossed a red line that was invisible to everyone but the soldiers looking at it on their maps. The military gave itself a blanket protection by declaring southern Gaza a war zone, even though it was heavily populated by ordinary Palestinians, and set rules of engagement so broad that just about anyone was a target.

Yes, Rachel Corrie knew the risks. As an activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), she went through extensive training to prepare herself to engage in this form of nonviolent protest.  Eyewitnesses testified that she wore a high visibility orange vest and stood in full view of the soldier driving the bulldozer. But tragically, I doubt all the precautions in the world could ever have protected her from what McGreal refers to as “the collective Israeli military mind.”

Or, for that matter, Israeli military justice. As is now well known – and has even been admitted by US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro – the IDF’s investigation into Rachel’s death was a sham, carried out by a team of 19-year-old inexperienced boys who never interrogated a single Palestinian or non-military witness. This is a critical point: Israel has to date not carried out a full, credible investigation of its military’s actions on that day – actions that resulted in the death of an American citizen. As Rachel’s mother Cindy has correctly pointed out: “a lawsuit is not a substitute for a legal investigation, which we never had.”

I have met Rachel’s parents Cindy and Craig on several occasions now and I know them to be among the most compassionate and principled social justice activists I have ever met.  Yes, they are pursuing this case because of what happened to their daughter, but anyone who knows them knows they are driven by a deeply held belief in justice.  Notably, they only sought one dollar in damages from the Israeli government – an award which Judge Gershon refused to grant them in his ruling.  I have no doubt that Cindy Corrie meant it from the bottom of her heart when she said after the verdict:

This is a sad day, not only to us, as a family. This is a sad day for Israel, a sad day for human right activists, a sad day for international law, a sad day for justice.

I do agree with Judge Gershon when he ruled that Rachel did not step aside “as any reasonable person would have done.”  As too many nonviolent protesters know all too well, when you find yourself in the midst of an unjust context, doing the just thing is rarely the most reasonable option. (I’m sure many didn’t consider it “reasonable,” for instance, when marchers in Selma walked straight into a line of armed state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.)

Look at the clip above. It comes from a Korean news story about the Palestinian nonviolent protest movement in the West Bank. In this clip, you can see ISM founder Huwaida Arraf protecting protesters from armed soldiers with her own body. Nothing reasonable there. How many of us have one iota of her – or Rachel’s – courage to stand firm in the face of such overwhelming injustice?

At the press conference following the verdict, the Corries were asked how they felt that the judge said that Rachel should have moved out of the bulldozer’s way. Cindy Corrie’s response:

I don’t think that Rachel should have moved. I think we should all have been standing there with her.

Our Journey in Rwanda: Final Thoughts

JRC’s service delegation to Rwanda, July 2012

The week before our delegation left for Rwanda, the New York Times ran two newsy features on the country.  The more positive piece explored Rwanda’s improved state of the nation’s health care. By distinct contrast, a more ominous feature described the growing reports of human rights abuse by President Paul Kagame’s regime.

In Rwanda, it seems, it is the best of times and the (not quite) worst of times.

As our youth participant Ben Feis pointed out in his post last week, signs of Rwanda’s success are everywhere. The infrastructure is demonstrably more substantive than our last visit four years ago and NGO’s such as WE-ACTx report that health care is currently reaching more and more Rwandans – particularly women and children.

And yet, as Ben so eloquently wrote, there is something of a veneer quality to these successes. Despite the obvious economic growth, we met many Rwandans struggling just to survive. Though the horrors of the genocide are now part of the past, many believe that deep tribal enmities still lurk just beneath the surface. Though Rwanda is one of the safest, cleanest and and least corrupt countries in Africa, many believe that Kagame’s iron fist rule could ultimately inspire more – not less – conflict in the  future.

As ever, the real heroes on this trip were the ordinary citizens and organizations working tirelessly – and often against all odds – to bring a life of hope and dignity to their communities. The young man with HIV who now teaches yoga to HIV-infected children. The wife, infected by her husband who died of AIDS, who kept his family from taking her house away from her. The expectant mothers who met in order to learn how to keep their babies contracting HIV – and eventually remained together to form a jewelry making cooperative. The ex-poachers who now earn and income through environmental conservation and cultural preservation.  As my fellow participants would attest, this list of heroes could go on and on and on.

As a Jew, I think a great deal about what it means to a community to heal and rebuild after experiencing the trauma of genocide. While the Rwandan example is different in many ways, I can’ t help but believe that certain experiences are quite universal – not least of which is the desire to face up to a painful past without becoming consumed by it.  In the end, despite all the challenges and potential pitfalls faced by the Rwandan nation, I believe the courageous efforts of her citizens – and those who support them – have much to teach us all.

I’ll end with the eloquent words of Lesley “Liora” Pearl, who also blogged during our trip.  Her description of one home visit perfectly sums up the abiding joys and undeniable challenges we witnessed during the course of our journey:

(The) bus drops us and we are swarmed with locals, fascinated by the muzungus – the wealthy, white folk. Lilliane fetches us and we cross a rickety bridge into her neighborhood. I feel like I am in the bowels of the Old City in Jerusalem where streets are like a cobblestone maze and no one speaks English.

We arrive at her home, 3 rooms. We sit in the main room that has a couch and two chairs, a table and a chest that holds a radio and I am guessing, a television that is often mentioned. I am told that for Lilliane’s child’s birthday, 40 people crammed in to celebrate, with food for days.

Mama Lilliane arrives (Parent’s call themselves like this. Mama and Papa and insert name of one on your children.) Mama Lilliane is a vision in yellow – skirt, top and head wrap. Tall, elegant. She is quintessentially French. She greets us with three cheek kisses and many Oh La La’s. We dress R in Lilliane’s African sari and take photographs. I show Lilliane what we learned at dance class and she and I break into impromptu dance in the dark house.

There is a stove outside and a public toilet somewhere in the neighborhood. I had been directed to pee before coming and am glad that I do not have to go now. Mama Lilliane tells us that the government is buying her home and that she will receive a small sum of money to relocate. They are razing the neighborhood to build new homes. We tell her that this happens in Chicago too. She seems nonplused. She has lived through so much worse than this.

Heartfelt thanks to JRC member and organizer Elaine Waxman yet again for her visionary guidance and leadership on our trip. May we all be worthy to live up to the lessons we’ve learned these past two weeks.

Now, for some parting images…

 

Left to right: Ben Feis, Sara Fox, Katia Waxman, Rachel Pinkelman and Seth Fox, posing after painting and assembling the new WE-ACTx children’s library (Katia’s Bat Mitzvah project).

WE-ACTx youth yoga program, Project Air.

An artist at work at the Ivuka Arts Center

Saying hello to the students at the primary school of Bumbogo, Kigali

Home visits with AJESOV, Nyamata

Caroline and the students of AMORHO’s English/Drama workshop, Kucyiru, Kigali

A bit of cultural immersion at Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, Volcanoes National Park

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).

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.