Friday, February 6, 2015

Something that I would die for, something that I could live for too

As you might know, I’ve just returned from the international component of my Global Justice Fellowship with American Jewish World service. I say “just”, even though now it’s been a few weeks, which is more time than I actually spent in Nicaragua and El Salvador with my cohort, because although that is more than enough time to readjust to normal life, it has not been quite enough time to explain to others all that I learned there. There were so many key moments of understanding, learning, remembering, and recentering of my values. For the last three years, I’ve been very focused on my studies and on youth programming. To many around me, my bleeding liberal heart and my desire to incorporate Tikkun Olam teachings into my youth programming was still a strong identifier of my burgeoning rabbinate, but to me, my politics and love for social activism took the backseat. For a variety of reasons, I have committed myself this year to putting the important Jewish values of human rights and social justice back in the front seat, and this fellowship has been a very important part of that goal. As such, one of the key moments of my time in El Salvador was visiting the home and church of Oscar Romero, El Salvador’s hero priest, and soon to be saint.
Father Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980. He was outspoken against poverty, class disparity, torture, and a number of other human rights abuses he saw happening in his country. He wasn’t afraid to write to President Jimmy Carter and tell the U.S. to stop funding the corrupt military junta that had recently taken over El Salvador. He knew his politics were unpopular with the government, and that he was making himself a target for assassination, but he knew what was right and he spoke out for his people. In 1980, in the early years of El Salvador’s civil war, Father Romero was shot and killed during evening Mass. At his home, now a museum, we were able to hear a recording of his last sermon, in which he acknowledged he was likely to be killed in the near future. He seemed comfortable with the idea of being martyred, while at the same time, urging El Salvadorians, particularly those fighting in the organized military, to rethink their actions and choose peace and holiness instead killing and oppressing. Right up to the very end, he was not afraid to call out those perpetuating human rights violations, and was willing to die if it meant giving voice to the voiceless.
Now, Jews generally don’t believe in martyrdom. Judaism teaches that pekuach nefesh, protecting the sanctity of life, is more important that almost anything else. There are a few notable exceptions, though, and allowing yourself to be slain to save others is one of them. Although in Romero’s case, he didn’t exactly give himself up to directly save another soul, he did knowingly get himself killed for the sake of trying to stop the killings of others, and I think his martyrdom is something we as Jews can appreciate. Learning about Father Romero and being in his house reminded me of one of my earliest role models as I began to think about a future in the rabbinate: Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a preacher, he was able to be the charismatic leader for a movement that changed America. Right now there is a lot of discussion, both in response to the current Black Lives Matter movement and in response to the movie “Selma”, about all the other people instrumental in the civil rights movement, people that history has washed out of the picture, people whose names are completely unknown to most of modern America (or at least white America). All of those nameless others who marched and fought and were arrested and beaten and hosed, they are all invaluably important, too. But one of the things that made Rev. King so iconic, so memorable, was that he was already a community leader. He had a pulpit to speak from, and he spoke honestly and unafraid about what was holy and right and good for his people. That’s the kind of rabbi and community leader I would like to be.
However, it is not the leader alone that makes a movement. When Father Romero was killed, the fight against human rights abuses in El Salvador did not cease, and in fact the civil war continued for over a decade as the disenfranchised poor continued to vie for control. When Dr. King was killed, the civil rights movement did not cease, and in fact continues to this day, without the need for another charismatic preacher to lead. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law warns Moses of the dangers of carrying the burden of the community by himself. He reminds Moses that God is truly with us when we work together and delegate. And as the Ten Commandments are given, we see that Mitzvot bein adam lamakom (commandments between man and God) and Mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro (commandments between man and his fellow), are not evenly split, but that there are more for the latter. That is, while the Mitzvot bein adam lamakom are given first and given with more explanation, showing they are for sure important, there are more commandments for how people should interact with each other, showing they are more important. It is important for a spiritual leader to lead you in prayer and help you connect with God, but it is more important for a community leader to lead by asking for your help in making the world better and allowing you to connect with your fellow.
As I continue to unpack emotionally from my trip, it is important for me to figure out how to use the information I learned there and impart it to all of you. You may not burgeoning rabbis or social activists. You may not believe in martyrdom or have any desire to put yourself at risk for any particular cause. But I believe everyone has values and a genuine desire to connect with a community that shares those values. If you’re not a Father Romero, a Dr. King, or a Moses, you can still be a Yitro, an Israelite receiving the Ten Commandments, a nameless fighter just trying to make his or her own community a little healthier, happier and safer. You can always help share the burden of your fellow, just by lending a helping hand or a listening ear. May you each find your own route toward making your community, your country, or the world a better place.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A reflection on my trip with AJWS

I've been trying to get around to writing something about my trip for a while now, and it's been difficult. There is a lot to say, and it's hard to know what's worth saying, or how to frame it. Should I just type up all my notes about the organizations we met with? Should I just write a short reflection on the trip, just the sorts of things I've been saying when people ask how it was? Write a d'var Torah that includes information and emotions from the experience? In the coming weeks, I will be presenting a lunch program at school, giving a sermon at WJC, and publishing an article for WJC's newsletter. For each of these experiences, I may speak about my trip a little differently. What follows here is more or less the submission for The Review (the synagogue newsletter). In the week's to come, I might post more about the trip as I prepare for my other presentations about it and the follow up with the fellowship.

During my January semester break, I spent a little over a week traveling through El Salvador and Nicaragua with AJWS. We met with several grassroots non-profit, non-governmental organizations that AJWS partners with in the collective global effort to promote human rights and equality everywhere. Our fellowship is particularly focused on AJWS’s “We Believe” campaign, fighting for the rights of women, girls, and LGBTI folks around the world, so all the groups we met with work in those particular demographics. We met with some amazing, empowered, inspiring people: the women of Flor de Piedra, a sex workers’ rights organization in El Salvador; COMCAVIS Trans and ANIT, trans* women’s rights groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua, respectively; FESPAD, a “strategic ally” in El Salvador (that is, not grassroots, but a large-scale non-profit organization that works as a parent to smaller groups like COMCAVIS, representing their needs to international governmental bodies); Estrellas del Gulfo Groupo Safo, a group that organizes particularly for lesbians, but works with other local LGBTI groups; and Gaviota, an organization that advocates for the rights and safety of indigenous women in the autonomous indigenous region of Nicaragua.
didn't exactly have expectations for this international adventure to El Salvador and Nicaragua; I knew that I didn't know enough to make projections about what the countries would be like. I think what shocks me most about my experience of this travel is how much it actually did feel similar to my some of previous travel experiences. When I traveled to Lithuania in 2010, I thought that was a poor country. I knew, of course, that it wasn’t really that poor, that I still hadn’t traveled to a developing nation or to the “Global South,” but by my New York-centric American standards, the city of Vilnius is not exactly a thriving city, and it feels haunted by the ghosts of my ancestors. Travelling to El Salvador and Nicaragua, I was surprised by how luxurious it felt at some points – there was almost always wifi and plenty of food and bottled water (we were not to drink the tap water, though it seemed the local people were able to tolerate it). The people did not seem like how I pictured the people of the “developing world,” even as much as I had tried not to picture them at all. Even as the people we met with told us of their struggles, they still seemed filled with hope for a better future. They seemed relatively healthy; even those living with HIV seemed to have the access to the treatments they needed to maintain their normal lives, at least through the successes of the groups advocating for them. When Rene, our tour guide through Nicaragua, told us about how the people, particularly in Managua (the capital), talk about how things used to be, how the country used to have money, the city used to have a downtown, it was reminiscent of my feelings wandering around Vilnius, which used to have a vibrant Jewish community. This surprise taught me that no matter how much I try to deny my own projections and presuppositions about places I know I can’t presume anything about, there are still images that sneak into my mind from somewhere. Of course, this surprise also taught me the obvious, that which I didn’t think I needed to learn and the reason I tried so hard not to make those presuppositions in the first place, and that is that people are really quite similar all over. They’ll make a life with what they have, build communities with who they have, and look forward to new or renewed life with a brighter tomorrow. It’s a worthwhile reminder for everyone, but particularly for those interested in AJWS’s model of partnership. We seek to be in solidarity with the groups we meet with, to learn from them, to learn what we can do to help them achieve their own goals with their own methods. We do not want to be paternalistic or assume to know what’s best for them.
We are back now, but the fellowship is not over, and the trip was not a self-contained experience. Leading up to our international voyage, as well as throughout the week we were on the ground, we learned about the issues, We Believe, AJWS’s partners on the ground, and about transnational solidarity. In the remaining half of the fellowship, we will learn to better organize and educate our communities about the issues, and we will be participating in AJWS’s National Policy Summit in DC. One of the things I am most looking forward to is the Wellstone Activist Organizing training. In college, I fancied myself a social activist, and in the last year I’ve been yearning to get back into it. I’ve been participating in protests and marches in the city in the last couple months and I’ve been sharing information on social media, but I have felt a lack of the tools necessary to help with any planning or organizing. I know this particular movement doesn’t really need me, isn’t exactly waiting around for another white girl to feel empowered to take the mic, but I think the training will help me learn how to be a better, more useful ally and use my white privilege to speak truth to power, as well as of course the intended use of the training, and that is to help me be a better organizer around the We Believe campaign. I will know I have successfully gained the organizing tools when I have the opportunity to put them to use. 
Currently, I am not really doing much organizing, and that is my challenge. In my last three years in New York and as a rabbinical student, I have not participated much in social justice work for a variety of reasons. Last spring, I remembered how important it was to me, and realized how much I had been stifling myself in just trying to keep to my designated school work and internship duties at places where social justice were not priorities. My decision to sign up for this fellowship this year was partly a fulfillment of a long-time desire to work with AJWS, but also was timed as such because of a need to re-center myself on social justice Torah. Already, through the webinars, chavruta learnings and international travel, I have gotten so much out of this, and I anticipate so much more through the Wellstone training and the policy summit. Slowly but surely, I am finding my social activist voice and allowing people to see who I am and what is important to me even when it is scary. It has been liberating and empowering, and I am immensely grateful for this fellowship for helping me in this endeavor, both in learning and experience, as well as in finding more like-minded people to surround myself with.