We take light for granted. But in the Torah’s opening chapter of Bereshit, it was God’s first gift.
It seems fitting, then, that when a local synagogue committed itself to helping an impoverished village in rural Uganda, the first gift would be to turn on the lights — to give the gift of solar-powered electricity. With light, doctors can deliver babies with more than just candlelight late into the night; people can see one another and plan activities in the long evening and night hours. Indoor classrooms in schools can be lit, so students can learn more easily.
The project began a couple of years ago, when the spiritual community of IKAR first conceived of founding its first nursery school for its congregation. Rabbi Sharon Brous and IKAR executive director Melissa Balaban saw an opportunity to do more than just offer one more educational program in Los Angeles; they wanted to instill a sense of connection to a larger world in the “DNA of the preschool,” as Balaban put it. They knew it would take about $100,000 to establish their school, so they decided to allocate 10 percent of all donations to another school project somewhere else in the world, where it could benefit others. “To teach our kids, this is what it means to be a Jew; it’s our responsibility,” Balaban said.
Brous and Balaban had both just read the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and they were inspired by its message that even a small amount of cash can have a ripple effect, effecting enormous change in communities by allowing people to rebuild their own lives.
“We spent a lot of time fretting about which school and where,” Brous told a group of supporters who gathered one evening last August at a Santa Monica home to learn about the project. After lots of research and one false start, Brous and Balaban, working with a group of IKAR volunteers, came across an organization called Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA — jhasol.org). It employs Jewish people in African communities to bring Israeli solar systems to power African schools, medical clinics, orphanages and water pumping systems.
It was a perfect match for IKAR, to partner with a Jewish group that could oversee their project on the ground and to bring “the best of Israel,” as Balaban said — Israel’s technology — to a remote place where a little could go a long way.
JHA connected IKAR with the village of Katira, some five hours from the Ugandan capital city of Kampala. And in early August, the lights went on.
IKAR donated about $12,000 for this initial project, and JHA installed solar panels on the roof of the Katira Primary School, a simple, blocky building with large, unadorned classrooms, that serves nearly 1,400 students from the surrounding area, according to JHA. People in Katira live in primitive thatched-roof huts, and their school had the lowest academic performance in its district.
As it turned out, the school’s pitched metal roof was perfect for capturing the strong African sunlight, and the JHA representatives have trained the locals on the simple techniques of maintaining the panels so they can keep it working themselves, without outside help. And now, although the solar-powered electricity lights only the one building, students — who once had nowhere to go to do their homework after spending long days in school and then helping with the housework at home — can now go to the school to study late into the evenings. They will have the opportunity to study harder, enhancing their chances of future success.
No IKAR members could make it to Katira for the ceremony, but witnessing the lights going on was still important. So, Brous’ mother, Marcia Brous, made a connection to a woman she had met through Rotary Club here — Marsha Hunt, who travels regularly to Uganda through the Uganda Development Initiative (udiworks.org), an aid group. Hunt was already planning a summer trip there, and she readily agreed to become IKAR’s emissary, adding to her trip a visit to Katira to watch the ceremony of the lights being turned on.
“I thought I’d be doing a simple report,” Hunt said. Instead, she arrived at the village to a scene of “tears and celebration, singing and dancing.” She became a witness to a modern Bereshit.
The Israeli solar panels had already been installed. And as she watched, lights for the first time lit the school’s classrooms.
“They were so gracious and wonderful,” Hunt said of the villagers. And in thanks, the people of Katira gave her gifts intended for her to bring back home to Los Angeles — a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. For obvious reasons, those didn’t make it back to L.A.
But what did was the sense of accomplishment, extraordinary joy and connection between the people of Katira and the people of IKAR, as evidenced through photos that you can see by viewing this article at jewishjournal.com.
And the project continues, Balaban said. “We are now raising money to light the medical clinic, and hopefully to install a solar-powered water pump.”
The light that came from God is now being harnessed to power a different kind of light — an electric energy that will also sustain growth, vision and warmth into the future.
And it is being channeled from Los Angeles via Israel to a remote village in Africa.
As Balaban said, “This is what it means to be a Jew.”
Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter at
Unique Capabilities: Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)
There are places in the Torah where many of us moderns have a hard time relating to our ancestors and the societies in which they lived. Oppression of women, slavery, animal sacrifice, a God that intervenes and directs our lives in a forceful and immediate way, to name a few. This parasha, however, is not really one of these moments. In fact, as I read through Noach again and again this year, I couldn’t help but think how much hasn’t changed since those fateful days, in primordial time, when the first humans brought about the destruction of the Earth.
“The Earth became corrupt before God; the Earth was filled with lawlessness (hamas). When God saw how corrupt the Earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the Earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the Earth’ ” (Genesis 6:11-13).
Our ancestors quickly devolved into corruption, violence, greed and anger. Sadly, destruction was the only way to stop them. Rashi, followed by Ramban and others, understands the word “hamas” as “robbery/violence,” and the Talmud teaches us that while humans committed every conceivable transgression, their “fate was only sealed when they put forth their hands to robbery and violence toward one another” (Sanhedrin 108a). I see violence here not only as the physical
manifestation of hate toward one another, but also as the mental and spiritual manifestation of greed and selfishness, both toward other humans and toward animals and the natural world. The human being believed that they were the end-all and be-all of creation, endowed with rights and privileges that permitted any actions, including murder, to advance their evil ways. We see this lesson is not truly learned, even after the flood, for the end of Parashat Noach teaches us about the Tower of Babel, read by commentators old and new, as another physical manifestation of greed and desire for power. We have short memories, even as God has a long, full memory.
And so, as I look at the world in which we live today, a world that is being quickly passed to my children and all of the children soon to be adults, I am both afraid and emboldened. I am afraid because the pace of our world, filled with violence, war, planetary destruction, greed, indifference, poverty, genocide, hatred and intolerance, is moving so fast with the technological advances we celebrate in the life of someone like Steve Jobs, that I fear we will not, we cannot, stop, turn around and repair the massive damage we have done and continue to do on a daily basis, both here in America and the world over. Yet, I am emboldened by the same Parashat Noach that gives us the rainbow, a sign that continues to inspire awe and wonder in the hopefulness of our world and our capacity to do the right thing. The same technology that is speeding us up, blinding us, is also being used to open our eyes, be it with the global satellite pictures of Darfur that we can see firsthand, the capacity to provide enough food to end poverty, the incredible advances in medicine and healing, most of which are emerging from Israel, the social media that helped spawn revolutions in the Arab world and right here in America — all signs that we have the capacity to make good decisions for the betterment of all life. Let’s not forget Deuteronomy, which teaches,
“I place before you a blessing and a
curse … .” While things change, they often stay the same.
Human beings were not given dominion in Genesis in order to dominate, but rather we were given “unique capabilities,” a better translation of the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “dominion.” The midrash teaches that it actually took Noah 120 years to build the ark so that people might ask him what he was doing, hear the answer and repent of their evil ways and change course. It was a long drive to the destruction, with many signs and warnings along the way. Our ancestors didn’t listen. Will we? Shabbat shalom!
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Curses and Blessings: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)
“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons. These are the closing moments of the book of Bereshit (Genesis), and of all the portions in Bereshit, none is more poetic and none more opaque than Vayechi.
“And Israel’s dying days came closer,” says the text, and Jacob, perhaps propelled by this awareness, seems to muster all his creative energies and pours forth a series of perplexing blessings and curses that haunt our collective imaginations until this very day. Perhaps Jacob recognizes that this is his last chance to breathe some fire into this world, to leave his mark; to make the ascending angels of his youth take notice one last time of the dying dreamer they had visited two lifetimes ago at the bottom of the ladder.
What does Jacob mean by his stream-of-consciousness outpouring of poetic prophecy? From whence the passion and the decisiveness that had eluded him his entire life? How much do Jacob’s words to his sons affect us today? What is the difference between a blessing and a curse?
One could spend years poring over Jacob’s “blessings.” I’d like to touch on two of them.
The first blessing is personal: It is the blessing received by my namesake. “Dan Yaddin Amo. …” (“And Dan shall judge his people. …”) There are names one receives at birth that serve as guides, as gentle guardians throughout one’s life; names like Noam, pleasantness, or Zohar, radiant brilliance. Dan’s name is more a burden than a guide, more a hurdle than a gift. The name literally means “judgmental,” and it is given as a command: Go out and judge; be true to your name.
Samson, the most famous Danite, would rather do anything but. He spends his entire career running away from his vocation. He becomes Nad, a wanderer, instead of Dan, a judge. His ending, while spectacular, is not a good one, and it teaches us that one can no more escape one’s essence than a nightingale can escape its sweet voice. I have struggled with my name and its dangerous attributes my entire life. I consider my name a great blessing precisely for the warning it carries with it: Judge, when and if you must, but do so with mercy and compassion. Be careful, be kind, be sweet.
The second blessing I’d like to visit is Levi’s. The power of the words Jacob visits upon Levi is stunning. The “blessing,” it would appear, is really a curse. Levi, along with his brother, Shimon, is berated for the murderous rampage the brothers embarked upon after the rape of their sister, Dina.
Jacob’s words are harsh and unforgiving. He appears to doom Levi to the life of an eternal outsider. He and his descendants are to be scattered among the children of Israel.
Later on, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Levites are chosen by God to be eternal servants in the house of the Lord. Where’s the curse? Why the Levites, of all tribes? The action God takes is not unlike the wise teacher who picks on the most troubled child in class to be the teacher’s aid; to sit closer to the teacher than any other child in class. It is neither a reward nor a punishment. It is the exact tikkun (repair) that child requires. The most violent of tribes is chosen for holy work precisely because it is the tribe that needs holiness more than any other. The Levites are still scattered, landless, outsiders, but now they are doing so for the sake of holiness. Perhaps, those who are in service of God, those whose lives are spent in religious leadership, to this very day, are doing so because they are the ones who are most in need of it.
“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons, and his words to them are the blueprint of the Jewish people’s destiny. They are the markers of our lives: personally, according to our Hebrew names; collectively, according to the tribes of our ancestors. Family history does matter. Names matter. Words matter. To us, as Jews, words are the DNA of our history, our culture, our souls. Jacob’s words are curses embedded in blessings and blessings embedded in curses, and whether they serve us for good or for bad, for holiness or profanity, is still, and always will be, entirely up to each one of us.
Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazek! Be strong! Be strong! And we shall be strengthened!
Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.
Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27): Coping with past mistakes