Category Archives: International Aid

Jewish Fast for Gaza

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In response to the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza, my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Brian Walt and I have organized a new initiative, Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza.

See below for the press release about the project, which is already attracting increasing numbers of supporters, including many rabbis. Click the link above to visit the website and sign up yourself…

RABBIS  ANNOUNCE MONTHLY FAST FOR GAZA

Seeking “to end the Jewish community’s silence over Israel’s collective punishment in Gaza,”  an ad-hoc group of American rabbis has called for a communal fast.  Known as Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza, this new initiative will organize a series of monthly fasts beginning on July 16.

The project was initiated by a group of thirteen rabbis representing a spectrum of American Jewish denominations. The group’s website explains the religious meaning of the campaign: “In Jewish tradition a communal fast is held in times of crisis both as an expression of mourning and a call to repentance. In this spirit, Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza is a collective act of conscience initiated by an ad hoc group of rabbis, Jews, people of faith, and all concerned with (this) ongoing crisis…”

The fast has four goals: to call for a lifting of the blockade, to provide humanitarian and developmental aid to the people of Gaza, to call upon Israel, the US, and the international community to engage in negotiations with Hamas in order to end the blockade, and to encourage the American government to “vigorously engage both Israelis and Palestinians toward a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

The water-only fast will take place every third Thursday of the month, from sunrise to sunset. In addition to signing on to the fast statement, participants have been asked to donate the money they save on food to the Milk for Preschoolers Campaign sponsored by American Near Eastern Refugee Aid, a relief campaign that combats malnutrition among Gazan preschool children.

Since the electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006, Israel has imposed a blockade that has severely restricted Gaza’s ability to import food, fuel and other essential materials. As a result, the Gazan economy has completely collapsed and it suffers from high levels of unemployment and poverty and rising levels of childhood malnutrition.

“Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people in Gaza amounts to nothing less than collective punishment. While we condemn Hamas’ targeting of Israeli civilians, it is immoral to punish an entire population for the actions of a few,” said Rabbi Brant Rosen, who serves Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. “This blockade has only served to further oppress an already thoroughly oppressed people.  As Jews and as human beings of conscience, we cannot stand idly by.”

“We’ve been enormously encouraged by the initial response we’ve received from the Jewish community thus far,” said fast organizer Rabbi Brian Walt, former Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, who noted that the initiative has signed up numerous supporters prior to the launch of the project. “We truly believe this effort is giving voice to a significant number of people who been looking for a Jewish voice of conscience on this issue.”

Rescue the Spirit of Humanity

CYPRUS-MIDEAST-CONFLICT-GAZA-AID-BOAT

The humanitarian situation in Gaza has grown beyond intolerable.  If you have any doubts, just read this devastatingly important article by Sara Roy, senior research scholar at Harvard’s  Center for Middle Eastern Studies:

Today, 96 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.4 million is dependent on humanitarian aid for basic needs. According to the World Food Programme, the Gaza Strip requires a minimum of 400 trucks of food every day just to meet the basic nutritional needs of the population. Yet, despite a 22 March decision by the Israeli cabinet to lift all restrictions on foodstuffs entering Gaza, only 653 trucks of food and other supplies were allowed entry during the week of May 10, at best meeting 23 percent of required need.

Israel now allows only 30 to 40 commercial items to enter Gaza compared to 4,000 approved products prior to June 2006. According to the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, Gazans still are denied many commodities (a policy in effect long before the December assault): Building materials (including wood for windows and doors), electrical appliances (such as refrigerators and washing machines), spare parts for cars and machines, fabrics, threads, needles, candles, matches, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses, musical instruments, books, tea, coffee, sausages, semolina, chocolate, sesame seeds, nuts, milk products in large packages, most baking products, light bulbs, crayons, clothing, and shoes.

What possible benefit can be derived from an increasingly impoverished, unhealthy, densely crowded, and furious Gaza alongside Israel? Gaza’s terrible injustice not only threatens Israeli and regional security, but it undermines America’s credibility, alienating our claim to democratic practice and the rule of law.

And now the news has just come in that Israel has seized the “Spirit of Humanity,” a boat carrying a cargo of humanitarian aid in international waters, and  is  forcibly towing it to an Israeli port.  The boat contained 21 human rights workers from 11 countries, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire and former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. It was bringing medicine, toys, and other much needed humanitarian relief.

If you’re looking for a way to channel your upset over this dire situation into effective contribution to Gaza relief, I particularly recommmend American Near East Refugee Aid.  Their projects in Gaza include:

– Delivery of  life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to hospitals and clinics;

– Distribution of  fortified milk and high-energy biscuits to 25,200 children in 186 preschools.

– Water projects that bring water networks to families in need and pumping systems to keep raw sewage off the streets.

– A psychosocial program that helps thousands of children and parents struggling to survive the effects of war.

– Cash-for-work programs that employ workers to clear agricultural land of plastic waste and provide 200 families a means of self-reliance.

The Season of our Sustenance: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

As I sat down to write my sermons this New Year, I somehow found myself returning to the theme of “sustainability.”  Click below for my remarks on Erev Rosh Hashanah:

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JRC Says Farewell to Africa

On our final day in Africa, we visited the Nankusi and Namanyonyi primary schools, both of which are supported by the Peace Kawomera’s fair trade social premiums. Both schools are engaged in building projects to create more classrooms and more essential educational resources. In each school we saw overcrowded classes (many cramming in over 100 students) and most classrooms are not even equipped with a chalkboard. Similarly, in both schools these important construction projects are currently stalled out due to lack of funding, materials and workers. At Namanyonyi, we were told that they needed the equivalent of $2,000.00 to finish the project.

We’ve heard these kinds of appeals several times on our trip and they are challenging to the core. On the one hand, in the face of such direct need, it’s all you can do to not take out the money and just donate it on the spot. On the other hand, this would clearly raise more questions than it would solve: why is this school more deserving than the one down the road? What kinds of social tensions would you be exacerbating by privileging one one school over another? How would we ensure that the money would be used in the way we were told? What kind of unhealthy power dynamic are we reinforcing when we throw money around in this way? We’ve discussed these kinds of questions a great deal as a group and in the end we’ve resolved to live with the difficulties and complexities that attend the phenomenon of world poverty, arguably the most intractable issue facing the world today.

One important thing we do take away from these experiences is the resolve to support NGOs on the ground that we know are making a real difference in the lives of real people. We have been transformed by our relationships with organizations like WE-ACTx, the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities and Peace Kawomera, who are leading the charge to create better futures for the communities they serve.

If we have learned anything on this trip, it is that we much redouble our resolve to support their efforts and to encourage others to do so as well. In a world that is so desperately in need of heroes and role models, these are the ones who truly inspire: people like Dr. Mardge Cohen, Samuel Watalatsu, JJ Keki, and so many, many others who work largely off the PR radar screen, but whose vision and drive are bringing hope and change in the areas of the world that need it most.

We’re coming home now, but our work is really just getting started…

Return to Nantandome

Today was another full day for our group. It was completely devoted to a visit to the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities (FDNC) – an NGO that JRC visted three years ago during our first Africa delegation.

In April 2005 JRC was the first group hosted by FDNC, on a trip made in collaboration with American Jewish World Service. (You can read excerpts from my travel journal on the JRC website). The visit was a transformational one for us – and we just knew that whenever we returned to Africa we would meet again with our friends at FDNC. Indeed, several members of our current delegation were part of the original visit in 2005. (That’s us above in a pic taken today: from left to right: Debbie Wolen, me, Elaine Waxman, FDNC founder Samuel Watalatsu, Robert Israelite and Dan Litoff).

I’ll put it simply: if anyone asks you for a definition of “sustainable development,” just point to FDNC. Through Samuel’s inspired leadership, FDNC has grown into a model of self-reliance and grassroots sustainable development for the most impoverished communities of Eastern Uganda. They are particularly adept at developing strategies that promote community empowerment in the critical areas of vocational training, women’s rights, health/AIDS awareness and music/dance education.

During our first visit, we stayed for a week in the FDNC vocational school located in Nantandome Village, an impoverished rural area not far from Mbale. Living and working in this environment had a profound effect on our group. Among other things, we helped with construction of a classroom – we well recalled how painstaking it was to mix the cement for the mortar. Water had to be hauled in jerry cans from a river half a mile away and the mud bricks were made by hand and baked in the sun.

Just three short years later, the transformation of the area is profound. The classrooms of the school are complete and the grounds are beautifully landscaped. They are currently being served by numerous volunteers (we met teenagers on an AJWS service program as well as interns from as far away as Spain and Japan). The school no longer has to haul their water in from the river – they now have large tanks that collect rain water. They also have an ingenious brick making device that makes mud bricks quickly that require a minimum of mortar.

FDNC is clearly flourishing, serving many more students from the surrounding districts and they are currently in the midst of building a new headquarters for their operations in Mbale. It was deeply inspiring for us to witness the fruits of their labors – and how powerfully they have impacted their community.

In the morning we toured the vocational classes, which include hairdressing, computer skills, tailoring and masonry/carpentry. We also visited with an inspiring new educational program for special needs children (above) which is virtually unprecedented in Uganda. (The writing on the board in back of the children reads “Disability is not Inability.”) We also made a special donation of supplies to the school, which included some hula hoops courtesy of the Waxmans. (Below you can see FDNC vocational school director Walter Urek-Wun trying one out).

In the afternoon we visited the village of Wapando, one of the many nearby communities served by FDNC (bottom pic). They received our group joyfully, singing songs and dancing with us – and we reciprocated with a few rousing rounds of “Oseh Shalom.” They also cooked and served us a full lunch, an almost overwhelmingly generous gesture under the circumstances.

Our day ended back at the vocational school, where young people from the FDNC brass band and a traditional dance group performed for us for over two hours as the sun set behind them. Children and families from the area turned out in droves for the occasion as did numerous volunteers and we all helped cheer the performers on. By the end of a cathartic day, we were virtually spent – and deeply moved by what can be accomplished by people so thoroughly devoted to their community.

Tomorrow we’re going to spend the day with our good friends from the Mirembe Kowamera interfaith fair trade coffee coop. There’s much more to come…


Sustainable Development from Rwanda to Uganda

We’re in Uganda now, after one night in Kampala and a four hour plus bus ride to the town of Mbale. Before I report on Uganda, tho, I want to write about our final visit in Rwanda: a stop at the Millennium Village Project in Bugasera (which is in the same district as the Nyamata genocide site we visited last week). MVP is the product of the United Nations and has been piloted in several locations throughout the developing world with the aim of helping communities reach the UN Millennium Goals.

The MVP in Rwanda presents an extremely impressive model of community development. We visited a district primary school – that’s me and Rich Katz above with some of the students. We visited on the last day of school (the young girl to my right is holding her report card). We also visited an MVP health clinic and a women’s craft cooperative that is helping to build economic capacity for the area. (That’s Rhonda Stein below, learning basket weaving from one of the coop members).

Our first stop in Uganda was along similar lines. Uganda Crafts in Kampala is a Fair Trade org that creates and sustains jobs for the disadvantaged throughout Uganda, Kenya and the Congo – employing women, the disabled, orphans, and people living with HIV. Before visiting the shop, we sat with Betty and Rose, who help run the project and described its genesis and evolution in depth. On the right is Lauren Parnell, who will be working with Uganda Crafts for the coming year and is our guide (with her husband John) for the rest of our sojourn in Uganda. We met Lauren through her work in Chicago with the Interfaith Youth Core.

We have a full day tomorrow. Stay tuned…

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…

Don’t Just Stand There

If you are reading the news about recent global crises and you’re feeling overwhelmed and impotent, I’ve always found that actually doing something seems to help allay my feelings of helplessness.

To help aid victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, I’m encouraging donations through the International Development Enterprises. IDE Myanmar opened in 2004 and is one of the few organizations that is doing both relief and development work in all of the affected areas and also has government permission to go into them. Donations to IDE Myanmar will be used for relief aid to survivors of the cyclone in the Irrawaddy Delta region, many of whom have no shelter, food or fuel. Most critically, IDE will initially focus on providing immediate relief but will also plan for rebuilding communities to be self sufficient in the long-term.

On a wider front, Avaaz.org is organizing a campaign to deliver the following petition to G8, UN and EU leaders to respond to the growing world food crisis::

We call on you to take immediate action to address the world food crisis by mobilizing emergency funding to prevent starvation, removing perverse incentives to turn food into biofuels and managing financial speculation, and to tackle the underlying causes by ending harmful trade policies and investing massively in sustainable agricultural productivity in developing nations.

(For important background on the food crisis, I recommend this excellent NY Times editorial.)

World Water Week

Did you know that lack of clean and accessible drinking water is the second largest worldwide killer of children under five? Rather than take that in as yet one more depressing stastistic, there is something you can do. UNICEF’s Tap Project is an effort that celebrates the clean and accessible drinking water available as an every day privilege to millions, while providing safe drinking water for children around the world.  

Here’s a description the Tap Project’s figurehead campaign, World Water Day:

Beginning Sunday, March 16 through Saturday, March 22, restaurants will invite their customers to donate a minimum of $1 for the tap water they would normally get for free. For every dollar raised, a child will have clean drinking water for 40 days.

Currently, UNICEF provides access to safe water and sanitation facilities while promoting safe hygiene practices in more than 90 countries. By 2015, UNICEF’s goal is to reduce the number of people without safe water and basic sanitation by 50 percent.

The Tap Project has a great website that walks you through the entire project and gives you an easy way of identifying participating restaurants in your area. (After a quick perusal, I discovered that nearly all of my favorite local eateries are part of this campaign.)

Will this effort be enough? No. Will every effort make a difference? Absolutely. Click above to learn more about World Water Week.