Category Archives: Hunger

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.

A Religious Defense of Big Government: Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5772

Source: Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America 2011

Three years ago, I traveled with several JRC members and nearly 1,500 others to Postville, Iowa. We went to show our solidarity with 400 immigrant workers of the Agriprocessor kosher meat packing plant who had recently been arrested and imprisoned. It was, at the time, the largest single-site workplace raid in US history.

After participating in an interfaith service, we marched through the streets of Postville. As we reached the downtown area, we met up with angry counter-protestors, many of whom were holding signs condemning the invasion of “illegal immigrants” into their communities. One woman held a large sign that still sticks in my mind – it read: “What Would Jesus Do? Obey the Law.” I distinctly remember pointing out the irony of this sign to a fellow marcher, considering Jesus is actually considered to be one of the earliest practitioners of civil disobedience.

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How to Support Relief Efforts in Somalia

From the NY Times:

Much of the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, has been struck this summer by one of the worst droughts in 60 years. But two Shabab-controlled parts of southern Somalia are the only areas where the United Nations has declared a famine, using scientific criteria of death and malnutrition rates.

I commend to you this report from Charity Navigator, which includes essential information about this tragic, urgent crisis along with the highest rated orgs currently doing relief work in the region.

Volunteering + Values: What’s Motivating the Jewish Young Folk?

Repair the World, has just released “Volunteering+Values,” a report commissioned  “to understand the full extent of Jewish young adults’ volunteer habits and preferences.”  I’d say its findings/recommendations contain implications that North American Jewish communal institutions would do well to heed.

Conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis
University and Gerstein|Agne Strategic Communications, V+V surveyed a sample of Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and investigated their volunteer commitments and attitudes.

Among the findings I found notable:

Only a small portion of Jewish young adults prefer to or actually do volunteer with Jewish organizations … The minority of Jewish young adults who volunteer through Jewish organizations do so to support their own people and community. By contrast, the vast majority of Jewish young adults say it does not matter if they volunteer with a Jewish or non-Jewish organization.

Hand in hand with this finding, the report noted a growing universalist identity among Jewish young people:

Jewish young adults are primarily drawn to service through universal rather than Jewish-based values or identity … Only a very small portion of Jewish young adults volunteer as a means to represent the Jewish community to the larger society.

Not surprisingly to me, many Jewish young people seem to be turned off by what they perceive as the overly tribal concerns of the organized Jewish community:

Today’s Jewish young adults have grown up amidst and are at home with ethnic and religious diversity … As a result, most are concerned for all victims of poverty or injustice, not just those who are Jewish. It appears that they do not believe that Jewish organizations share this concern for universal causes.

I was particularly struck that Israel ranked consistently at the bottom of the list of priorities of young Jews. According to one graph, only 1% of those surveyed cited Israel/Middle East Peace as an “issue focus of primary volunteer work” (at the top of the list: “Material Assistance to the Needy.”) Another graph charted the geographic focus of primary volunteer work thus: 79%: Local Community, 13%: Domestic Non-Local, 4%: Developing World, 3%: Israel. (This trend is particularly noteworthy since the primary sample used by V+V was the Birthright applicant pool – a data base of 300,000 young Jews who either participated or applied for a Birthright Israel trip between 2001 and 2010.)

Among the many strategic implications identified by the study, this one resonated for me in particular:

Efforts are needed to educate Jewish young adults of the deep connection between Jewish thought and volunteering without implying that it is an exclusively Jewish perspective or only pertains to support of the Jewish community. Jewish young adults, regardless of denomination or level of religious involvement, should be encouraged to “own” a Jewish perspective on service. Widespread efforts are needed that draw attention to and link the universal and Jewish values that Jewish young adults already hold with the causes about which they care most deeply.

As always, I’d love to hear reactions.

How to Market Gaza as a Complete Success Story

If you want to cut through the morass of misinformation being disseminated about the siege of Gaza, you should read Gaza Gateway – a website created by Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement.

GG presents essential information on Gaza Strip border crossings by carefully monitoring the amount of traffic that Israel allows to pass through.  They also provide critical background information, such as the amount of goods allowed through relative to the needs of the population of Gaza.

I particularly recommend GG’s latest post – an ironic piece they call “How to Market Gaza as an Israeli Success Story: The Complete Guide.” It was apparently inspired by a recent report by the Government of Israel that summarized Israel’s “humanitarian activities” for the Gaza Strip in 2009/2010.

Here’s a taste:

Take things out of context. When you say that, “41 truckloads of equipment for the maintenance of the electricity networks were transferred”, you do not need to mention that those spare parts were waiting for many months for clearance, and that, at the end of 2009, the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company reported that 240 kinds of spare parts were completely out of stock or had dipped below the required minimum stock. Likewise, “There was a significant increase in the number of international organization staff entering the Gaza Strip” does not require explanation that, were the productive sector in Gaza not almost completely paralyzed, so many aid workers would not be needed and the number of aid recipients would not be so high. You also don’t need to explain that the high number of staff you quote might be misleading, since it’s likely you are counting individual entrances and not unique visitors (the same international aid workers enter and exit multiple times per month).

Demonstrate impartiality. Present the transfer of 44,500 doses of swine flu vaccine as having nothing to do with you. There is always a chance people will forget it is a border-transcending epidemic and that the head of the Gaza District Coordination Office himself said an outbreak in Gaza would endanger Israel.

Make it look like you are paying the bill. Use vague language such as “In 2009, Israel continued to supply electricity to the Gaza Strip”. Count on the fact that most people don’t know that Israel charges full payment for the electricity by deducting the amount from the VAT and taxes it collects for the Palestinian Authority via import into its territory.

And here’s a PS on my last post:

The Associated Students of UC Berkeley met Wednesday evening to debate and vote on whether or not to override their Presidents veto of the divestment resolution. After a marathon nine hour session, the vote came up short. As the evening ended, they voted to table a final vote on the bill. So it’s stay tuned…

Passover Supplements Galore!

The Passover 2010 seder supplements are arriving fast and furious. In my last post I shared my JVP supplement – here are a few more you can download and use to spice up your seder meal:

– The “Moral Voices” initiative of Penn Hillel has published “From Chains to Change” – a supplement that connects the lessons of Pesach to the contemporary scourge of human trafficking;

– Workingman’s Circle’s “10 Modern Plagues” demonstrates how our contemporary bounty is diminished by the suffering of others;

– J Street’s supplement asks “Four More Questions” about the prospects for the peace process in the coming year;

Tikkun Magazine’s supplement, thoughtful as ever, is so verbose that it could be its own haggadah…

The new supplement created by American Jewish World Service focuses on disaster relief:  “Dayenu: Supporting the Long Journey from Disaster to Recovery;”

– Jewish Funds for Justice highlights immigration reform with “For We Were Strangers;”

A print-out placemat from Mazon asks a 5th question: “Why On This Night are Millions of People Going Hungry?”

A zissen Pesach – all the best for a sweet and liberating Passover…

Gaza: Give Life a Chance

Today was the second monthly fast day for Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza. To mark the occasion, a series of public vigils were held around the country (including one at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia) and as far away as Glasgow, Scotland. Here in the Chicago area, it was my honor to lead a vigil at the Evanston lakefront with my good friend and colleague, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian. Here we are with some of the participants, below:

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Our campaign continues to grow. As of this writing we currently have 627 supporters, including 71 rabbis. I encourage you to join us, if you haven’t already – just click on the link above to become a supporter. We are continuously uploading important articles and resources, so be sure to check in regularly.

Speaking of important resources on the Gaza crisis, I commend to you the new report from Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement entitled “Red Lines Crossed: Destruction of Gaza’s Infrastructure.” See below for the full report. Click above to watch “Lift the Closure – Give Life a Chance” – a new online film recently released by eight Israeli human rights organizations to mark the two years of closure that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip.