Category Archives: Women’s Issues

Back in Kigali with WE-ACTx

Our first full day in Rwanda was spent at the offices of our good friends at WE-ACTx in Kigali. I’ve written extensively about this amazing organization and it’s been wonderful to see the growth and success that they’ve accomplished in the past four years since we’ve been here.

The overall AIDS rate in Rwanda is currently at 3% – with lower numbers in rural areas and higher levels in urban centers.  Generally the emphasis is shifting from direct treatment to maintenance (health workers making  sure folks are taking their meds) and AIDS education and awareness, trauma treatment, and an expanded youth program.  WE-ACT-x has grown to the point now that former youth participants are no working as counselors and a new youth yoga program is meeting with great success. (Among the things we brought over with us from Chicago: 30+ yoga mats…)

We spent the day at the WE-ACTx office volunteering: sorting meds (that’s out teenage contingent above showing off their handiwork) and helping to paint a colorful mural in a new youth library (next down) Also engaged in some very interesting conversations with workers and locals about the complex realities of Rwanda post-genocide. More on that later.

Today, more quality time with WE-ACTx and a return visit to the Kigali genocide museum. Stay tuned.

Hotel Workers Speak Out Against “Un Troussage De Domestique”

Having been involved in the Hyatt boycott here in Chicago, I’m familiar with the hotel chain’s increasingly abysmal record on worker safety. Now I’m learning that the issue of sexual assault against hotel workers in general has long been a serious problem, long predating the current unpleasantness with Dominique Strauss-Kahn:

On June 2, hotel workers held speak-outs on sexual harassment and assault by customers in eight cities. The events were organized by UNITE HERE, the hotel union.

“These customers think they can use us for anything they want, because we don’t have the power that they have or the money that they have,” said Yazmin Vazquez, a Chicago room attendant.

Hotel workers face injuries from the physical stress of their work, including the awkward lifting of heavy mattresses hundreds of times a day. But the hidden hazard of hotel work, housekeepers say, is customers’ assaults on their dignity and physical integrity.

Workers report that male customers expose themselves, attempt to buy sexual services, grab and grope them and, in some cases, attempt to rape them…

The management response has been “deafening silence,” (said Annemarie Strassel of UNITE HERE), adding that she’s aware of only one hotel in which a staff meeting was called around the issue.

(h/t: Susan Klonsky)

Ta’anit Tzedek Sponsors “A Conversation About Women, Health, Children and Human Rights in Gaza”

The next fast day sponsored by Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza will take place on Thursday, August 19. To mark the occasion, we will host “A Conversation About Women, Health, Children and Human Rights in Gaza,” a conference call with Dr. Mona El-Farra, Director of Gaza Projects for the Middle East Children’s Alliance.

Dr. El-Farra is a physician by training and a human rights and women’s rights activist by practice in the Gaza Strip. She was born in Khan Younis, Gaza, and has dedicated herself to developing community-based programs that seek to improve health quality and link health services with cultural and recreational services throughout the Gaza Strip.

Our conference call will take place on Thursday, August 19, at 12:00 pm (EST).

Call info:

Access Number: 1.800.920.7487

Participant Code: 92247763#

There will be a question and answer period during the call.

Rohina Malik Unveils Our Common Humanity

Last night JRC was honored to host a performance of the one-woman show “Unveiled,” by Rohina Malik. Breathtaking.

Rohina is a playwright, actress and solo artist of South Asian heritage who was born in London and emigrated to Chicago when she was 15.  She is an impressive and important contemporary artist – and her identity as an American Muslim woman clearly plays an important role in her art.

“Unveiled” is constructed around five monologues by five Muslim women. During the course of the play, each of them greets the audience in turn, “welcoming” us with tea.  Each woman tells the story of their lives, explains their Muslim culture and shares the experience of living as a Muslim woman in the post 9/11 world.

For her appearance at JRC last night, Rohina performed three monologues: “Maryam,” a Pakistani-American who has a dress making shop on Chicago’s Devon Avenue; “Shabana,” a young rapper of South Asian descent who was born and raised in London; and “Layla,” a Chicago restaurant owner from the Middle East who lost a brother to the fall of the twin towers.

It’s difficult to convey the cumulative effect these women had upon the audience. Rohina’s performances cut to the heart of painful and complicated political issues – but even more profound was the immediately empathy Rohina was able to conjure for us through these remarkable women. In a relatively short amount of time, she was able to bring us through an entire gamut of emotions – and in the end, the common humanity we shared with these women was palpable to everyone in the room.

Following the play we had an equally powerful post-performance discussion facilitated by the play’s director, Ann Filmer. Nearly 250 people were in attendance – including many members of the Chicagoland Muslim community – and it was truly a tribute to Rohina’s art that so many members of this large and diverse group were inspired to share deeply personal comments about their own lives and struggles.

If you live in the Chicago area, you should know that “Unveiled” will be starting a run at the Victory Gardens Theater on March 24. Highly, highly recommended.

What We Need To Do For Haiti

In the wake of the terrifyingly tragic earthquake in Haiti, it has been gratifying to see private citizens give so generously to relief efforts. At the same time however, we shouldn’t forget that our own country’s policies can have a considerable impact on Haiti’s recovery. Check out what constitutional lawyer/human rights activist/Katrina survivor Bill Quigley has to say in his piece, “Ten Things the US Can and Should Do for Haiti.”

Item #3, for example:

Give Haiti grants as help, not loans. Haiti does not need any more debt. Make sure that the relief given helps Haiti rebuild its public sector so the country can provide its own citizens with basic public services.

Eerie Harmony, Hot Rhythm and Radical Braininess

You haven’t discovered Charming Hostess yet?  Well, if you’re interested in the latest in the radical Jewish creative spirit unleashed, then you’ve been sleeping on the job.

There’s no way I could do them justice, so I’ll let them describe themselves:

Charming Hostess is a whirl of eerie harmony, hot rhythm and radical braininess. Our music explores the intersection of text and the sounding body – complex ideas expressed physically, based on voice and vocal percussion, handclaps and heartbeats, sex-breath and silence. We live where diasporas collide, incorporating piyyutim and Pygmy counterpoint, doo-wop and niggunim, work songs and Torah chanting.

ChoHo’s leader is Jewlia Eisenberg, a San Francisco-based  “composer, extended-technique vocalist, lay cantor” who has been exploring exciting musical terrain with a variety of collaborators.  Their last CD, “Sarajevo Blues,”  juxtaposed music and text from the Jewish, African, and Bosnian Diasporas to explore

(Genocide) and nationalism, freedom under siege, the nature of evil, and resisting war by any means necessary – themes that Jews think about, maybe even obsess over.

And if that’s not enough for you, just check out ChoHo’s current work-in-progress, “The Bowls Project:”

The Bowls Project is an immersive music performance that takes place in a dome. (It) is based on texts from incantation bowls, common amulets 1500 years ago in Babylon. Simple clay bowls were inscribed with a householder`s secrets and desires, then buried under the house. Incantation bowls speak of mysticism and sex; angels and demons;and the trials and joys of daily life. Especially (and unusually) audible are the voices of the era`s women–their work, hopes, and dreams.

These spiraled Aramaic inscriptions from the same time and place as the Talmud open up a larger discussion: of the connections between material and literary culture, between canonized and marginalized voices, between ritual power and popular practice, and of how music mediates these relationships.

Click the link below to  “Yedidi,” my personal favorite from “The Bowls Project.”  On the YouTube clip above Jewlia Eisenberg performs the classic Ladino lullaby “Durme, Durme” at the 2008 Krakow Jewish Culture Festival.

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…


Guest Posts from Rwanda

There have been several instances on this trip in which smaller groups have opted for side trips separate from our main itinerary. I’ve asked two participants to share their experiences with you – our first report comes from JRC member Rich Katz, who visited a Rwandan organic farm with fellow JRC’ers Ray Grossman and Jonathan Nachsin (above). Here’s Rich’s report:

“It’s Milk – Not Meat”

One of the best examples of a grass-roots effort to improve the lives of poor and low-income families and individuals in Ruanda the work of Richard Munyerango, the Managing Director of the GAKO Organic Farming Training Center just outside of Kigali. We first met Richard when he participated in the Earth Box training session we conducted at the Remera Center earlier in the week. At that time, he invited us to his farm and training center to see what he is doing to promote more nutritious diets for the people who cannot afford them.

The Center was started to help the widows of genocide and children who are heads of households, and it has expanded since. By working with local associations who suggest the names of participants, he invites eighty people at a time to his training center for a month to learn organic farming techniques.

It is his opinion that people will be able to reduce the expense of their medications if they eat better food, which they can grow locally without the use of expensive chemical fertilizers. In addition, he sends trainers to each province of Rwanda to work through the local health agencies to promote organic farming practices. Since its inception, the Center has trained over a thousand people all over the country.

Richard’s farm consists of two small plots of land, gently sloping down a verdant hillside. At the upper end, he has built a modern classroom building and two dormitories for men and women. We were most impressed, however, with the number of small demonstration/experimental earthen mounds that he developed, each of which is devoted to growing a particular fruit or vegetable. We saw mounds that were growing cabbages, leeks, strawberries, spinach, kale, peppers and so much more. There were also small areas devoted to growing corn and bananas.

At the lower end of the property, Richard has a demonstration project for training people how to use cow manure and other animal products to produce compost, which he uses to amend the clay soil that is so prevalent here in this part of Rwanda. It is this composed material that makes the mounds so productive. He derives the compost from cow manure (hence the title of my post).

We learned so much from Richard about his method of organic farming, and at the same time we were pleased to be able to help him better understand the process we use in the States (using earthworms to create compost). He appeared to be very interested and excited about the possibility of adding this practice to his already considerable the curriculum. We also mentioned the nascent practice in the US of developing farming co-ops to connect growers and buyers, so that the farmer has a reliable source of capital and owners/consumers have a reliable source of organic produce. All in all, this was a very valuable and mutually beneficial experience.

Our second report comes from Kelsey Waxman, who attended a yoga group (above) run by WE-ACTz at the Remera center while the rest of the group went to the Nyamata genocide site. She was joined by two other JRC members: her mother (and inspired trip organizer) Elaine along with Beth Lange.

Here’s an excerpt from Kelsey’s travel journal:

We were then dropped off a Remera again: me, Mom and Beth for the afternoon yoga class. We went out on the cement porch with ten women, all chatting giddily in Kinyarwanda. They all had on African print fabric yoga pants and there was much disputation about when to start.

Two women led the class through a basic primary Ashtanga set, and the women laughed, chatted and helped each other through the entire thing. It was apparent that some of them had done this before. Some were more flexible than anyone I’d ever practiced with.

After quite a few laughs, they asked us to teach them some poses. My mom, being an experienced yogi, led them through some crazy poses like pigeon, headstand and the boat. The faces of agony and hilarity some of the women made during the boat pose were so funny and the faces of the other women made those imitating them sent us all into giggle fits. More and more people came around and either watched or participated, laughing along with us,

It was the end of the class, during Shavasna, corpse pose. You’re supposed to be completely quiet…like a corpse, but everyone chatted like little girls through the entire ten minutes. It was so funny, everyone pouring through the doors, sharing laughs and yoga mats. After, Beth pulled out the camera and we took many, many pictures with our new yogi friends.

JRC in Africa

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling, along with 25 other JRC members, on our congregation’s second service trip to Africa. I am immensely proud of JRC for organizing this effort, which reflects our deep and growing commitment to global service work in general and to addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic in particular.

From July 7- 15 we will be in Rwanda hosted by WE-ACTx, an important Kigali-based NGO that seeks to increase women’s and children’s access to HIV testing, care, treatment, education and care at the grassroots level. In particular, WE-ACTx has done inspirational work in helping survivors of genocidal rape and violence, focusing its efforts on empowering HIV-postive women and girls to take charge of their lives and become leaders in the fight against AIDS.

Our trip was inspired in large part through our congregation’s relationship with Dr. Mardge Cohen (above), a woman’s care specialist who worked for many years at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago and is one of the primary founders of WE-ACTx. Mardge is a longtime friend of JRC and was pivotal in helping us make the connection to Rwandan efforts to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We have learned a great deal from Mardge over the years and are thrilled that we will now have the opportunity to bear witness to her work. (Here’s a great, extensive Chicago Tribune article about Mardge and her efforts in Rwanda).

In addition to volunteering at the clinic in a variety of capacities, we will observe the work being done in Rwanda to heal from the very deep wounds of the 1994 genocide and learn about the ways in which Rwandan society continues to work to overcome tribal differences to create a viable future for their people.

From July 15-23, we will be in Uganda, visiting old friends we made from JRC’s last service trip in 2005. Our home base will be the town of Mbale and we will be volunteering once again with the Federation for the Development of Needy Communities – an NGO devoted to the sustainable development of communities in and around the rural area of Natandome. We will also visit the Mirembe Kowamera Jewish/Muslim/Christian Fair Trade Coffee Co-op with which JRC has partnered for many years. (We are hoping to be able to participate ourselves in the upcoming coffee harvest). Our itinerary will also include a Shabbat visit to the Abayudayah Ugandan Jewish community, with whom we also had the pleasure of visiting three years ago.

Among the many things that will make this trip so special is the significant participation of JRC’s young people (including my son Jonah). I am especially happy that they will have dedicated time to spend with young Rwandans (focusing, inevitably enough, on computer skills). All in all, it promises to be a memorable and powerful July. I plan to blog about our experiences as they occur so please plan to drop in and visit regularly over the next few weeks…

Mothers’ Merit

images6.jpgAs the book of Exodus opens, it is difficult not to notice that the bravery of women is the primary theme: the bravery of the midwives Shifra and Puah in defying Pharoah’s decree to execute Israelite baby boys, the bravery of Yocheved in saving Moses from death, the bravery of Pharoah’s daughter by rescuing Moses from the Nile, the bravery of Miriam, who reunited Moses with his mother and his people. Just one chapter into our story, it becomes clear that if it were not for Zechut Nashim – “the merit of women” – the Exodus story wouldn’t even make it out of the starting gate.

If you’re still looking for a year-end tzedakah, consider making a contribution in honor of this week’s Torah portion. I’m recommending Madre – the venerable org that works for the justice, dignity and human rights of women worldwide.

Another Exodus is born anew…