Janice Kamenir-Reznik’s moral imperative
On the morning of April 10, Janice Kamenir-Reznik will march up Topanga Canyon Boulevard holding up signs and a megaphone to lead thousands of people in chants to raise awareness of the ongoing genocides in Sudan and Congo. And while she probably won’t show it that morning, cheerleading is Kamenir-Reznik’s least favorite part of her job as co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch.
“I can give a speech to 2,000 people, no problem. I can hold a press conference. I can sit on the floor in a Darfuri refugee camp,” Kamenir-Reznik said during an interview recently in her Encino home. “But this is different — you almost feel silly.”
Still, she’s willing to do it because the idea of standing up to the worst kind of evil speaks to the core of her identity.
“To me it’s a question of living with consistency,” she said. “If you go to temple and you celebrate Passover and you do all these things we do as Jews, and then you say you don’t care about the suffering of people because they are 10,000 miles away and have a different color skin and a different faith — it just makes no sense,” she said.
Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweis tapped synagogue member Kamenir-Reznik to form Jewish World Watch (JWW) in 2004, and to do so she left the law practice she and her husband built to dedicate herself to the organization as a full-time volunteer.
By now, JWW has engaged more than 70 synagogues and 40,000 donors, and has influenced the local and national conversation on contemporary genocide and what we can do to help refugees. In the last seven years, JWW has raised $5 million for projects such as building water wells and hospitals to serve refugees and victims of rape, produced a documentary film to raise awareness, and established on-site solar cooker factories so that Darfuri woman do not have to leave the relative safety of refugees camps to collect firewood.
JWW expects 2,000 people to attend the April 10 three-mile Walk to End Genocide. The fifth annual event will be followed by an awareness fair at Warner Center Park in Woodland Hills.
Kamenir-Reznik said her main challenge continues to be convincing the Jewish community that this should be its issue.
“The first reaction for most people is, ‘We have our own tsuris — Israel is in trouble, there’s anti-Semitism, assimilation — why are you hocking [hounding] me about these people that I don’t really want to care about and don’t have the room for?’ ” Kamenir-Reznik said.
“And to me it’s really a very exciting challenge to open up somebody’s eyes to the idea that you don’t have to give up any of that, you don’t have to make this your No. 1 priority, but you also cannot call yourself a caring person or even a good Jew if you don’t open your heart to it,” she said.
She has little patience for those who don’t see it as their problem, not only because Jewish values and hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, but because she understands now that during the Holocaust, European Jews were as foreign to the world as Darfuri refugees or Congolese rape victims are to Westerners today.
She knows that the only way to garner support is to share firsthand accounts that make what seems so strange chillingly real. To that end, she has been to Africa three times with JWW, each time bringing home tales mind-boggling in their horror — of women not only raped, but also forced to watch their daughters being raped, or their husbands’ penises and heads cut off.
Sitting in the tents hearing these women tell their stories, she said, she realized these same tales could have come from the Warsaw Ghetto as easily as from the Iridimi refugee camp, and by sharing the emotions, we can eliminate any sense of “the other.”
Kamenir-Reznik, 59, has learned to live with the dissonance between what she sees in Africa and her south-of-Ventura life.
“When I travel in my personal life, I don’t like going to places [where there is suffering] unless I know I’m going to come back to do something about it. I have avoided India my whole life, and … I don’t like going to Mexico.”
Most recently, she visited Congolese mining villages, where gangs fighting to control the mineral mines are raping women; incapacitating them physically, economically and emotionally; and causing them to be shunned by their families. Without capable women, villages fall apart.
JWW was a strong voice for newly passed legislation to require electronics companies to ensure that their minerals do not come from gang-controlled mines. JWW is also funding hospitals and social work services to rehabilitate the women.
With its annual budget now up to $2 million, JWW is considering doing more on college campuses, getting involved in interfaith work and expanding outside of California.
Kamenir-Reznik said she plans to stay involved with JWW, but she is also setting up a succession plan so someone can take over leadership in a few years.
Being involved is in her blood — she said she started in community organizing at 10 years old at Sinai Temple’s youth group.
She went to UCLA as an undergraduate , then trained as a social worker, but quickly realized it was community organizing, not clinical work, that drew her.
One of her first jobs was as an advocate for Soviet Jewry with The Jewish Federation. She went back to UCLA to attend law school, and, in her 25 years as an environmental real estate attorney, she is most proud of leading a campaign to get more women on the bench and setting up legal access centers for the poor in courthouses around Los Angeles. She has also served as president of the California Women Lawyers and was a founder and president of California Women’s Law Center. She and her husband, Ben, raised three children now in their 20s, and she took on huge communal responsibilities, such as chairing the project to build UCLA’s Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, dedicated in 2002.
Kamenir-Reznik said her energy comes from growing up in a chaotic home with five siblings. Her parents instilled in the children the imperative to use time productively, and gave their children the freedom and independence to follow their hearts.
Kamenir-Reznik’s father was a dentist, attorney, jewelry maker, artist, photographer, contractor and communal stalwart. He died last June.
Her mother, now 87, had careers in teaching and gerontology and still volunteers weekly at the Los Angeles Jewish Home and makes gefilte fish from scratch for the family seder.
“I’ve always been really aware of the fact that nothing is forever,” Kamenir-Reznik said. “So, while you have the energy, and while you have the capacity, you need to do things because you don’t know what your capacities are going to be in the future. And I really, really believe that we’re each here for a purpose.”