Category Archives: Rwanda

Open Congregations, Open Communities: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5775

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This past year marked an important milestone for our congregation – our 50th anniversary, JRC’s Jubilee Year. During the course of the year, we celebrated in a variety of different ways at events organized by our inspired Jubilee Year Committee. Among the most memorable for me were a series of Friday night services held throughout the year to honor the various generations of our congregation. At each service, we highlighted a different group of members, from longtime to the most recent. And at each service, I invited them to share their memories of JRC with one another: an anecdote, a story, an event that still remained significant to them.

I found these remembrances to be enormously, often unexpectedly powerful. In particular, it was humbling to consider how far our congregation had come since its founding. The cumulative effect of these services drove home for me just how far JRC has traveled in its first 50 years.

Congregants shared about the early days, in which JRC first met, originally as a Reconstructionist study group founded by Anshe Emet members. We heard about the so-called “Shlep-a-Shul” days, when JRC met in members’ homes and later in churches and Chute Middle School. We heard about the hiring of JRC’s first full time rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, and the purchase of our first permanent home at 303 Dodge. Members shared their memories of our fateful decision to start our first Capital Campaign, the construction of our new synagogue facility and the day we learned it had been awarded LEED Platinum status, making it the greenest house of worship in the country.

As I listened to these memories, it occurred to me that one secret to JRC’s success has always been its fearlessness – its culture of openness to change. Not simply change for change’s sake, but rather the kind of change that exemplified the philosophy of Reconstructionist Judaism. Change that stems from the understanding that Jewish civilization has always been a dynamic and evolving organism – and that successful congregations are the ones that are willing to make the changes necessary to remain relevant to ever new generations of Jews.

I remember first learning about JRC when I was in rabbinical school in the late 1980s. I actually visited here as a student intern in 1991 to lead programs at JRC’s annual Memorial Day retreat, or Kallah. It was Rabbi Rachlis’ last Kallah as rabbi, and the beginning of a new chapter at JRC. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the beginning of a new one in my own life as well.

I know I’ve shared with some of you that when I was in rabbinical school I consistently swore up and down that I had no intention of being a congregational rabbi. I was pretty cynical about congregations and believed them to be more akin to middle class membership organizations than spiritual communities. But in my final year as a rabbinical student, I had some wonderful experiences with congregations that knocked me right off my cynical high horse – and my weekend at the JRC Kallah was certainly one of them. I was so deeply impressed by the seriousness of its members, its experimental spirit, its openness to embrace new ideas and ways of experiencing Jewish tradition.

As it turned out, I became a congregational rabbi immediately upon graduation from rabbinical school – and to date it’s the only kind of rabbi I’ve ever been. I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC. And while I’m still critical of congregational Judaism in many ways, I also know from first-hand experience that congregations do have the potential be places of spiritual inspiration, of transformation and change.

First and foremost, until I started to serve at congregations, I never fully understood the power of Jewish community and Jewish tradition to change lives. As congregational rabbis, we are let into people’s lives in a way that I can only describe as “spiritually intimate.” We’re invited into our families’ joys and sorrows and everything in between – and in so doing we bear witness to the ways Jewish tradition represents a spiritual roadmap for the most profoundly charged moments in our lives.

Words cannot do justice to the honor I have felt to have shared such moments with you in so many ways over the years. To put it simply, we have been through so much together. When I think back on my years at JRC, I know that my first memories will invariably be these myriad of life moments: B’nai Mitzvah, funerals and shiva calls, weddings and baby namings and the countless simple moments when I was able, in some measure, to be part of your lives on behalf of your spiritual community. It has enriched my life immeasurably and for it all I will be forever grateful.

And when I think of these past seventeen years in the collective sense, I am struck by the numerous ways JRC has shown me how congregations can become Jewish laboratories for the work of Tikkun Olam – for social justice at home and around the world. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times rabbinical colleagues have approached me over the years to tell me how much they admire our congregation in this regard. I’ve been asked by countless rabbis and lay people about the secret of our success, and how they might plant the same kind of passion for Tikkun Olam in their own synagogues.

And while I’d love to claim the credit, the real truth is that this passion has always been an indelible part of JRC’s culture. Here’s a little bit of history from the early days of my tenure here. I do believe it’s a piece of congregational history that deserves to be honored and remembered:

Shortly after I arrived, I heard in no uncertain terms from a number of members that JRC’s social action programming had been languishing in recent years. Other than our participation in the monthly soup kitchen, there was really no ongoing Tikkun Olam activity in our congregation to speak of. From the very beginning of my tenure here, I sensed a deep and palpable desire to revitalize JRC’s involvement in the arena of social justice.

So with the help of some inspired JRC members led by Gail Brodsky and Reggi Marder, of blessed memory, we decided to rebuild JRC’s social action program from scratch. We started by dissolving the social action committee. We did away with the common congregational system that delegates social action priorities to one relatively small group of congregants – and in its place we created a more grassroots approach – one that was grounded in the ideals of community organizing rather than organizational programming.

We designated members as Tikkun Olam coordinators, who then put out a call to the congregation, announcing that JRC would now support any social action initiatives that congregants saw fit to organize. We reached out to members who had passion, experience, or skills in any particular field of social justice work and gave them the wherewithal to do it Jewishly, under the auspices of their congregation. Our members responded to this call almost immediately. And it’s not an exaggeration to say our new system had a transformative effect on our congregation.

Here are two examples: One of JRC’s very first initiatives was our Environmental Task Force. When it began, it concentrated largely on internal policy issues, congregational education, consciousness-raising about JRC’s use of recyclables, etc. However, when JRC started to explore the prospect of building a new facility for our congregation, the Environmental Task Force broadened its vision. It met with our Board and proposed that we build our new home as a green building.

Now this was back around the year 2002 or so, when environmental consciousness was not yet so firmly planted on our national radar screen. Many of us had only the vaguest notion of what a green building even was. But to their credit, our leaders educated themselves and our community about and sustainable construction and energy efficiency – and about the very complicated LEED certification process. Then we took the leap and committed to building a new building at the highest LEED status feasible. At that time, none of us had any notion what that might mean. We certainly didn’t dream we would eventually achieve a Platinum rating – the highest rating possible.

While today JRC has a well-deserved reputation as a green congregation, it’s important to keep in mind that our congregation didn’t have a long history of environmental activism. Our accomplishments were a direct product of our new culture of Tikkun Olam – an approach that invited our members themselves to take ownership of our congregation’s social justice values and priorities.

Here’s another example. Another one of our earliest task forces was our Global AIDS Task Force. When it began, it was also largely educational in orientation – it sponsored an annual World AIDS Day program and helped raise funds and awareness about the efforts to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic at home and abroad. But after a few years of this work within our congregation, the leaders of this task force decided it was time to take things to the next level – and organized a service trip to Africa.

Again, up until this point, JRC did not have a history of organizing international service trips. I certainly never dreamed that as a rabbi, I would some day accompany my congregants to work with NGOs in rural Africa to serve communities ravaged by AIDS. To date, JRC has now visited Uganda and Rwanda three times and has created lasting relationships with courageous important NGOs such as Rwanda’s We-Act and CHABHA. But again, we were only able to accomplish all of this when we made the decision to give Tikkun Olam back to our members themselves.

When I look back over the most recent chapter of JRC’s life, I personally believe this will be its most important legacy: the creation of this new congregational culture for the work of Tikkun Olam. And as JRC enters its next chapter, I encourage you to continue to nurture it – and build upon it. Despite what JRC has already accomplished, I can’t help but think we’ve only just scratched the surface. Learn more about these initiatives and support them. If any of you who may have passions or experience or skills in a particular aspect of Tikkun Olam, please know that this congregation can be your laboratory for doing this sacred work. I can tell you from first-hand experience these initiatives have the potential to make a very real difference in the life of our congregation – and more importantly, in the world around us.

I’d like to address another aspect of JRC’s Tikkun Olam work that I believe has been crucial in its most recent chapter – and it is one I believe will only become even more critical in the years ahead. And that is, namely, the issue of Israel/Palestine. This is, of course, not just any other Tikkun Olam issue; in so many ways it is the issue for the Jewish community. Last night I spoke about the ways I have evolved on this issue – and how my evolution has impacted on our congregation. And while I know it has been painful – and that this issue was eventually instrumental in my decision to leave JRC, I do believe it has also led our congregation to respond and grow in courageous ways.

Another bit of history: several years ago, in response to the growing tensions caused by my Palestinian solidarity activism, the JRC Board reached out to consultants to help us to create a process for civil discourse on this issue; to build a culture of openness to all views and the development of safe spaces for conversation and programming on Israel/Palestine that truly reflected the range of our members’ views and concerns. This work resulted in what we eventually called the “Sicha Project,” in which we trained JRC members to become group facilitators to be used whenever we addressed difficult or potentially controversial aspects of the Israel/Palestine issue together as a community. At the same time, we created an Israel Program Committee charged with the creation of a wide variety of programs on this issue.

The Sicha Project was, I believe, a truly courageous approach to a deeply difficult issue that most congregations generally deal with in one of two ways: monolithically or through abject avoidance. And for a time, at least, I do believe JRC’s approach provided an important model for a new kind of congregational engagement on Israel/Palestine.

I’m sorry to say that this initiative broke down over the last few years. There are many reasons for this. I believe we failed to remain as vigilant as we should have been in bringing new leadership aboard and I believe the work of our first Israel Program Committee became paralyzed and left to languish. But whatever the specific causes of this breakdown, I don’t believe for a second that it was due to anything inherent to the model itself. Now more than ever, our congregation needs to come together to discuss this issue openly and I do have faith that we have the wherewithal to make it succeed.

Over the past year, a new Israel Program Task Force has been hard at work revitalizing and rebooting this process. It has created a new policy for inclusive Israel programming that has been presented to and approved by the Board. And we are now poised to restart the Sicha Project once more. Despite the immense challenges of such an initiative, I believe this is still the model of how congregations can respond to this difficult issue with sensitivity and courage.

I would also suggest that if JRC wants to remain on the leading edge of trends in American Jewish life, it would do well to face this issue head on. There is every indication that attitudes about Israel in the Jewish community are widening. Studies show us over and over that the younger Jewish generation is questioning the role of Israel in their Jewish identity in fundamental ways. We can ignore or fight against this phenomenon – or we can face it head on. This is our Jewish future – and unless congregations create communities in which all views can be included and respected, I believe they will soon find themselves on the road to irrelevancy.

One of the most important bellwethers of this phenomenon is the Open Hillel movement – a grassroots initiative of university students who have organized in response to Hillel International’s very narrow guidelines for what they consider to be appropriate Israel student programming on campus. Over the last few years, this movement has exploded in Jewish student communities across the country. Individual Hillels have been declaring themselves to be “Open Hillels” that allow a wide tent of points of view on Israel – next month it will be holding its first national conference at Harvard.

In its mission statement, Open Hillel says the following (listen to the young people now):

Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.

Our congregations would do well to develop this kind of manifesto. Perhaps it could provide us with the nucleus of a nascent Open Congregations movement, in which Jewish congregations openly declare their willingness to create a safe and wide tent for all points of view on this issue within their congregations.

Although I’ve personally made the decision to leave congregational life professionally, I still do believe in congregations. And I’ll admit, I say this selfishly: quite frankly, Hallie and I would love to find a congregation in which we ourselves can make a comfortable Jewish home. But even more than this, I do know from over 20 years of first-hand experience, that congregations can be exciting, relevant places that don’t just hold on to a Jewish past but mold the Jewish future. I know it can be done.

But we if we do decide to throw our weight behind congregational Judaism, we should have no illusions about the challenges this will entail. To put it bluntly, liberal Jewish congregations are not a growth industry in America. Every Jewish community-sponsored study tells us the same thing over and over: the overwhelming majority of American Jews do not affiliate with congregations. Synagogue membership is shrinking considerably, and increasing numbers of congregations are closing their doors. And while I know that there are many complex reasons for this, I am convinced that the only way we can respond is to take a good hard look at the reality of the Jewish community – and to create congregations of relevance and meaning that will lead us into our Jewish future.

I know for a fact that JRC can be one of those congregations. It’s been doing it for the past 50 years and I’ve seen it with my own eyes for the past 17. I thank you for providing me and my family with such an exciting and vibrant Jewish home. I have no doubt you will go from strength to strength and I look forward to watching it happen.

Shanah Tovah to you all.

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).

“If You Really Knew Me and You Really Knew Yourself, You Would Not Have Killed Me”

On Friday morning we headed south to visit the AJESOV association in Nyamata. On the way we stopped at two prominent massacre sites of the Rwandan genocide: the churches at Ntarama and Nyamata. We visited the Nyamata site in 2008 and I wrote at some length about the experience.  While this time around I had some idea of what awaited me, our visits to these sites were emotionally overwhelming nonetheless.

Ntarama is the smaller of the two churches, located in an area that had historically witnessed violence toward Tutsis prior to the genocide. As our tour guide explained to us, Tutsis were able to find sanctuary in this church during the upheavals of 1992. In 1994, however, even churches did not offer protection from the killers – and 5,000 Tutsi men, women and children seeking refuge were eventually murdered in the Ntarama church. (According to a 2002 report issued by Rwanda’s Ministry of Local Government, eleven per cent of the country’s genocide victims were killed in churches).

The Ntarama church has been preserved in much the same condition as it was following the genocide. White and purple banners (white being the sign of hope and purple, symbolic of mourning) are draped throughout the compound. In the main sanctuary the bloody clothes of the victims are draped over the pews. Skulls and bones are arranged on shelves in the rear of the room and multiple caskets line the center of the sanctuary. Across the podium on the pulpit hangs a banner quoting a poem written by a genocide survivor: “If you really knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”

Outside the church remain holes in the walls created by grenades (see top picture). In a smaller building, that once served as the religious school, the blood of slain children remains splattered across the walls. The church kitchen’s interior remains charred – the burned mattress used to set it ablaze lays crumpled on the floor. Before leaving the church, we stopped at a spot designed as a prayer/meditation space (below) to say Kaddish.

The larger church in Nyamata (below), where thousands were likewise killed after seeking sanctuary, remains much the same as it did during our 2008 visit. Like the Ntarama site, the main sanctuary of Nyamata church contains rows upon rows of arranged clothes of the victims. Beneath the sanctuary is a room created to display some of the remains of the victims (bottom pic) as well as a casket containing the body of a young woman whose torture and murder is considered to be paradigmatic of the abject brutality displayed during the Nyamata massacre.

We said Kaddish once again at the mass grave in the rear of the church before signing the guest book and getting back on our bus. An inexplicably poignant moment: we saw and heard the joyful voices of young children playing in a primary school located directly across from the church. This cognitive dissonance seemed to epitomize our experience in Rwanda: it is utterly impossible to reconcile this beautiful country of brave and gracious people with the history of unimaginable brutality its citizens unleashed upon one another less than two decades ago.

The lessons of this paradox are by not means simple.  At times such as this, the words “Never Again” come to us almost reflexively, but I must confess that given the tragically chronic reality of human rights abuse, these two familiar words ring increasingly hollow for me. I can’t help but think we must dig much deeper – and face more painful truths about ourselves – before uncover the the light that will that will show us the way out of the legacies bequeathed to us by places such as Ntarama and Nyamata.

What are the lessons?  These words provide as good a place as any for us to begin:

If you really knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me…

Photo: Rwanda Genocide Archive

 

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.