During my January semester break, I spent a little over a week traveling through El Salvador and Nicaragua with American Jewish World Service, as part of my Global Justice Fellowship for Rabbinic and Graduate Students. 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, an LGBTI group in rural El Salvador; Groupo Safo, a group that organizes particularly for lesbians in Nicaragua, but works with other local LGBTI groups; and Gaviota, an organization that advocates for the rights and safety of indigenous women in the autonomous region of Nicaragua.
The thing that most struck me throughout our travels was the warm welcomes we received. Particularly in El Salvador, every group greeted us with a welcome to “our home”. There was a sense of love and solidarity in the connections we were making that was so heartwarming. These groups are fighting for their rights, in some cases fighting for their lives. They are doing incredibly important work on the ground to improve their own lives and communities, to change laws in their own countries, and to gain access to the basic healthcare and safety that we all take for granted. Yet, they welcomed us, outsiders who do not have to share in their personal struggles, as partners. They embraced us, not as beneficiaries or interlopers, but as equals in the fight for freedom of all people.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites in the desert are ready to make their first sacrifices in the Mishkan, to officially give home to the Shechinah among them. After Aaron completes the offering, he blesses the people with the priestly blessing and descends from the altar to stand among them. After all this is said and done, the “glory of God appeared to all the people.” When the organizations we met with in Nicaragua and El Salvador greeted us into their spaces as though it were ours as well, I felt the Shechinah among us. Speaking with them felt like receiving the priestly blessing: that God may bless and keep us all, that God will shine God’s face upon us, and that God will lift God’s face toward us, and give us peace. The work that these groups do feels like a modern re-building of the Mishkan. They are building spaces, both physically and emotionally, in which the Shechinah will reside among them. It is incredibly exciting and inspiring to be welcomed in, and I can understand the desire to rush forth and jump right in, to participate, in the way that Nadav and Avihu do in the next part of the parasha. But one lesson we can learn from their tragic deaths, is that over-zealousness can interfere with our rational thinking. So we maintain calm and remember our place, as an allies to these groups and not their “white savior.” AJWS promotes solidarity and support, not a paternalistic approach of taking over and overstepping our bounds. While it is important to remember that none are free until all are free, it is also important to remember that some are considerably less free, and they must be allowed to set the direction of their own liberation while the rest of us listen and assist.
After the deaths of Nadiv and Avihu, the Torah says Aaron “vayidom” – traditionally translated as “was silent.” But Rabbi Shai Held, one of the human rights hero rabbis arrested at JFREJ’s Black Lives Matter march back in December, offers a different drash for this. He cites Bible scholar Baruch Levine in explaining that sometimes the root word for dalet-mem-mem means “to moan” or “mourn” rather than “to be silent”. Sometimes, when we hear the news of oppression that does not directly affect us, we hear silence and we are silent. Sometimes we have no reaction at all, and this is truly a shame. But sometimes when we hear the moaning of oppression, we moan too. We hear the cries of oppression, and we remember the commandment to pursue justice, and we bear witness to their pain, and we do our best to understand it, even though we never really can. Only then can we really approach it to learn how to help.
Although the trip was short and we have been back for a few months now, the work continues. 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, the We Believe campaign, AJWS’s partners on the ground, and about transnational solidarity. In the remaining half of the fellowship, we have more to learn about organizing and educating our communities about the issues, and how to use what we learned and experienced in Central America to help inspire change here in our own country and communities. On February 22nd, we were trained in the Wellstone model of activist organizing, which was exciting. In college, I fancied myself a social activist, and in the last year I’ve been yearning to get back into that work. I’ve been participating in protests and marches in the city this year and I’ve been sharing information on social media, seeking to educate myself and others, but I have felt a lack of the tools necessary to help with any planning or organizing. I was thrilled to be taught how to better connect with people, build justice-oriented relationships, and work toward a brighter tomorrow with and for my community, to participate in this modern and metaphoric Mishkan building, a world where we can all feel the presence of holiness. In about a month, we will be participating in AJWS’s Policy Summit, which includes lobbying on Capitol Hill.
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. If you are also interested in the work AJWS does, I’d be thrilled to speak with you at Kiddush about how you can get involved!