Chanukah in Chad


Janice Kamenir-Reznik is the Co-Founder and President of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice is currently traveling along with Diana Buckhantz, JWW Board Member, on a site visit to the JWW Solar Cooker Project in the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad, home to approximately 30,000 Darfuri refugees.

[Farchana, Chad] — It is late into the evening, and I just remembered – tonight is the first night of Chanukah, even in the seemingly God-forsaken town of Farchana on the eastern rim of Chad.  Today my JWW travel partner, Diana Buckhantz, and I spent Shabbat visiting the Farchana refugee camp. We came to meet the Darfuri refugee women served by our Solar Cooker Project.  With all of the scores of organizations that support this massive camp, I was told today that the donor partners almost never actually come to the camp to meet, on a personal level, with individual refugees to engage in conversation.  Most donors, I was told, receive reports explaining how the funds are used and describing the benefits conferred.  As we met the women today, the vital importance of visiting the camps and talking to the people being served, which JWW has done in Congo and Darfur whenever possible, was clearer to me than ever.

One obvious reason that personal contact is so important is to bear witness to the women’s stories of loss, survival and resilience. Bringing these mind boggling and dramatically tragic stories home helps to educate and mobilize our community and give a face to an otherwise very distant, removed, hard to understand genocide, the effects of which continue to unfold. 

The other reason is more subtle, but it is equally, if not more, important.  Many of the women we met with expressed a similar sentiment when they heard who we were and why we came to visit. With faces that speak legions about their sense of isolation, their sadness and their understandable depression, they were so grateful to be remembered especially now, at a time when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have announced huge reductions in resources previously provided to the Farchana camp.  The refugees at Farchana know that those resources are being redeployed from Farchana to be used in other, newer conflict areas around the world.  We learned that this week alone UNHCR reduced by 25 per cent, effective immediately, and in some cases even retroactively, the funds and services allocated to Farchana.  There was a further UNHCR directive issued this week that for the 2013 budget year, Farchana will take an additional 28 percent reduction in allocation.

Information about all of this redeployment of funds sends a very serious and provocative message to the refugee population; first and foremost, it means that their services will be drastically reduced.  To people living in abject poverty and profound squalor, drastic reductions in services could be the difference between life and death.  But what is also significant and quite painful to the refugees in Farchana, is the message of abandonment that the reductions imply.  The reduction of funds is a symbol of the sad truth that the world’s attention has moved on.

So in the midst of such depressing news, unwittingly, our trip to Farchana has taken on new significance – to the refugees, to the aid workers, and to us at JWW.  For the refugees and aid workers, a visit from an organization that is not reducing its funding but rather was interested in listening to ideas for future projects, lifted spirits and brought a degree of hopefulness.  For me, Diana and for JWW, it means an intensification of our responsibilities, as we are being relied upon by one of the most beleaguered populations in the world, a population that is increasingly isolated and abandoned.

Today, after I introduced myself and JWW to the women refugees, ending my words with JWW’s core value of “not standing idly by,” a woman, Awa, stood and said that Jewish World Watch gives her hope.  She continued by telling us, “with the passage of so many years, I was sure that by now everyone had forgotten about Darfur and given up that we should have a future. But hearing about your education and advocacy work on our behalf gives me back some spirit and makes me know that not everyone in the world has forgotten about us.”

This evening, as I remembered that it was the start of Chanukah, I reflected on Awa’s words and realized that we are faced with a serious challenge – an apt challenge to consider as I pulled my small menorah out of my duffle bag.  Chanukah is about fighting against great odds and ensuring that right prevails over might.  It is also a time of bright and shining lights.  Tonight is the first light of Chanukah, and I am very far away from home.  I came close to forgetting to light the first candle.  But, by myself (Diana was long asleep) in my hut late at night in the World Food Program compound in Farchana, two candles were lit.  As I watched the candles burn down, I felt renewed strength and obligation to continue our work here and to continue to shine a light on problems and circumstances others might prefer not to see.  This surely was a memorable, if not festive, Chanukah, and one that I likely will never forget.

Bearing witness a world away from L.A.


Two weeks ago, The Journal published an essay by Janice Kamenir-Reznik, founding president of the nonprofit Jewish World Watch, as she and two other JWW leaders departed for a two-week trip to Chad to visit Darfur refugees. As a coalition of about 60 Los Angeles-area synagogues, JWW’s mission is to educate and advocate on issues of genocide and egregious violations of human rights. It also works to provide relief to survivors of genocide.

In Chad, women in the refugee camps face danger of assault and rape by the Janjaweed marauders — as well as other rebels and even some Chad locals — when they venture out to collect firewood. To reduce this risk, JWW has been raising funds to provide two refugee camps — Iridimi and Touloum — with solar cookers. These low-cost aluminum-covered cardboard instruments are manufactured in the camps, are self-sufficient and have proven effective in keeping the women safer.

To evaluate their program, Kamenir-Reznik, Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and Solar Cooker Project director Rachel Andres traveled first to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, to meet with officials from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. They then traveled with humanitarian workers, as well as Chadian environmental and refugee advocates, as they visited the Iridimi and Touloum camps, where more than 10,000 cookers are now in use. They met with tribal leaders and with more than 100 women who use the cookers. They listened to stories of hardship and triumph over unimaginable tragedy. The following are excerpts from e-mails the travelers sent home while en route:

N’Djamena, Oct. 15

The average life expectancy here is 47 years old, I can tell you that I have not seen one older person anywhere! I am 45 years old, and because of sheer luck or fate I was born in Los Angeles, as were my husband and my children, and based on life-expectancy rates in the United States, I should have many more years of life to experience. But the children here, the smiling beautiful children in their school uniforms, waving to us on a street corner — what chance do they have?

— Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug

N’Djamena, Oct. 16

While “touring” N’Djamena, Derk [Rijks, the solar cooker project founder] wanted to give a message to someone who happens to live in the poorest section of town. We were dropped off …[and] walked along an endless river of garbage: plastic bags, trash, bugs, empty containers, a few goats roaming, small fires burning … words can’t describe the smell and sight. On one side of us was the garbage with children walking across it and even wading into it, and on the other side were dung huts where families live in 10 x 10 hovels. There were a few children roaming about, some barefoot, as well as a woman braiding another woman’s hair, a skinny dog sniffing around for something to eat and finally the home of Martine.

Martine is a beautiful, poised, sweet woman who was so gracious and pleased to see us. It was putting this beautiful face and sweet personality to the reality of this slum-like living that was completely devastating. The realization that people were living, literally, on top of this trash dump hurt to the core of my being. This country and its people are supposed to be in good shape compared to Sudan … and we haven’t even arrived at the refugee camp yet.

— Rachel Andres

Iridimi, Oct. 18

Today we visited the Iridimi refugee camp, where our Solar Cooker Project was launched 18 months ago. The sense of being, literally, a world away, finally holding the hands of the women working to manufacture the solar cookers and speaking with the Sudanese refugees about how our project has impacted their lives for the better is something I will never forget.

Iridimi itself reminds me of how I picture the “neighborhood” where our

Post-Trip Speaker Series Dates

Nov. 2

Who: Rachel Andres
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks

Nov. 3

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 8:45 a.m.
Where: Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino

Who: Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug
When: 9:30 a.m.
Where: Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village

Nov. 5

Who: Janice Kamenir-Reznik
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd, Los Angeles — co-sponsored by Temple Beth Am and Temple Emanuel

ancient Israelite ancestors lived in Egypt. Low mud-brick buildings, some thatched-roofs, little vegetation, and roaming donkeys — truly a biblical scene resulting from contemporary inhuman behavior.

We began our day with an incredible meeting — we were ushered into a room of 20 “elders” of the camp, sitting on mats, dressed in long white gowns and tall turbans. These are the leaders of the Iridimi camp, and they were invited to meet with us to discuss the project. I have to say that I was terribly intimidated by this group, as I’m sure they have never seen three white Jewish women from Los Angeles (who, while trying to dress appropriately for our guests, ended up looking like Golde, Tzeitle and Hava!), let alone engaged in peer-to-peer conversation with them! But they were gracious, respectful and expressed extreme gratitude for the work we have done for their benefit and for the benefit of their families.

The other surprising thing was their willingness to listen to our “moderator,” Marie Rose, who, with Derk, now heads Tchad Solaire, the local organization formed to run the project. Just as we watched these men “shoo” the three women leaders of the camps to the back of the room, they listened as Marie Rose led the 2-hour long discussion, answered their questions and engaged them in sometimes difficult conversation. Finally, we three Jewish feminists took great pride and pleasure in witnessing the young Madame La Presidente des Refugies speak up from behind the rows of men and express her opinions about the usefulness of the project and her disagreement with some of the opinions expressed by the men. I believe we are witnessing a real cultural change, both in terms of empowerment of women in this society, as well as a grudging acceptance by the men. But isn’t that just history repeating itself?

My last thought is about kindness. As I sat on the dirt floor of two different “homes” this afternoon, I witnessed a kind of dignity and kindness that I will never forget. How do people who have lost so much — family, community and property — continue to offer to the stranger who enters their home whatever little food or shelter they have? Without a second thought to their own needs, these participants in our evaluations opened their homes to us, provided us with food and drink and gave us entry into their lives.

Blogging under African skies


Saturday, Oct. 13, three leaders of Jewish World Watch flew from Los Angeles to Africa for a two-week trip, with their ultimate destination the Sudanese eastern border refugee camps, Iridimi and Touloum in Chad.

Jewish World Watch’s Solar Cooker Project, led by Board President Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug and project leader Rachel Andres, has raised $850,000 to date, to provide self-sufficient and easy-to-use cookers to women in the camps so they don’t have to put themselves in grave danger of rape or murder when they leave the camps to collect firewood.

Kamenir-Reznik, Schwartz-Getzug and Andres’ trip to the camps will allow them to bear witness to the conditions there, to see the cookers being used and to assess future needs. Because of the danger in the region, they are traveling with United Nations escorts and will not be able to stay overnight in the camps.

The Jewish Journal invited the three travelers to record diaries while on their journey, the first entry of which, written by Kamenir-Reznik, an attorney, longtime activist and Jewish leader, we reprint here. It was written four days before departure.

After the trip is concluded, The Journal will publish extensive excerpts from the diaries.


How can I go to Bloomingdales?

Man’s inhumanity to man is limited only by the creativity of his cruelty.

Today we cried. We have sat with small and large groups of Darfuri refugees for the last several days and talked about solar cooking, with the details of the horrors that brought us together silently hanging in the air. Today, however, we looked into the sad dark eyes of our refugee sisters and listened to their tales of horror.

Zanuba is 25 years old. She is a beautiful young woman with three small children who has aspirations to come to America. She has been living in the Touloum refugee camp for two years. When her village was attacked by aerial bombing and then by the Janjaweed militia, they ran. Many were able to get to the nearby wadi (a dry riverbed), but many more were killed, including a woman who had gone into labor with twins and could not run. The men were primary targets, so they tried to hide by wrapping themselves in scarves like the women – but the Janjaweed forced everyone to remove their head coverings and killed the men on the spot. Many young women were tied up and raped until they died. Other women were put into trees that were lit on fire until they divulged the whereabouts of their men. And in one of the most gruesome stories I have ever heard, the Janjaweed decapitated several people and used the heads to form a “three stone fire.”

As Zanuba shared her painful story and the stories of the other women in the room, tears streamed down our faces. I was overwhelmed, not only by their suffering and loss, but by the ability of human beings to use their superior abilities to inflict unspeakable and evil acts on one another.

As we spent our last night in Iriba thinking about all we had seen and heard, one of our UNHCR colleagues asked me if I felt this experience had “changed me.” I’m quite convinced that the personal impact of this visit will continue to unfold in the weeks and months to come, but my initial response is OF COURSE. How can I go back to my life, my hectic, wonderful life without hearing the voice of Zanuba in my head? How can I go to Bloomingdales (I feel ridiculous even writing the word sitting here in Chad!) without remembering the pathetic “marketplace” in the middle of the Touloum refugee camp? I know it won’t stop me from buying a new, but probably unnecessary pair of shoes, but I hope that it will give me a new context in which to think about my everyday life and renewed energy towards this work and the work by done by others who are helping those in need.

I also wonder how I can possibly share, in a meaningful way, these lessons with my children? Do they translate? Do you have to “see it to believe it?” And is such extreme trauma comprehensible for a child? Probably not. G-d willing I will have many years ahead to absorb and share these important lessons.

— Tzivia October 21


Photos from Touloumsewing bag
zanuba
touloum teen
Madame-President
jww's she-speak
Marie-Rose
SCP-Founder
Sunday in Touloum
Janice, Rachel
–Touloum Camp, Chad, Sunday 10/21/2007


I was yet again overwhelmed by the boundless capacity of human beings

Today we had the most intense experience we have had to date. We went to the Touloum refugee camp to see the expansion of the Solar Cooker Project. We were escorted by a truckload of armed police to Touloum. As we approached the outskirts of the camp we saw a caravan of donkeys and refugees leaving to collect firewood. Within the camp we saw many people carrying wood as well-much more so than we did at the Iridimi camp. Since the Solar Cooker Project is so new to the Touloum camp, this did not surprise any of us. In fact we were far more surprised at seeing solar cookers operating in many of the houses!! But, that was not what made the day so emotionally intense.

We had asked to meet with a group of women who would be willing to sit with us and talk to us for a while. Either Derk or Marie-Rose arranged for us to meet with the “artisans”, the women who work in the solar cooker “atelier”. Around 10 refugee women joined us at the “atelier;” Marie-Rose, Patillet, Justin, Naomi and Derk from Tchad Solaire (SCP) were also there.

The conversation started with them telling us how much they love solar cooking and how they feel that solar cooking has contributed to their safety and security. We then told them that we were there representing thousands of Jewish people. They did not really know about the Jewish people, but they seemed to know about the people of Israel and the seemed to have some inkling about the suffering of the people of Israel. We then asked them if they would be willing to share their own personal stories of how they came to be at the Touloum refugee camp. At first they said that they couldn’t share these stories in public and they declined to speak about it. But then, not more than one minute later, a young 25 year old mother of 3, Zinuba, began to tell us the most heart wrenching and gruesome stories of the horrendous treatment of the Darfurian women at the hands of the Janjaweed. The crimes committed against the women with whom we were meeting and against their now deceased daughters, sisters and mothers were unspeakable. And yet, they were being spoken to us. Now. Here.

Agahozo




Life at Agahozo Shalom

If I wanted the kind of office where visitors shut the door and cry, I’d have become a rabbi. Or a therapist. Or an agent.

That’s why it caught me off guard when a woman named Anne Heyman sat down across from me and started, well, crying.

Heyman was in town last week to raise money and awareness for the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda. Moved to ease the plight of 1.2 million children left orphaned by the 1994 Rwandan genocide, she came up with the idea of emulating the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel, the model by which Israel absorbed, raised and educated hundreds of post-Holocaust Jewish orphans.

Agahozo Shalom is scheduled to open its doors in September 2008 on 140 acres. The counselors will be mainly Ethiopian Jews who themselves were raised at Yemin Orde.

Using funds provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and private donors, the village will provide 500 Rwandan children with community, family, an education and a vocation.

Heyman is a slim, blonde 40-something attorney, a native of South Africa who lives in New York and manages the Heyman-Merrin Family Foundation. Her husband, Seth Merrin, is a successful Internet entrepreneur.

She hopes the concept will eventually take off and more villages will arise.

“There’s no hope for the country unless you can figure out what to do with these kids,” she said.

And, as she is prone to do when talking about some of the most beleaguered humans on the planet, Heyman began to cry.

There’s a new mitzvah in the Jewish world, and its name is Africa. It is hard not to notice the increased money and energy Jews and Jewish organizations are putting into the continent.

This week, three leaders of Jewish World Watch are traveling to Chad to witness the use of solar cookers, most of which were bought and brought to refugee camps with Jewish donations so that women there will not have to leave the relative safety of the camps and risk getting raped while gathering firewood (click here to read their blog ). In two years, the Encino-based Jewish World Watch has gone from an idea to an organization with a $2 million annual budget and dozens of member synagogues (though, frankly, not enough Orthodox ones).

American Jewish World Service, based in New York, has put the Darfur genocide on the world Jewish agenda and inspired thousands of college-age Jewish youth to serve in Africa and the developing world.

Among established organizations, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) launched its Africa Institute in 2006 to spread awareness of African issues and foster better civil and philanthropic ties between Israel, Africa and the Jewish world.

Several local members of the entertainment industry helped the AJC produce a documentary, “Darfur Now” (see story, page 22).

In Israel, Hebrew University’s Institute for Public Health brings Israelis together with students from developing countries, including the Palestinian Authority, to study (in English) ways to improve medical care in Africa.

“Now you have Jewish money being used in Israel for the whole world,” Carmi Gillon, the former head of the Shin Bet and currently a Hebrew University vice president, told me. “It’s three birds in one shot.”

There is a longer history here than most of us realize. In his 1902 book “Altneuland,” Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, wrote, “Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”

Herzl, wrote scholar Haim Divan, saw parallels between the African struggle for national independence from foreign domination and the struggle of the Jewish people for a homeland after centuries of exile.

Less than a decade after independence, Israel created MASHAV, a program of development cooperation that continues to bring Israeli agricultural and technical expertise to Africa.

But now, it seems to me, the continent is capturing the Jewish philanthropic imagination as never before. Part of this reflects the broader media attention being paid to Africa, the genocide in Darfur and the awareness of the exponential growth of the AIDS plague.

But there is also a sense that Israel, as troubled as it is, is just fine compared to much of Africa. “We’ve built our house,” Gillon said, “and now we can help build the world.”

The philosophy of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, created by Dr. Chaim Peri, is based on inculcating in youth the twin principles of tikkun halev — fixing one’s “heart” through education and therapy — and tikkun olam fixing the world through good works. The lesson is that as bad as you may have it, someone else in the world has it worse.

That idea, writ large, is what’s at play in the new African involvement. And it’s why people like Heyman fully expect a new generation of American Jewish youth to come help and volunteer at Agahozo Shalom once the project is ready.

Of course, there are those Jews who still wonder why they shouldn’t just focus on the many unmet needs in Israel and at home. Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweis addressed them in a poem he delivered from the pulpit over the High Holy Days last month.

“Do you know of any Jewish prayer,” his poem read, “that concludes with the words ‘Sorry, but they are not ours’ …?”

It continues: The noblest vindication of our dead is that their children and children’s children will staunch the wounds of innocent men, women and children.”

For some, such connections between the Jewish past and the African present are a leap; for Anne Heyman they are a mere step.

“The Hutus called the Tutsis ‘Jews,'” she told me, describing the Rwandan factions involved in the genocide. “They said. ‘We’ll kill you and send your bodies down the river to Ethiopia.'”

I asked Heyman what the word, “Agahozo,” means.

“It’s a Kinyarwanda word,” she said. “It means, ‘The place where tears are dried.'”

And she started tearing up again — and so did I.

For more information, visit http://www.agahozo-shalom.org/.

Visiting Darfur Camps Brings Home Need


It was Sukkot without a lulav or etrog, but with a vibrancy and authenticity etched into our memories.

We stood on Sukkot amid the Darfur refugee camps in eastern Chad along the Sudanese border: two prominent Reform rabbis, Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and Rabbi Rick Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple in New York; John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who is deeply knowledgeable about Africa, and Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which organized the trip and does such effective development work worldwide.

Together we traveled to assess the needs of these camps and the quarter-million refugees who fled the terror and persecution in Darfur to these camps. (Almost 2 million more people remain in camps within Darfur itself.)

Their stories were riveting and wrenching: Janjaweed terrorists sweeping down without warning, killing, raping and branding women and burning villages to the ground.

Pictures drawn in the camps by traumatized children depict the Sudanese government helicopter gunships that flew support missions for the Janjaweed, whose goal was clear: to rid large areas of Darfur of these tribes.

It was this ethnic cleansing, and the slaughter of more than a quarter-million people, that led the U.S. Congress and President Bush to declare Darfur a genocide.

In the face of such tragedy, one would expect refugee camps of bleakness and despair. It’s a tribute to the resilient spirit of the people of Darfur, and the dedication and talents of the nongovernmental humanitarian groups serving them, that the camps aren’t bleak or desperate.

Among the tents and huts that stretch across the barren landscape for miles, the refugees have planted and built. Among the first things erected in the camps, even before the thatch huts and mud-brick homes, were freestanding, sukkah-like structures.

Topped with thatch, they provide shelter from the hot sun and a place to eat (and sometimes cook) outside. Like the ancient Israelites traveling though the wilderness, here was a modern-day people fleeing oppression, whose first act often was to erect such structures.

Standing in them on Sukkot linked these oppressed people with millennia of Jewish history.

The NGOs, coordinated through the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, do a remarkable job in providing food, water, sanitation, medical care and education.

They all work against incredible odds: Chad is one of the poorest nations on earth. Outside the capital there are no paved roads, no central electricity, no running water.

The medical facilities run by the International Medical Corps are the most basic, yet we saw skeleton-thin children being saved by emergency feeding programs, children being vaccinated and community health workers teaching people how to identify illnesses and find help.

Such steps have, remarkably, driven the infant mortality rates down below Third World norms. Still, there is never enough, and every contribution saves lives, every gift improves the quality of life for so many.

I remember vividly a group of mothers and 30 small children on blankets, playing for hours with one single elaborate dollhouse that someone had sent.

It doesn’t take much to help. If, for example, the International Medical Corps can get funding for a sterile basic operating room that allows for Caesarian sections, more infants would be saved.

Since the surrounding Chadian villages often are poorer than the camps, the corps has begun programs to benefit the camps and villages, building its new health center at a location that will benefit both, so that it will continue to serve Chadians when the refugees return to Darfur.

That type of community building is what attracted AJWS, which has made infrastructure building a hallmark of its work across the globe

But as the situation in Darfur deteriorates and violence — including attacks on aid workers — escalates, the refugees’ return home isn’t imminent. If things worsen and a new flood of refugees moves into Chad, they will quickly overrun the camps’ ability to serve them.

We returned with a clearer sense of the urgent response needed from our community. First, we must support the NGOs doing such extraordinary work.

Second, we must urge Congress and our administration to keep up pressure on the international community and the Sudanese government; Congress must pass the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act immediately.

Third, the United Nations Security Council must expand the mandate of the African Union troops in Darfur to include protection of civilian populations.

Fourth, NATO, the European Union and the United States must step up to the plate with expanded funding, air support for peacekeeping troops and provision of peacekeeping forces themselves.

Finally, we must do everything possible to urge our government and the United Nations to assist in negotiations for a real peace treaty among the Darfur parties.

The refugees dream of that day and look to us for help. If we succeed, maybe these refugees can rest, and their Sukkot will be called, in the words of our tradition, truly sukkot of peace.

Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

 

Community Briefs


Israel Travel Penalty Ends

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill that seeks to bar life insurance companies from penalizing travelers who visit Israel and other countries commonly perceived as dangerous.

The states of Washington, New York and Illinois have similar legislation on the books.

The change, signed into law Sept. 30, should help both Californians planning to travel to Israel as well as those who have previously visited Israel. Both groups have faced increased premiums or outright denials of coverage. Insurance companies based this practice on the presumption that traveling to Israel significantly increased the chances of a person’s death.

Many companies based the policy on State Department travel warnings, which to this day classify Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip as dangerous for Americans.

“That’s not provable [by] data,” said Nancy Appel, regional deputy director for the Anti-Defamation League, which lobbied in favor of the bill.

“The [dangerous] events could be highly localized, while other parts of the country are fine,” said Appel, who testified before legislative committees on behalf of Senate Bill 1105.

The bill enjoyed swift and broad support, but there was concern about opposition from the influential insurance industry.

Backers of the bill, including its sponsor, state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco), made an important compromise in June to avoid opposition from the insurance industry. The industry agreed to stay neutral in exchange for a clause allowing insurers to continue former practices when there is documentation supporting a country’s dangerous reputation.

“They would have to come up with statistics that your risk of death has gone up and therefore [they are] denying you coverage or charging you a higher rate,” Appel said. — Idan Ivri, Contributing Writer

MTA Driver Wins Discrimination Suit

A Jewish bus driver has been awarded $20,000 from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which had refused his request for time off on Shabbat and eight major Jewish holidays.

The award is the result of a religious discrimination suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department last year on behalf of Henry Asher, 56, of Tarzana against the MTA.

In a settlement announced this month by the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., the MTA agreed that drivers who are assigned shifts that conflict with their religious observances can take up to 30 days of unpaid leave while waiting for a more suitable shift to open up.

The case was initiated by the Justice Department’s civil rights division, after MTA refused to change its rule that all drivers must be available for work at all times.

Asher was hired by MTA as a driver trainee in June 2002 and fired a month later after he allegedly missed two work days.

“Public employees should not have to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihood,” Bradley J. Schlozman, U.S. acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the L.A. Times.

“While public employers have the authority to set reasonable standards for work schedules, they cannot reflexively refuse to consider an accommodation at the cost of civil rights,” Schlozman added. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Jewish Mission Visits Chad

A delegation of Jewish leaders visited Chad to meet with Sudanese refugees. Last week’s mission, led by Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), also included John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, and two other Reform rabbis. The AJWS has led Jewish activism in response to the massacres and displacement of millions in Darfur in neighboring Sudan. — Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Not Just for Republicans

A documentary on radical Islam was named best feature at the second annual Liberty Film Festival last weekend in West Hollywood. The event is known for its gathering of politically conservative filmmakers.

The 70-minute film, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” took top honors at the Pacific Design Center gathering of several hundred film fans and creators. Jewish Director Wayne Kopping prompted laughter when he acknowledged the festival’s large number of Jewish attendees by picking up his Liberty statuette and, instead of thanking the awards “jury,” he said, “I’d like to thank the Jewry.”

The festival showcased about 25 short films, dramas and documentaries. A festival audience of about 350 cheered “Obsession” footage of Winston Churchill, after booing the film’s shots of filmmaker Michael Moore

A more sobering part of “Obsession” was its excerpts from a 2003 Arab miniseries, in which actors portrayed Jews killing a Christian child for his blood during Passover.

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told the filmmakers that Hollywood’s studio brass might understand Islamic extremism better, “if terrorism had struck on the West Coast rather than on the East Coast.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) made a cameo appearance at the festival, where he hobnobbed with Jewish Republicans, including Santa Monica dentist Joel Strom and Laura Willick, Jewish outreach committee chair of the Southern California Republican Club.

After watching “Obsession,” Willick said, “If students were to see this, it would open their minds to the actual threats we face. It’s just a matter of can we get this out to the liberals?”

Winning Liberty’s short film award was a 30-minute exploration of college political correctness called, “Brainwashing 201: The Second Semester,” with the short’s honorees including producer and Encino attorney Blaire Greenberg.

The festival also debuted a 72-minute travelogue on Israel called “Entering Zion.”

At a panel discussion, Seattle-based Jewish talk show host and festival board member Michael Medved praised the pro-Israel film and joked about conspiracy theories on Jewish control of the media.

“With all of this ‘Jewish control,'” Medved said, “a great film about Israel had a self-raised budget of about $7,000.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

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.