These turbulent and difficult times in which we now live demand that we speak up and take action. We can be the change that we need to see.
Many of us have been in great discomfort and turmoil since the 2016 United States elections as “anti” everything sentiments have turned extreme:
anti-anything that doesn’t appear to be white, wealthy and predominantly male.
The perception that our current political administration supports these notions has made it possible for extremists to voice their hatred and vitriol in ways that did not seem possible in this day and age. Neo-Nazism and anti-semitism have come out of the “closet;” when it seemed as if we were making strides in the LGBTQ arena, we have gone backwards instead; and any people of color or look as if they are from a place of non-American origin do not feel safe on US soil – even if they were born here.
The events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA and our US president’s response have brought these issues to a boiling point.
Our United States Constitution begins with the words: “We the People of the United States…” This country is the country of the PEOPLE of America. And it is time that the PEOPLE of our country remember our roots, our origins, how we came to be living in this great country in the first place.
We are a nation of immigrants, very few of us are “native Americans” (with the exception of the Native Americans, of course).
Most of us are in the United States because either we or someone in our family background wanted a better life, a life of opportunity and the United States was able to provide that. When we took our oath of citizenship we recited the pledge of allegiance which states that our beautiful country provides “justice and liberty for ALL.” It is a time to make sure that our country does indeed provide “justice and liberty” for ALL its citizens.
This past Sunday, it was so heartening to see hundreds of thousands of good, kind, caring, passionate people gathering all over the United States at hastily arranged vigils in a response to the rally in Charlottesville.
We took to heart the words of Holocaust survivor, humanitarian and social activist Elie Wiesel who said:
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.
I was so proud of my congregation, who came out in large numbers with barely any notice. Many had never done anything like this before. However, we are living in unusual times and they felt compelled to act.
And these unusual times call us to action.
It is not enough to simply gather together. We need to become the change we want to see in our country.
The Torah teaches us: Justice justice shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20) This passage, along with the notion that God made all humans in the divine image (Genesis 1:27) is part of what forms my moral compass. These two biblical values should impel us to speak up, take action and involve ourselves in the work necessary to make our country be a place of safety, security and peace for all.
There are many ways to respond:
The Reform Movements Religious Action Center published a guideline for action: Six Ways to Respond
Join with other like-minded people in your own community.
Write, call, email your senators, representatives and the President.
I pray for the day that we will see the realization of the prophet Isaiah’s words:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb
The leopard lie down with the kid.
Nothing evil or vile shall be done;
For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Eternal.
Isaiah 11 6 & 9
The Halachma Anya invites others to join in the Passover meal. This ritual is meaningless unless we truly open our doors throughout the year to end injustice, poverty, hatred, and war throughout our world.
Each year we begin our Passover Seder with an ancient Aramaic saying, as we break one of the three ritual matzot (plural of “matzah”) in half.
We hold up one-half of the middle pieces of matza and we clearly say:
This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are needy, come and celebrate Passover with us. The hour has come, now we are here. Next year, may we be in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves. Next year, may we be truly free.
And then we open our front door and and invite in all who are in need of a place to celebrate Passover, all who need a place to eat, all who are alone, or lonely, lost or wandering.
Usually, we do this as a ritual act: we break the middle matzah, recite the ancient words by rote, and open the door. We peer into the darkness and then hastily close the door again and continue with the rest of the rituals.
But what does it truly mean to hold up our “bread of affliction” and to OPEN OUR DOOR to others?
I think now is the time to transform this symbolic ritual into reality, to take the lessons from our Passover tables and turn them into living reality, so that next year, when we say at the end of “Ha lachma anya…next year may we truly be free.” These words will be filled with deep meaning because we have worked hard to make them so.
I write this on the day of Erev Pesach, the week that Syria used poisonous gas killing so many innocent citizens, in a civil war that has been raging for years? Where are our “Open Doors” to those Syrian refugees who need to to be treated as humans, and not as pawns in some bizarre game of “not welcome through my door.”
Where are our Open Doors to those who are starving in parts of Africa because we lack the intelligence and have too much red tape to adequately distribute food and water in a just and equitable manner?
Where are our Open Doors to those who are suffering in silence from Mental Illness or other illness afraid of what our current administration in Washington is going to do to our Health Care system?
Where are our Open Doors to those who are aging and might not have enough resources to enable them to live long lives filled with dignity, honor and as full-functioning humans?
Where are the Open Doors to our educators and parents and students who have invested so much in our public school system, to our Nationally Funded Arts programs which give our country more than just culture, but breadth and depth?
Where are the Open Doors to Women who deserve and demand a right to make our own decisions about what happens with our bodies?
Where are the Open Doors to members of the LBGTQ+ community who are being violated and having their long-fought-for rights stripped as we speak?
We have so many doors that are either closed or being threatened with closing.
This Passover — this Pesach — our Ha Lachma Anya prayer takes on especially significant meaning.
I invite you to open your door. Open it wide! As you break the middle matzah, think about how you find ways to symbolically open other doors throughout the coming year, how we can break down barriers, open doors to peace and understanding, justice and freedom for all.
One of my favorite quotes this time of year is from Morris Joseph. He said: “Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.”
Let’s knock down the closed doors of injustice, hatred, racism, xenophobia, poverty, war, mistruths, and so much more.
This year, not all are free. Next year, may we open the doors so that all may join us in freedom at our Pesach tables, no matter where we celebrate
It may seem like you’re too far-away to do much about the crisis affecting Dominicans of Haitian descent. But you can make a difference right now, without even leaving your seat.
In my last post, I wrote about my journey to the Dominican Republic with American Jewish World Service (AJWS) to learn about the social justice issues affecting the country. (See my previous post here). I also posted a link to petition that you can sign encouraging the United States government to pressure the DR to change its laws and stop violating the human rights of its citizens.
I now have the following request: please copy the following letter (verbatim – just add the name of your place of residence) and send it to your senators and representatives. These letters make a tremendous difference.
I have put the links for finding your senators’ and representatives’ names/snail-mail addresses and email addresses below. It makes no difference if you send it via email or snail-mail. (For email, just cut and paste the letter below, using your own name/city & state, into the email form found on your senators’/representative’s pages. For snail mail, cut and paste the letter below onto a letter, using your own name/city & state, and mail to the mailing address found on your senators’/representatives’ page.)
And one final request (from AJWS): After you’ve submitted your email or snail-mail letters to your senators and representatives, spend one last minute at the link below to let AJWS know you’ve submitted — very important for their follow-up efforts as we conduct our advocacy together with our partners in the Dominican Republic.
Dear Representative/Senator [insert the name of your elected official here],
As a concerned citizen from [insert name of your town here] I am deeply troubled by the plight of Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.
In 2010, the Dominican Republic changed its constitution and stipulated that children born to “irregular migrants” after 2010 would not be able to obtain citizenship by birth in the country. A subsequent court ruling in 2013 retroactively applied this constitutional change, saying that children born to “irregular migrants” since 1929 were not citizens and thereby denied citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people born in that country, creating the largest stateless population in the Western Hemisphere. To dampen the international outcry at this travesty, the Dominican government proposed Law 169-14 as a solution. However, because of fundamental flaws in the law, it has now become a trap for Dominicans of Haitian descent. As a result, tens of thousands of people, including many who were born in the Dominican Republic, have been thrown into the shadows of society. Every facet of daily life in the country depends on having documents to prove legal status. Without documentation, this group of people is unable to go to school or work in the formal sector. They cannot access health care services, get married or register the birth of their children.
We urge you to use all means available to hold the government of the Dominican Republic accountable for ending the crisis in the Dominican Republic, where hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent are being denied their fundamental right to nationality because of their heritage. Tragically, many of the same Dominicans of Haitian descent are fearful for their lives because the process to nationality is not transparent. It is all too easy for this population to be exploited and persecuted. As they are systematically denied their citizenship, they are subsequently disenfranchised and are being barred from voting in the upcoming national elections in May, 2016.
The international community cannot stand idly by while state-sanctioned discrimination strips away the dignity and fundamental human rights of innocent people.
We ask that you take immediate action to urge the U.S. Department of State to demand that the Dominican government:
Does not disenfranchise Dominicans of Haitian descent;
Immediately restores legal status of those who have been denied their nationality;
Has transparent and accessible processes to restore nationality.
As Jews, we are all too familiar with this kind of persecution, which our ancestors endured at the hands of oppressive governments. Such oppressions included expulsions of Jews from European countries during the Middle Ages, and Jews having their citizenship and rights stripped away in Nazi Germany, Vichy France and other countries. We stand in solidarity with Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants at this crucial time.
I recently went to the Dominican Republic on a human rights journey to see with my own eyes and to hear with my own ears the powerfully moving stories and struggles of so many Dominicans. The common reaction: “What!? There are human rights violations in the Dominican Republic?”
“Once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected.”
My father used to teach me this Jewish concept when I was young as we would march for social justice causes in New York City, as we would fight for the freedom of Soviet Jews, rally against the war in Viet Nam.
My parents instilled within me the notion that as a Jew, as a human being, I am morally obligated to use my voice to speak out for those who could not speak for themselves. My parents showed by example that if I witnessed evil or wrong-doing or injustice in our world, I needed to act.
I recently went to the Dominican Republic on a human rights journey to bear witness: to see with my own eyes and to hear with my own ears the powerfully moving stories and struggles of so many Dominicans.
“What!? There are human rights violations in the Dominican Republic? You aren’t going to Punta Cana to the nice beach resort?” I was asked this many times prior to my journey.
I travelled to the DR as part of a six-month Rabbinic Global Justice Fellowship with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). We went to meet with people from a number of human rights organizations, to listen to their stories, and to figure out how we can best accompany them on their journey of justice, their journey of perseverance, their journey of truth, their journey of finding humanity in the face of great difficulty.
As one of my colleagues so eloquently said, this was a journey about “becoming human.” Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, humanitarian, Torah scholar and professor, once stated: “To remain human in the face of absurd inhumanity is the real message of Judaism. And to act upon what we see is critical. Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.”
I was privileged to be present and witness deep moral courage expressed by human beings living in the midst of discrimination, poverty and pain.
The Dominican Republic government is perpetrating great human rights violations. In 2010, the government changed their constitution to revoke the citizenship of any Dominican-born person of Haitian descent. This is a complicated situation which perpetrates a cycle of lack of birth certificates, lack of ID cards, lack of ability to enroll in schools, lack of ability to obtain employment. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty, anguish and despair. It perpetrates fear of deportation, depression and lack of will-to-live.
I went to witness the discrimination that women and girls face by a society that values a “macho” culture, where gender-based violence is the “norm” and goes unpunished. I went to hear testimony from the LGBTQ community about how the Catholic views on sexuality, combined with the “macho” culture, join to form attitudes of hatred, alienation and gross miscarriages of justice toward the LGBTQ population.
And while I went to see, listen and witness, I knew this experience would be so much more profound than all of that. Why? For even though our bodies have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, we cannot overlook the senses of our souls. The differences between people lie in their individual use of these senses OR in their reliance only upon their physical senses.
My senses were on overdrive during this entire trip to the DR – both my physical senses and my senses of the soul: my heart and my mind.
What I physically touched, smelled, tasted, saw and heard moved my heart, touched my spirit and deeply stirred my soul.
I am a very visual person. I notice colors, shapes and small details all around me. From the moment we arrived at the Santo Domingo departure gate at JFK airport in New York, my eyes were acutely aware of the brightly colored clothes and iridescent make-up the Dominican women seem to prefer.
The vivid orange curtains in my hotel room gave color to an ordinary and plain space. We stayed in Santo Domingo’s Colonial District. On our first day there, we walked through these narrow, old streets to our first visit with our first NGO. I was struck by the brightly painted buildings, the way the colors liven up every street, every corner, every shop.
Many of the NGO’s we visited didn’t have running water. Each and every one of them was working on serious and critical issues: the problems of statelessness, gender-based violence, deep discrimination against the LGBTQ population, women’s issues, and so much more. And yet, each office was filled with beautiful and richly hued artwork – a feast for one’s eyes.
And even the poverty-stricken Palamerjo Batey was wrapped in color: fuscia bougainvillea, vibrant painted tin and concrete shacks, women dressed in hot pink, electric blue and grass green. A batey is a slum for Dominicans of Haitian descent. Originally, the bateys were for those who came to work in the sugar-cane fields. Often, there is no running water, no electricity, no garbage/waste removal, houses made of corrugated tin with tin roofs, sweltering in the hot sun. Dominican citizens of Haitian descent have been denied their basic rights and have no ability to gain access to education, work and other daily necessities. The DR has always discriminated against those who come from Haiti, even as they depend upon them for labor. In 2010, when the Dominican government changed their Constitution and stripped Dominican citizenship from anyone who was born in Haiti or has a parent born in Haiti, the situation of Dominicans of Haitian descent became even more dire. (Click here to read more about this: NY Times Sunday Magazine Article, January 17, 2016 In Exile or here: AJWS – Dominican Republic)
I found this sense of color reflected all over the DR – in the colorful buildings, people’s clothing and makeup, the blue of the water, the dramatic hand gestures, the wide, welcoming smiles. Despite whatever is happening there politically, socially, economically, it seems to me that the strong, bold, vibrant colors, the big gestures and bright smiles reflect a resiliency of spirit and attitude that say: “Notice me! I am here! I am not going away or fading into the woodwork. You can try to take away my identity, but you cannot break me and I WILL get noticed!”
My eyes also saw beyond the bright colors: the extreme poverty in the Batey, the naked children playing in the dust near barbed wire, the listless dogs lying in the dirt, the families in homes made from tin with corrugated tin roofs baking in the hot sun – with no running water and many without electricity. My eyes saw this….and my heart cried.
The bright colors did not remove the reality of pain and suffering of the daily existence, nor the great discrepancy between the “haves” and “have-nots”: those who are Dominican-born and of Haitian descent have been suffering tremendously since 2010. They are among the “have-nots”. The contrast of seeing a Porsche dealership so close to the entrance to the Batey is evidence of the great disparity of wealth that exists here.
My ears listened to stories of heartbreak, disappoint and hope:
Elena: Her story is one of the many of the 200,00 Dominicans of Haitian descent. She’s 27 years old, born in the Dominican Republic to parents who came from Haiti. Her citizenship and documentation were all revoked after 2010.
She wasn’t able to complete her education because of her lack of financial resources and her lack of status. She married young, to a man who emotionally, sexually and physically abused her and they have four children. She was on the verge of suicide when she met someone from one of the local NGO’s supported by AJWS who showed her that they will advocate on her behalf, help her to get documentation. She left her husband and is now working on trying to obtain her identification papers with the assistance of the NGO.
Jenny: Is a lawyer who is the Executive Director of Mudha. Mudha has been advocating for women and women’s issues in both the DR and in Haiti for over 32 years. Jenny shared how Dominican culture is a “machismo” culture, where women are second-class citizens. Women of Haitian descent tend to have deep black, ebony skin (a negative trait in the DR). Black skin, poverty, being female, all lead to greater suffering and more discrimination.
Mudha “takes our voices to other places where we can’t arrive”. Mudha creates schools in Bateys where no schools exist, they offer workshops to provide skills for women so they can provide for themselves and their families, they teach women how to use their voices, how to speak up for themselves and so much more.
Rose Iris: Another human rights lawyer. She travels great distances to advocate with the government on behalf of Dominican men and women of Haitian descent who have no documentation and no identification. She helps give these people the tools and resources to fight for their rights and she fights for them as well.
Jenny accompanied us to the Palamerjo Batey where we listened to more voices share their stories of exclusion, pain and love of this beautiful land. (Everywhere we went, no matter how much people were suffering, we heard tremendous love expressed for the DR). We heard Juliana, the Director of the Anaisa School (the school started and funded by Mudha). Juliana, with her presence, her every fiber, her very self radiates love for the sacred work in which she is engaged: educating and empowering children, Dominican children. She shared that only 10% of Dominican children of Haitian descent are able to continue on to high school. Only 1% of those ever continue on to university. In the Anaisa School, many children come to school with empty stomachs: there is simply no food at home. The school has no food to offer them and only enough funding to provide six snacks/month. No funds for books, no funds for supplies, no funds for learning games. We sat in chairs in a playground that had four broken and unusable swings. Yet, the children were all clean and smartly dressed in their school uniforms: blue pants/jumpers/skirts and coral shirts/blouses. There’s great pride in their appearance.
Juliana told us that as teachers, their greatest satisfaction is when the parents come to thank them for what they are accomplishing with their children.
The school has 175 students, three teachers and one assistant and only goes up through 4th grade. So few resources to help build a strong future.
We listened to more stories:
Baneiras, the 25-year old President of the Youth Group who dreams of going to university, but cannot because she cannot obtain her identity cards: she was born in the DR and her parents are of Haitian descent. So she volunteers as a community organizer to change life, to influence the world around her, to promote a better world. With the youth, she discusses violence, sexual and reproductive health and gender; she raises awareness about how the issue of no documentation affects the social mobility of the youth and how they must use their voices to change this situation; she uses the dramatic arts to create change: she’s one of a 12-member theatre group (three people from her Batey and 2 other Bateys participate as well) that used drama to highlight the issue of “garbage and waste reduction” in the Batey (the town refused to collect garbage/refuse from the Batey. Thanks to their play, this is beginning to change).
We listened to beautifully poised, graceful and articulate schoolchildren in the 4th grade as they put on a small performance for us, singing songs and reciting poetry. At first we thought: “this is so lovely. How beautiful!” But we wondered, “why aren’t they smiling while they’re performing? They all look so serious.”
And then, our interpreter translated the children’s words:
“I was born here, why are you kicking me out?”
“I am trapped like a bird in a cage, I cannot move?”
Children in 4th grade should be playing sports, worried about learning. They should not have to worry about whether or not they can even attend school, about whether or not they or their parents will be deported, about whether or not their parents can earn a living to put food on the tables, about whether or not the country they love will consider them fully human with full rights?
It immediately brought to my mind an association from the not-so -distant past of another beautiful and articulate group of children, whose citizenship was also wrested away from them, who also could not attend school: the Jewish children in the Holocaust. And I thought of the children poets of Terezin, one of whom wrote ‘The Butterfly’:
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone…
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto.
Pavel Friedman, 4.6.1942
The Palamerjo Batey is also a ghetto, like Terezin. It is a slum, with no way out. With state enforced sanctions, violating human rights. We bore witness to the wonderful work the NGO’s were able to accomplish, thanks in part, to subsidies they receive from AJWS.
We listened to members of COTRAVETD, an organization dedicated to supporting the rights, health and well-being of trans sex workers, a most vulnerable community within the larger Dominican population. To be transgender in the Dominican Republic is to face unprecedented discrimination. How can one live life being trans in a society that values “machismo” above all? I sat with Jairo, Juliette and Cassandra, all trans sex workers.
Juliette introduced herself first by her birth, male name. The DR insists that all people present as their birth identities and their birth genders for their State ID’s, for all official functions. They stigmatize trans individuals as “monsters” and “aliens”. There are limited employment opportunities, barriers to healthcare and government sanctioned violence. Juliette’s father and brother kicked her out of her home when she was 10, which was when she landed up on the street for the first time. Often, sex-work is the only opportunity for earning an income that’s available to trans individuals.
We heard the stories of leaders and volunteers who are part of REVASA, an organization working for equality, advocacy and support for the LGBT communities. I listened to Deivas, who is running for political office — as an openly gay man and a devout Catholic. In a moving campaign-style speech, Deivas said, “What we want is not just for ourselves but for the whole world. Ours is a message of love.”
Our journey continued to Haina, the most polluted town in the Western hemisphere. We learned how the Free Trade Agreement with the United States deprived people of earning a living wage, because Free Trade is unregulated: no rules for wages, working hours or conditions. The plastic and rubber that is manufactured in Haina and brought back to the US grossly pollutes the air, water and ground. People have extraordinarily high rates of cancer and other illnesses, extremely high rates of abject poverty, and lives that are sorely compromised.
In Haina , we listened to the women of the Junta de Mujeres Mama Tingo who have organized as an umbrella organization to support one another and their communities. They defend their rights and confront gender-based violence, especially violence in the family, they advocate for themselves in the political process and work to teach boys and men about the “new masculinity.” At Mama Tingo, solidarity and working together is very important. Everything is done in teamwork. Their successes are impressive. We met with young girls, teenagers, women young and old. While there, we learned that one of our interpreters who had been with us all week was ready to share her story: Arsi’s mother was a victim of “femicide:” when her mother was 35, her husband killed her, leaving Arsi mother-less, scared and vulnerable. The people with whom we met throughout the week, the stories we heard, gave Arsi hope, raised her spirit. When she heard about the good work being accomplished at Mama Tingo, she cried, wishing that no other women will ever have to experience what her mother and she went through at the hands of her father.
And then the women sang, the girls danced. They lifted their voices, their hands and their hearts to us and we heard words of hope, smiles of solidarity.
Throughout the time we were there, we tasted and smelled the scent of hope in the actions of those who are dedicated to changing the world in which they live: Luis, AJWS’s “man on the ground in the DR” and so many, many people who touched me with their courage, their strength, their generosity. Facing incredible hardships and assaults on their dignity, they are standing up, taking risks, acting in solidarity, committed to systemic change, basic rights and human dignity of all people.
They remind me of Nachshon, based on a rabbi’s tale (called a midrash) written about the the Torah portion from the week we were there, ParshatB’Shalach (from the Book of Exodus, the Song of the Sea). When Nachshon arrived at the Sea of Reeds, he saw the deep water in front of him, and Pharaoh’s army, horses and chariots chasing behind him. He knew if he waited for someone to do something, we would either drown or be killed. So he took one small step on his own, to save his own life. He walked into the water. It came up to his ankles. Then he waded in more deeply until it came up to his knees. Then he walked further until it came up to his waist. Pharaoh’s army was drawing closer and closer. So Nachshon continued walking into the depths of the sea. When the water was up to his nostrils God said: “Now I know that this people is ready to be saved. When I see that they are ready to help themselves, I can now walk alongside and do my part.” And at that moment, God had Moses raise his staff, the waters parted and the Israelites walked safely to the other side.
The people we met during our visit are the Nachshons of our day. They are wading deeply into the waters, knowing and hoping that they must be the agents of change, one small step at a time. We are the ones who must walk alongside, holding the waters back, making it possible for them to get safely to the other side.
We touched the hands of those with whom we spent time, knowing that this physical touch will profoundly touch our hearts, minds and move us to action. We saw how AJWS touched so many by engaging with others in the meaningful, important and good work they do.
Now that I am back home, I ask that you join me on this journey. That you serve as witness as well, as you hear the voices of Jenny, Baneiris, Elena, Juliette and all those who are fighting for their basic rights. As you read their tales of darkness and despair, of injustice and hope for a better world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible if they do not speak up and act out against injustice.”
Click on the link below to sign the petition, asking the United States government to pressure the Dominican Government to end the crisis that is taking place with the issue of statelessness:
Together, you and I can make a difference. As the prayer we recited at the very beginning of our journey in the DR says:
Let us remember that we travel not for the sake of travel alone, but to have our perspectives on the world transformed.
Let us take responsibility for our own actions and words as we study and work, listen and learn, struggle and grow.
Let us arrive safely at our destination and leave secure in the knowledge that we have helped to create change: change that is meaningful, lasting and real.AJWS “Reflection”, Tefilaft Haderech, Travelers Prayer
In January I travelled to the Dominican Republic with American Jewish World Service on a Rabbinic Global Social Justice Fellowship to bear witness and learn about the social justice issues affecting the country. My senses were overwhelmed with everything I saw, heard, felt and experienced. (Read here and here to find out more about my week with AJWS and how you can make a difference).
Here are some of the images that illustrate the highlights of my trip.
If you drive down the road in Highland Park, Illinois, on many street corners you are likely to see a half-folded “Stop” sign with with the words:
In Highland Park
The sign then highlights one of six “Pillars of Character” which the Highland Park local government and educational community feel are an integral part of our communal philosophy: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. The Highland Park “Character Counts Campaign” aims to integrate classroom learning, “on the streets” learning and communal learning to instill the values implicit in these six pillars.
Each stop sign lists a different “pillar”. As you are driving around town, you can’t help but to notice and read these wonderful messages.
When I first moved to Highland Park, I was impressed with these signs all around town. “Wow!” I thought, “The messages on these signs are very Jewish in nature.”
The rabbis of old taught:
“Rabbi Elliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own. How so? This teaches that even as on looks out for his fellow’s honor, so should he look out for his own honor. And even as no man wishes that his own honor be held in ill repute, so should he wish that the honor of his fellow shall not be held in ill repute.” (Rabbi Elieler ben Hyrcanus, in Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 2, paragraph 15; commentary fromFathers According to Rabbi Nathan,chapter 15.
Our Highland Park “Character Counts” Campaign is about preserving honor and dignity. It is about teaching us to respect ourselves and those in our midst. It teaches the value of community and what it means to be an active and participating member of community.
I’ve been watching my 7th grade Religious School students live out these “Six Pillars of Character” all year.
I teach them on Wednesday late afternoons. They come to me after a long day of regular school. They are tired, hungry and now have another 1.5 hours of Judaic studies. Sometimes, it’s hard for them to sit still, they love the social time with each other. Many of them have been together as a group since kindergarten or first or second grade.
They are a terrific group of young teenagers. Each one of them has committed to remaining in Religious School after his or her celebration of Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Each of these students, like many B’nai Mitzvah across North America, participates in Tikkun Olam or Mitzvah projects during this year of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. These are special social justice projects chosen by each student. The goal is for them to personally engage in the work of caring for others and repairing our world. Becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah implies accepting the privileges and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood. Those responsibilities include continuing one’s Jewish learning, participating in the life of the Jewish community, celebrating Holy Days and taking care of our world. It also means that “Character Counts.”
One of my students, Chloe S., is the true exemplar of our “Character Counts” campaign. She is as much my teacher as she is my student. She conducts herself with graceful dignity. She volunteers as a “machonik” (student teacher) in the religious school. She has a wonderful way of being present with others. She and her family participate fully in the life of our congregational community. She takes it upon herself to learn new things, if she feels that her education was lacking.
Her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah talked about the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary (or Tabernacle) that the Israelites built and carried with them in the wilderness as they traveled from Egypt to the Promised Land. Chloe said to herself, “I never learned about this Mishkan before!” So she and her father decided to build one, to help themselves learn more about it, to understand more deeply what it symbolized and what it meant.
On the morning of her Bat Mitzvah celebration, they surprised me and presented the completed model to me as a gift. So that I could use it to teach others about the Mishkan, its purpose and meaning.
If the future of our world is in the hands of these young people, we are in very good hands indeed!
When I was in high school, I was part of a Jewish folk-singing trio with two of my friends. We called ourselves “Hashoshanim” – The Roses. We performed for synagogues and other Jewish organizations across New Jersey and New York in the late 1970’s.
One of our favorite songs was a popular Israeli song by Arik Einstein and Miki Gavrielov, “Ani V’atah”:You and I will change the world, you and I, then all will join us.
The message of this song was a lesson that my parents instilled within me from the time I was young: each one of us has the ability to make a difference in this world. Not only that, but our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are obligated to do our part to make this world a better place for others, a concept known as “tikkun olam” – repairing the world.
We learn from the Torah, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deuteronomy 16:20). My parents taught us from a young age how to make these words a reality in our lives by:
Encouraging us to give tzedakah (charity) from our own money on a regular basis;
Taking us to march in rallies in Manhattan and Washington, DC to support Israel, to free Soviet Jews, to fight against the war in Viet Nam;
Speaking out for those who are unable to speak for themselves.
Keeping social justice issues on the forefront of our congregational agendas and on our agenda for conversation at home.
I continue to be passionate about social justice issues throughout my life. I hear my father’s voice telling me: “Sharon, the Talmud teaches us, ‘once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected. You must ACT.'”
During rabbinical school, I had the opportunity to travel to the USSR with two classmates to visit Refuseniks and bring in much needed supplies. I spent 4.5 months in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, working with Reform congregations there and learning about the situation and what we could do back at home to help ameliorate the pain and suffering caused by Apartheid.
My tikkun olam work since ordination has been broad and varied. It has included:
starting the first Jewish AIDS Committee in Canada;
continuing to visit the FSU and working with the Jewish communities in Belarus to bring in much needed medical supplies; teaching about Pesach and leading Pesach seders;
organizing and starting the first Mitzvah Day at my former congregation in Connecticut – a program that has been going on for almost two decades now and has the highest congregational participation outside of High Holy Days;
Working with the Canadian Reform Movement on a National program to stop Human Trafficking;
Partnering with the Canadian Reform Movement and ARZA Canada on many Israeli social justice programs.
And so much more!
I therefore feel so honoured and thrilled to be selected to participate in the American Jewish World Service (AJWS.) Global Justice Fellowship for Rabbis for the 2014-2015 year.
The fellowship is done in conjunction with our work in our own congregations. AJWS feels that congregational rabbis play key roles in our own communities when it comes to coalition building, community organizing and raising awareness about critical issues.
The program includes an 8-10 day educational trip to Kenya in August. We’ll learn from extraordinary local human rights activists who are using grassroots organizing tactics to fight discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence against women, girls and the LGBT community. Back at home, we will engage in innovative training sessions to develop skills in community organizing and advocacy. The goal is to mobilize and organize our communities in support of the wonderful work that AJWS does across the globe and other efforts to promote global justice, as we advocate for human rights and try to end poverty across the world.
As I begin this fellowship this March, I will be blogging about the work I am doing. I hope you will follow my blog and join in our efforts.
“Ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha-olam – together, you and I CAN change the world!”
To learn more about American Jewish World Service and the wonderful work that they do across the world, click here.