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.
I 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.