Today was one of those rich days, filled to the brink with “wows” and inspiration. It began at UJA-Federation in NY, where a roundtable about Atul Gawande’s must-read book Being Mortal was convened. Rabbi Amy Goodman offered a d’var torah in which she compared the landscape of aging — all of the what if’s, the wondering if the cup is half empty or half-full — to the inconsistent reports that the scouts brought back from their reconnaissance mission to the land of Israel (parashat Shelach Lecha — Numbers 13 — that we will read in a few weeks). Moses asked the scouts: “What of the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad?” And to us, Rabbi Goodman asked, “What of the land of the aging? Is it flowing with milk and honey, does that land support life?”
Dr. Gawande’s book forces us to ask what is an acceptable quality of life for us as we stare down death face-to-face, and was a sobering look at the state of our medical system and doctor training. The book serves as a counterbalance to the Wise Aging work I’ve started to do, helping me to realize that it is not enough to have my groups explore the luxury of middle age and its spiritual opportunities without peeking in on the very real liabilities of aging that lie just around the bend, as well. I will make this book required reading for my future groups.
I left the roundtable and hopped a train to Washington, DC where I am attending the Policy Summit for American Jewish World Service (AJWS) with a couple of hundred other human rights activists. The “We Believe” campaign that I have been involved with over the past year will take us to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby on behalf of IVAWA, the International Violence Against Women Act, which is being reintroduced for the 5th time in this legislative session with more bipartisan support than ever before.
Our plenary this evening with Ruth Messinger, AJWS President, and Pat Morris, President of Women Thrive Worldwide, zeroed in on disaster relief in Nepal and lessons from the field in previous disasters. I learned that women suffer more from disasters than men do — it exacerbates pre-existing gender equities of food insecurity, lack of education, problems of child labor and sex trafficking. I learned that after a disaster, gender-based violence always increases. I learned that because sexual violence runs rampant in a Haitian post-earthquake refugee camp, some of the women there wear 3 pairs of jeans so that perhaps by the time someone hears them scream they won’t yet have been raped.
I learned that because AJWS has so many partners on the ground in so many of the poorest countries of the Global South, it really pays to send money to AJWS (or ALSO to AJWS) in times of disaster because they are there for the long-term, supporting the grass-roots organizations that really know the communities and the terrain best. While big organizations will fund important, immediate needs of tents, food, water, medical supplies, etc. after a disaster, AJWS funds organizations that deal with issues that require long-term attention and help fund things that others don’t or won’t — like women’s issues. Notably, the AJWS motto is “Pursuing global justice through grassroots change.” (It’s written all over the backdrop behind me in the photo above.)
Sometimes, disaster relief does leave a country in better shape than it was before. For instance, now that Liberia has just been declared ebola-free, its healthcare system is in much better shape due to an influx of money (there had only been 50 doctors in the whole country before the ebola outbreak).
Ruth, an optimist, believes that change vis-a-vis GBV (gender-based violence) CAN happen if there is a will. She points to the fact that the anti-smoking campaign really has worked in the US and noted that cigarette ads used to clog our TV airwaves. She quoted writer/activist Grace Paley who said “The only recognizable feature of hope is action.”
At the end of the program, we did a creative Counting of the Omer ceremony. We each took a sheaf of wheat (technically, an Omer is a measurement of wheat) and on the attached paper wrote the things that we have done on behalf of IVAWA this past year. The sheaves were then collected/counted before we officially counted the Omer.
Today is the 38th day of the Omer.
In this week of bonding, I hope to bond more closely with my fellow AJWS rabbinic global justice fellows with whom I will be traveling to Guatemala in August, and also to bond with my social justice soul.
Amazing workshops will be offered tomorrow from “Countering Child Marriage” to “Shaping a Digital Campaign Strategy” to “Righteous Rage” to “Social Change Philanthropy.” Stay tuned!