Yom Kippur: Day of Reality for Refugees

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we ask: Who shall live and who shall die? This year, I will observe Yom Kippur — the holiest day of the Jewish year — with refugees from Darfur in camps in Chad.

These survivors have sought sanctuary hundreds of miles from home, in a harsh and barren landscape. For them, the question of Yom Kippur is not posed within a context of comfort, but is a reality in which death permeates every minute of every day. As a rabbi, I choose to spend my day of fasting with others whose fasting is not by choice but of necessity.

Yom Kippur is a day devoted to self-assessment, forgiveness and change. We distance ourselves from the concerns of daily life to take personal stock, seek renewal and determine what matters most. We reflect on the shortcomings and failings of the past year, and resolve to change in the year ahead.

On Yom Kippur, Jews confront mortality. But Darfur’s refugees confront mortality daily. Bearing witness to one of today’s most urgent, human crises distills the meaning of Yom Kippur: We must repent for our personal and collective failures, and strengthen our commitment to alleviating anguish and fostering dignity for all human beings.

I observed Yom Kippur in a Chad refugee camp last year. I will return to the sacred, scorched earth inside the camps and to the dignified and downtrodden people from the Fur, Masalit and Zangawah tribes.

These refugees are victims of intolerance and cruelty. They yearn for food, water, health care and security. They search for hope, love and support in the eyes of others.

At their core, they are no different than you and I. But the situation differs enormously. In the United States, victims of circumstance (like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) are assured support and a voice. Yet little has changed in Chad — one year later, refugees still need basic necessities, medical care and a global voice.

There is great danger in forgetting them. Twenty-million people are currently displaced by violence, famine and collapsed states throughout the world. How can we atone for that?

In Chad, I will bear witness to the people who have lost their homes, their loved ones and their way of life. I will be with people — most of them Muslim — who are suffering and living through the unspeakable horror of what people can do to each other.

Amidst these indescribable conditions, I find extraordinary dignity among a welcoming and gracious people. I will sit with them. I will show that the world cares about their plight — that we will do everything possible to bring them food, water and medicine.

I will bring hope, joy and laughter to the somber refugee camps. Playing with the children will not bring peace, but it may provide a smile and a glimpse of joy, a reprieve from their degraded reality.

They will know that the West does care, that we have not forgotten them and that they, too, are citizens of the world. The world stood by while 6 million Jews and 5 million others died during the Holocaust. As a Jew in 2005, I feel the urgency “not to stand idly by.”

I go to Chad believing that my actions make a concrete difference. My trip will bring both financial and emotional support to the camps.

Bearing witness and bringing hope are critical, but contributing to a solution is paramount. The money will provide the refugees with medicine, food and education. I could not go without the funds or without the conviction that my contributions are assisting with a solution.

But these contributions are mere steps. Much more is required to restore refugee lives: political stability, self-sustaining economies and international financial support are necessary to affect real change.

I am outraged about the plight of so many and pained by the iniquities still found in our world. In these camps, I am reminded of how fortunate we are in the West. I am reminded of the blessings of my life.

There is no better place for me to spend Yom Kippur, than among the dispossessed and the forgotten. As I sit in the sub-Saharan desert with people created in the image of God, I will be mindful of the value in each and every life. Unless we enrich the lives of others, we diminish the meaning of our own. My resolve will be deepened.

So, I choose to be with the refugees on Yom Kippur. I hope to give them a small part of what they give me — a reminder of the fragility of life; the kindness that can exist even in the worst circumstances, and the ability of human beings to retain hope.

It is there that my prayers for atonement and renewal may be answered. I will see the beauty and splendor of human life, and the potential we have to make life better. We all bear the burden of accountability: Who shall live and who shall die? May we all have a chance to fully live our lives.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is special adviser in global strategy for International Medical Corps and a senior moderator at the Aspen Institute.