Lamentation for a New Diaspora

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photo credit: NateHallinan.com

I’ve just written a new poetic take on Lamentations, the Biblical book traditionally read on the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av (The Ninth of Av). The context of Lamentations is fall of the 1st Temple and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE; it is at once a funeral dirge for the fallen city, a lament over the communal fate of the people, a confession of the collective sins that led to their downfall and a plea to God to rescue them from their dismal fate.

When all five chapters of Lamentations are chanted on Tisha B’Av, its impact can feel shattering. Taken as a whole, it might be said that this epic lament has the raw power of a primal scream. As Biblical scholar Adele Berlin has described it:

The book’s language is highly poetic and extraordinarily moving. Even though often stereotypical, it effectively portrays the violence and suffering of the events. The experiences of warfare, siege, famine, and death are individualized, in a way that turns the natural into the unnatural or anti-natural—brave men are reduced to begging, mothers are unable to nourish their children and resort to cannibalism. The book’s outpouring is addressed to God, so that God may feel the suffering of his people, rescue them, and restore them to their country and to their former relationship with him. The entire book may be thought of as an appeal for God’s mercy. Yet God remains silent.

According to the Mishnah (an early rabbinic era legal text), Tisha B’v commemorates five historical calamities that befell the Jewish people, including the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples, and the crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Over the centuries many other historical cataclysms have been added to be to be mourned on this day as well (including the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the beginning of World War I in 1914). Although Lamentations was originally written to address a historically specific context, it’s popularity over the centuries testifies to a uniquely timeless quality.

While Lamentations is an expression of Jewish communal loss, this new version places these themes in a universal 21st century context, set in a not-too-distant future that I fervently hope shall never come to pass. In this reimagining, it is less an elegy for what was lost than a spiritual/poetic warning about a cataclysm that may be yet to come if our world does not turn from the perilous path we are currently traveling.

May the grief of this Tisha B’Av give us all the strength to fight for the world that somehow still might be.

Click here for the pdf. Feel free to share.

Our Afternoon in Umm Al-Kheir

IMG_2464For our delegation’s first day in the field we traveled to the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir in the South Hebron Hills.The Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir came to this region over 60 years ago, after they were expelled from Tel Arad (in the Negev desert) by the Israeli military. After coming north, they purchased this land from the Palestinian village of Yatta and lived there peacefully until the mid-1980’s, when the Jewish settlement of Carmel was built directly next to it.

Since that time every structure in Umm al-Kheir has endured a series of home and structural demolitions. Meanwhile, since Umm al-Kheir is not officially recognized by the Civil Authority of IDF, it has no access to electricity or water and must depend on solar panels and trucked-in water to survive. The entire town is essentially remains under demolition order; the reality of this constant threat has become a part of daily reality for the people of Umm al-Kheir. The latest occurred this past April, when the IDF destroyed six homes and left 35 villagers homeless.

The village looks as you might expect, with small metal homes and pens for their sheep and goats. They have also constructed a larger structure to serve as a community center and have begun to clear out land for agricultural use. For the people of Umm al-Kheir, existence is resistance.

As I wrote in my previous post, the village of Umm al-Kheir asked the Center for Jewish Nonviolence to help them finish clearing out their land and to plant grow zatar (thyme). This agricultural work is itself an act of defiance – and a statement by the villagers to the military Civil Authority that they intend to remain on their land even as they live under the constant threat of expulsion.

After we arrived, our group was warmly welcomed by our host Aziz and were given a brief history of the village and the current state of their struggle with the military and the settlers who regularly harass them. We then spent the morning clear out their field of rocks and weeds to make the ground viable for planting:

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Take a close look at the picture above. Just behind the three members of our delegation you can see the proximity of the village to Carmel, which lies just beyond the chain link fence. As we worked, it was impossible to ignore the presence of this settlement, filled with beautiful homes and green lawns literally looming over the village. At one point a soldier drove up on the Carmel side of the fence, got out of his car, and watched us for the duration of the afternoon.

During our rest breaks, we had the chance to talk with several of the villagers and play with the children. At one point, we were joined by a small group of young people celebrating, carrying one of their friends on their shoulders. We were told that he had just passed his High School matriculation test (the equivalent of the SAT in the United States) and was now eligible to apply to University. They joyfully taught us a Bedouin song so we could join in the celebration with them.

As has always been the case whenever I’ve visited Palestinian villages or refugee camps, our hosts showed us profound and gracious hospitality. After work, we shared a delicious lunch together, after which there was more singing and an awesome dance performance by the children of the village.  Needless to say, it was a day of many mixed emotions for our delegation. We return tomorrow to finish clearing out the field and start the planting of hundreds of zatar plants.

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CJNV staff person Erez Bleicher hard at work in Umm al-Kheir

After lunch our delegation visited the village of Susiya, where will working later this week (stay tuned.) We also visited Al-Twani – the largest village in the South Hebron Hills. There is much to say about this remarkable place, which is the center of the Palestinian nonviolent movement in the region and also the home to a notable archaeological site. I’ll write more about Al-Twani in a future post.

For more on the struggles of Umm al-Kheir, I highly recommend this 2011 article from Ha’aretz. For now, it’s off to bed after a long full day.

 

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.

After Cast Lead, Israeli Companies Now Profit from Rebuilding Gaza

More than three years after Israel inflicted widespread damage on the infrastructure of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, two Israeli companies have now won bids issued by the UNICEF for reconstruction projects there.  In other words, after destroying much of the Gaza Strip, Israel is now reaping significant economic benefits from its reconstruction.

This is called “disaster capitalism” – something Israel has turned into something of an art form. To understand the phenomenon more thoroughly, read Chapter 21 of Naomi Klein’s essential book “The Shock Doctrine,” which explains in vivid detail why Israel now believes it is more in its economic interest to wage war than to make peace:

Clearly, Israeli industry no longer has reason to fear war. In contrast to 1993, when conflict was seen as a barrier to growth, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange  went up in August 2006, the month of the devastating war with Lebanon. In the final quarter of the year, which had also included the bloody escalation in the West Bank and Gaza … Israel’s overall economy grew by a staggering 8 percent – more than triple the growth rate of the U.S. economy in the same period. The Palestinian economy, meanwhile, contracted by between 10 and 15 percent in 2006, with poverty rates reaching close to 70 percent.

Exxon Valdez: A Dubious Anniversary

Hard to believe, but Tuesday, March 24 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. On that infamous day nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil was spilled into this exquisite sea habitat, covering 11,000 square miles of ocean. Hundreds of thousands of animals died as a result; untold aftereffects continue to plague the sound and its surroundings to this day.

To mark this important anniversary (which will likely fly pretty low under the media radar) I recommend this excellent series from Buzzflash.com which reveals, among other things, that Exxon is still avoiding reparations to struggling Alaskans while making record profits (see clip above.)

Stumped for a way to acknowledge the importance of this day? Click on this action alert from Ocean Conservancy, and encourage your senator and representative to pass legislation that addresses the severe challenges confronting our ocean and marine ecosystems.

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…


Trash is Cash

If you’re looking for a meaningful way to celebrate Earth Day 2008, here’s an inspiring project worthy of your support. Taka ni Pato (“Trash is Cash”) is an income-generating, solid waste management and recycling project that removes more than 2000 tons of trash each year from a slum in Kenya.

More than 700,000 people live in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, which is large as NYC’s Central Park, yet lacks basic government services such as trash removal, sewage, and clean water. Through Taka ni Pato, however, garbage is becoming a resource in Kibera. TNP promotes solid waste management and public awareness about recycling, and creates jobs for youth that collect trash. At present, TNP engages more than 100 young people, providing them with the tools necessary to clean up their communities, creating a healthier environment while generating income for individual economic development.

If you’d like to support TNP in their efforts to create a more environmentally and economically sustainable community, click here. $25 will buy two shovels and a rake for clean ups; $75 buys a wheel barrel for transporting trash; $100 helps pay rent for land used to sort and store recyclable materials.

You should also know that TNP is but one of many important initiatives sponsored by Carolina for Kiberia – an amazing NGO run out of the University of North Carolina that was named a Time Magazine and Gates Foundation “Hero of Global Health.”

Make a difference this Earth Day! Anyone out there have a favorite environmental effort they’d like to share?

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.

Thanksgiving and the Farm Bill

farm_1116.jpgThis Thanksgiving season, I’ve been thinking more and more about the complicated ways in which our food reaches our tables. In particular, I’ve been paying increasing attention to the torturous course of the 2007 Farm Bill – a critical piece of legislation that has important implications for our nation and the world.

Like most Americans, my eyelids tend to droop when I hear words like “Farm Bill,” but I have slowly come to understand that it will have a profound and wide ranging impact upon us all. In the words of Time Magazine‘s Michael Grunwald, “If you eat, drink or pay taxes – or care about the economy, the environment or our global reputation – U.S. agricultural policy is a big deal.”

For its part, Jewish tradition teaches that the means by which we sustain ourselves is a mindful and sacred process. The Torah reminds us over and over laws that the land which produces its bounty (not to mention the bounty itself) is not a commodity that belongs to the farmer. God is the source of all sustenance and accordingly, the food we collect and consume must be understood to be a part of a greater, more transcendent good.

This past week it was reported that the Farm Bill stalled in the Senate for strictly political reasons. (What else is new?) This legislation is not likely to resurface for another year – in the meantime, anyone who eats food in this country would do well to educate themselves about the impact this bill will have on their lives.

So here’s a reading list for you this Thanksgiving. In addition to the fine, thorough Grunwald article linked above (“Why Our Farm Policy is Failing”), I recommend “Farm Bill 101,” from Food and Water Watch and this editorial by Michael Pollan, author of the GREAT book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and one of the most eloquent food advocates in our country.

Oh, and Happy Day to one and all…

Land and Water, Then and Now

dead-sea.jpgFrom the week’s Torah portion, Parashat Eikev:

For the land that you are about to inherit and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. (Deuteronomy 11:10-11)

From the JTA, September 2, 2005:

It took the Dead Sea to breathe some life into Arab-Israeli cooperation.

On Sunday, at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, four Israeli and Jordanian government ministers presented a collaborative venture to save the Dead Sea, which has been shrinking at an alarming rate.

Under the plan, a canal would be dug to divert water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Funding for the plan, which could cost up to $1 billion, would come from the World Bank. Construction is expected to begin within 12 to 18 months and take at least five years.

An additional $3 billion to $4 billion — expected to come from private sources — would be needed to construct desalination plants, which would provide water to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.

Hassam Nassar, Jordan’s minister of water and irrigation, said the level of the Dead Sea was dropping by over three feet a year. It already is the lowest point on the surface of the earth, 1,350 feet below sea level.

Stabilizing the level of the water would help maintain the heritage value of the Dead Sea, which has archaeological, tourism, ecological, historical and cultural value for the region and for all three of its major religions.

In recent years, U.N. conferences often have become playgrounds for Israel-bashers. But with international support required for the Dead Sea project, both Israel and Jordan believed the summit was the correct venue to inform the international community of the plan.

Initial investigations by a special binational technical task team have so far not shown any real environmental obstacles to the plan. The $10 million investigation will take around 18 months to complete.

The “Red-Dead” project faced fewer ecological difficulties than the previously proposed “Med-Dead” concept of bringing water from the Mediterranean Sea.

“Maybe this time the Dead Sea will bring life and peace to the region,” Israeli Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said.

Though Israel and Jordan are officially at peace, public announcements involving ministers from the two countries are rare.

But Bassem Awadallah, Jordan’s planning minister, said this was an environmental issue, not a political one.

“We are trying to keep the project out of politics. The project will save us all, Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians from an ecological disaster,” he said.

Awadallah added that this was an urgent environmental problem that could not wait for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We have to start now,” he said. “This is a natural disaster in the making and we will be criminals if we ignore it and watch the Dead Sea disappearing before our eyes.”

(Click here for a more current report on the status of the Dead Sea-Red Sea Canal Project.)