American Jewish World Service and ending violence against women

As musician Craig Taubman strummed some opening chords on his guitar, the audience was quiet, still reflecting upon the words of the community leaders and activists who had spoken earlier. 

For the first half of the performance — a rendition of Pete Seeger’s “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You” — Taubman provided the sole voice, a soothing yet powerful sound that reverberated throughout Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s sanctuary. But with Taubman’s encouragement, the audience collectively rose to its feet, people joining arms and clapping and singing. For a minute or two, the room filled with a single, harmonious melody. 

“That’s prayer, that’s activism, that’s what it’s all about,” Taubman said. 

His moving performance on May 10 was part of an interfaith vigil that bridged religious and cultural differences among community members and stressed the global need to end gender-based violence. The event, sponsored by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), honored nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram in April,
a crime that sparked international outrage and inspired the #BringBackOurGirls movement.

The vigil’s varied speakers found different ways to honor the missing girls’ strength and bravery. Arab-American TV host Maha Awad and Naomi Ackerman, an American-born Israeli actress, educator and activist, shared stories from several girls who had escaped their kidnappers. They said some had run for hours, terrified and exhausted, and yet, remarkably, were determined to finish their education in spite of the injustices they had faced.

Thema Bryant-Davis, a Pepperdine University associate professor who leads the Wow! Women of the Word Ministry of Walker Temple AME Church of Los Angeles, shared a poem she had written, “A Homecoming Message for the Taken Daughters.”

“They took you while you were yet a caterpillar, but you can still learn to fly,” she said.  

Other speakers called upon audience members to join the fight against women’s oppression through activism.

“The world cannot progress until women are free and equal in all societies,” said Grant Gochin, California honorary consul for the Republic of Togo, a country in West Africa.

Allison Lee, executive director of the AJWS Los Angeles branch, asked the audience to call upon Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act. The proposed legislation would require the United States to address violence against women and girls in its foreign policy.

“We are here as people of faith to say that our mutual traditions demand action,” Lee said.

At the end of the night, Nigerian R&B singer Meaku and producer David Kirkwood made a surprise appearance, performing a song called “Nucleus” that Meaku dedicated to the missing girls. Meaku said he was “humbled” to be present for the vigil and thanked the Jewish community for its willingness to give a platform to a cause that has deeply affected his country.

“We need to understand that we are a part of a nucleus,” he said, in reference to the title. “This is what we are; this is what we come from.”

Audience members — more than 130 total — said they were moved and inspired by the night of music and prayer. Sandy Savette of Santa Monica said she was “so happy” to see leaders coming together for an important cause.

“I am so impressed,” she said. “I am so energized by this evening.”

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, who will begin working July 1 at Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Woodland Hills, said he looked forward to bringing the lessons of the night — particularly the awareness of global violence against women — back to his community.

“I think this is a fantastic event,” Botnick said. “As an activist, as a community leader, I’m a little saddened that there weren’t more people here.” 

Interfaith leaders meet with L.A. County health director

Interfaith religious leaders and citizens took aim at Los Angeles County’s health system during a meeting with L.A. County Department of Heath Director Dr. Mitchell Katz on June 6 to discuss the current state of L.A. County health care.

One LA-IAF, a community-organizing group that brings together local dues-paying organizations, including synagogues, churches, schools and unions, hosted the event at the Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church in downtown Los Angeles. Representatives from Temple Beth Am, Temple Emanuel, Temple Isaiah and Temple Judea were in attendance and spoke during and after the event about stimulating the conversation between the public and the county’s Department of Health Services about how to improve the system.

“For me, so often interfaith dialogue takes place in an abstract context,” said Rabbi Susan Leider, associate rabbi of Temple Beth Am. “And this is very, very concrete, because we are going right to where the interest of the people are.”

The June 6 event follows a Jan. 30 One LA-IAF meeting at Temple Emanuel to find ways to implement changes in local access to health care.

During the June 6 meeting downtown, which drew more than 300 attendees, one woman described her frustration with the inefficiency of scheduling and how she waited for hours for an appointment but never saw a doctor. A local registered nurse said he felt he wasn’t doing enough to help his patients, because he didn’t have the right resources.

All the while, Katz and Michael Mills, administrator at H. Claude Hudson Comprehensive Health Center, listened. After hearing public testimony, a proposal was made by One LA-IAF to the L.A. County Department of Health to begin establishing meaningful relationships with its patients, starting with the staff at H. Claude Hudson.

Mills spoke in response to the proposal, with promises of achieving progress and addressing the concerns of the citizens.

“Getting there is going to be tough,” Mills said. “But I think through a partnership that we talked about tonight, we can come up together with the best way to move that agenda forward.”

Representatives from the L.A. County Department of Health Services’ union, Service Employees International Union Local 721, also heard One LA-IAF’s proposal and promised to work on relationships with patients.

After the event, Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah warned that inefficient and inadequate health care is a burden that falls on society as a whole.

“I think, with most social issues, if you are willing to look below the surface, you will see that every issue affects everyone,” Frimmer said. “And, in fact, it’s just a perception that it only affects or targets one area or one group or one neighborhood.”