Every component of this AJWS trip is thoughtfully planned, bringing not only educational and political awareness to our venture, but time and space for spiritual work and reflection, as well. Every morning officially begins with Sacred Space, a period in which 1 or 2 of us will set and create a kavannah (intention) for the day. This period of time is not intended as traditional prayer time, as the expectation is that we will each use our early morning time for our own personal spiritual practice before coming together for Sacred Space at 9 AM — I went for a walk, as our hotel is next to a wide boulevard with a walk/bike path down the middle. (I have, for better or worse, started multi-tasking by doing my morning prayer practice while exercising rather than setting aside dedicated time for it.)
This morning I was responsible for creating our sacred space along with Laurence Rosenthal, a Conservative rabbi from Atlanta. We set our intentions for gratitude (a Modah Ani chant), for full presence/listening/humility and tzimtzum — a condensing of self to make room for the other (using a Shema kirtan chant), and, thirdly, an intention for carrying the legacy of those who came before and set us on this path of social justice (a riff on the Avot prayer).
Additionally, each one of us will be responsible at some point to help write notes for our daily journal, which is read every morning following Sacred Space time as a remembrance of the previous day. After that, we had our reflection session. Because AJWS is incredibly thoughtful about the kind of tourism it does, there is also a daily reflection session to engage us more deeply with the AJWS mission, vision, and values. Today’s reflection/study session was on how to engage ethically with the NGO’s we visit. There are not only cross-cultural issues to consider, but issues of privilege that complicate the relationship-building, as does the fact that we are coming as representatives of one of their funding sources, creating an obvious power differential as part of the dynamic from the start.
We had prepared ahead of time with a number of fascinating readings to help us parse out issues of what has been called “slum dog tourism” by Kennedy Odede of Kenya, a highly critical view that was challenged by another article we read by John Lancaster called “Next Stop Squalor,” (in which he talks about some of the dignifying aspects of the “poverty tour” operating in Dharavi, India), as well as by Elie Wiesel’s quote “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
How to be culturally sensitive and not exoticize the suffering of others is something that I learned many years ago from a nun, a former spiritual director of mine, when she gave me a life-changing poem called “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert (you can easily Google it). She gave it to me because of my guilt of conscience about my privilege in the face of such pain, poverty, and wretchedness in the world, but I’ve been re-reading the poem on this trip because it is also about the “exoticization” of the other. A great quote from the book “I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala” which we also read for this trip (Rigoberta Menchu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992) is: “What hurts Indians most is that our costumes are considered beautiful, but it’s as if the person wearing it doesn’t exist.”
Yehuda Amichai also bemoans this aspect of tourism in his poem “Tourists:”
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period…” I said to myself: redemption will come only if there guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
How to be culturally sensitive includes asking if taking a photograph is okay before taking it, and, in my case, letting folks know that I am blogging and to ascertain if they are comfortable knowing that I might share their story, etc.
Today we met with two grantees, Incide Joven (Youth Advocacy) and with La Enredadera de Mujeres (A Tangle of Women), two feminist organizations led by the under 30 generation addressing issues of sexual health and reproductive rights. Since my first real adult job post-college was in the field of women’s health leading to a passion concerning reproductive rights (see my blog post from Jan. 2013 “Abortion in Israel” for more), I was particularly invested in hearing about the work of these two groups. There are so many factors at play here in Guatemala around these issues: The maternal mortality rate in Guatemala is the second highest in all of Latin America and is especially high among indigenous women. Contraception is used by less than half of women of reproductive age. The high level of sexual violence leads to early forced marriages. And on and on.
Incide Joven is the first (only?) youth-led organization in Latin America to successfully lobby a national government for comprehensive sex education. To do so, they were (and continue to be) up against the Catholic Church, the evangelical right, and a conservative government. They also helped fight the removal of the morning-after emergency pill from pharmacy shelves. There is so much sexual violence in Guatemala that this corrective is necessary, as abortion is illegal except when mother or baby’s life is at risk. The irony of this is that all pregnancies in very young women are considered high risk, yet only C-sections (once the mother-to-be is already in labor) and not abortions are allowed for girls under aged 10.
Flore told us that she initially hadn’t wanted to work with the organization because the idea of politics scared her off. But 12 girls in her high school class were pregnant (due to incest or rape — in fact, 90% of teen pregnancies in Guatemala occur within the family), the nuns had kicked them out of school, so she became politicized. And she is a power-house! The young men who are involved with Incide Joven have generally been victims of sexual violence themselves. The group holds regular reading circles on issues of sexuality and also have also been progressive advocates for lesbian women who want to explore options of having children without being partnered with a man.
La Enredadera Mujeres, with whom we also met, is a group of under-30 indigenous (Mayan) women who are addressing similar issues around sexuality and reproductive health but also about sexual harassment.
It’s been a long and powerful day, in which we also spent a spacious and thoughtful hour sharing our different needs, desires, and dreams for our upcoming Shabbat together. Get 11 rabbis in the room, try to get them to agree about Shabbat norms, practices, and hopes for an interdenominational Shabbat together, and what do you get? In this case, we got magic.