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.

Come Fill Fatima’s Cup With Hope

Ten days ago, I was in the Al Serif Camp in Darfur, Sudan, with Fatima, the girl you see in the photograph. She lives there with 15,000 other refugees.

Not only has she lost her home and much of her family, she has seen horrors no child should ever imagine, let alone endure. Throughout Darfur and Chad, there are thousands upon thousands just like her.

What chills the heart at Al Serif and the other camps like it is the awful silence that permeates the tents. One is struck by the utter desolation. The little girl’s outstretched cup waits for something other than her own tears — for water, for hope. No one can live without a measure of both.

As Passover approaches, I gaze at her photograph, reminded of the cup of Elijah. It overflows with the promise of redemption, but Fatima’s cup is empty.

Our seders summon our people’s ancient memory. We experience Passover ke’ilu, as if we were slaves in Egypt. We eat matzah to recall our affliction, and we retell the timeless story of what it is to be oppressed. But in the end, there is rejoicing, because our people were redeemed.

In Jewish tradition, the seder is more than a ritual. It seeks to awaken not only our memory but our conscience. Passover is not an exercise in nostalgia. It calls us to identify with those we once were: the destitute, the disenfranchised, the defenseless. It requires this little girl, Fatima, to sit at our table, where she can be seen and heard, where there is a cup not only for Elijah but for her.

Look at her photograph. She is a child no different — except for her misfortune — than your child or mine. She is a citizen of the world, a bearer of the divine image.

When our cups overflow, how can we forget that hers is empty? When we raise the matzah and announce, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” do we mean it? How can we open the door for Elijah, and close it on children like Fatima?

The crisis in Darfur is not only political but humanitarian. Admittedly, medicine, food and shelter are not all that are needed in the Sudan. But there is no arguing with the mitzvah of saving lives, reducing suffering and bestowing hope for a better day, even if it seems distant.

The Israelites were enslaved for generations. But one day, after the long night of darkness, the sun came up, and they went free.

A Chasidic rebbe, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz, would leave the cup of Elijah empty. He would then invite his guests to fill it with wine from their own cups, to symbolize that redemption will not come unless each of us helps to bring it.

Here in our comfortable homes, at our ample tables, we cannot wait for the day of redemption. It is up to us to fill Fatima’s cup. And perhaps, we will find that the more we share at this Passover season, the more we will have to celebrate.

Contributions for humanitarian aid can me made to International Medical Corps, 1919 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 300, Santa Monica, CA 90404-1950, or MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, 1990 S. Bundy Drive, Suite 260, Los Angeles, CA 90025.

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

Jews Aid in Quake Despite Iran Rebuff

Beggars apparently can be choosers — or so the Iranian
government seems to believe.

The Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran, which is
struggling to recover from the Dec. 26 earthquake that killed at least 20,000
people and damaged an entire region, has announced that it will not accept
humanitarian aid from the “Zionist entity.”

However, U.S. Jews and Israelis still are finding ways to
help the victims. And one of the few U.S. nongovernmental organizations running
relief on the ground is led by an Iranian American Jew.

Farshad Rastegar formed the Los Angeles-based nonsectarian
Relief International 14 years ago to aid victims of an earlier earthquake in Iran.
As an Iranian American Jew working in his native country, it’s “very
emotional,” he said.

Rastegar, who is planning to leave for Iran soon, said his
group has raised more than $150,000 for relief work in Iran, $65,000 of which
already has been routed to a bank there.

Like other Jewish humanitarians working in Iran, Rastegar
tries to keep politics out of the picture.

“Pain is the same everywhere, whether you’re in Bosnia in Sarajevo
and somebody’s shooting at you, or whether you’re in Chechnya,” he said. “A
bullet is a bullet, a child is a child and pain is pain. The religion, the
ethnicities, the national differences really dissipate in the face of these
kinds of tragedies.”

Rastegar’s religion is known to Iranian government
officials, and his group, which worked with professionals in Iran before the
earthquake, continues to be well received, he said. Despite the Iranian
government’s hostile attitude toward Israel and Jews, there should be no
problem in routing Jewish funds to those in distress, Haroun Yeshaya, head of Iran’s
Jewish community, said in a phone interview from Tehran.

“All Iranian people are going to be glad” to receive funding
from anyone in the world, Yeshaya said through Kamram Broukim, a translator in California.

Through his organization — the Fariborz “Fred” Matloob unit
of B’nai B’rith, named in memory of an Iranian Jewish boy — Broukim has raised
more than $50,000 since Dec. 28 for earthquake victims. The funds will be
directed to Iran’s Jewish community, which plans to use the money to set up a medical
clinic in Bam, the center of the disaster. Broukim is working with Iranian Jews
in New York and London to raise additional funds. About 18,000 of Iran’s 30,000
Jews live in Tehran; another 8,000 live in Shiraz. There are no known Jewish
earthquake casualties.

Despite Iran’s rebuff to Israel, at least one Israeli
nongovernmental organization is addressing the tragedy.

“I have a direct and open line to Iranians,” said Ra’anan
Amir, project manager of Latet, an Israeli humanitarian group that provides
domestic and international relief. Latet has sent “tens of thousands of
dollars” to earthquake victims, Amir said.

“We are welcomed, and we have the routes to come and work in
Iran,” he said.

Amir wouldn’t say whether Latet has people or equipment on the
ground in Iran, and he admitted that he has encountered patches of anti-Israeli
resistance along the way. However, he said, such resistance in Iran and
elsewhere comes from politicians or government officials, not from individual

According to the New York Sun, Iranian citizens criticized
their government’s refusal to accept aid from Israel, which has highly trained
disaster relief teams that have assisted victims around the globe.

Asked if he thinks humanitarian good will will help bridge political
or religious divides, Amir said he doesn’t “fool with idealism.”

“In the first few days of every disaster like this one,
nobody thinks about any of these topics,” he said. “People are just looking for
a place to put their head at night, to get covers, to get something to eat, to
get something to drink and to find their relatives.”

If his presence happens to change some Iranians’ views of
Israelis or Jews, that’s great, he said. But he doesn’t know whether Latet’s
clients even know of the group’s origins — or what effect, if any, such
knowledge would have.

“I’m not going and carrying the flag with me,” he said.

Like other Jewish humanitarians, Rastegar said he is driven
by his faith.

“We’re the chosen people not for privilege; we’re the chosen
people to serve,” he said.

Ronni Strongin, spokeswoman for American Jewish World
Service, agreed, saying, “The Jewish people are compelled to step above hatred,
and we cannot stoop to the level of others. Jews must provide humanitarian need
to those that are in deep distress.”

The agency raised approximately $7,000 last weekend for
quake victims. The money will be used to purchase medical supplies, which will
be dispersed through Direct Relief International (DRI). DRI, which is not
related to Rastegar’s group, is seeking an Iranian partner to handle efforts on
the ground.

Strongin said her group received several angry e-mails from
Jews who believed that Iran, which is implacably opposed to Israel and has
persecuted its Jews, doesn’t deserve humanitarian aid from Jewish groups.

For its part, the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee (JDC), the largest U.S.-based Jewish relief and welfare organization,
has not begun a fund for the earthquake victims.

“We haven’t been active and don’t have a presence to be able
to extend any kind of direct assistance, so we would have to work through
outside NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” said Will Recant, the JDC’s
assistant executive vice president.

In any case, he noted, “we haven’t had a response from the
American Jewish community” inquiring about the earthquake or asking if the
group was accepting funds.

Contributions can be sent to Relief International at “>;