Life More Ordinary


I recently visited a congregant in the hospital and was surprised to find a doctor crying in the hallway. I told her I was a rabbi and asked if I could help. The doctor immediately apologized for her tears.

“It’s been a hard week,” she said, “I’ll be OK.”

She told me she had just presented a terminal cancer diagnosis to a woman in her early 40s. I felt for this doctor, and for her patient, but I also felt pleased at what I saw — a doctor who cries.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of the books “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” (Riverhead, 1996) and “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (Riverhead, 2000) tells the story of how, as a young intern, she had been reprimanded by her chief resident for crying with a young couple whose baby had just died. Her supervisor told her she had let them down.

“They needed you to be strong,” he told her.

Now a teacher of physicians herself, Remen remains true to her initial impulse and teaches that crying with patients can be an appropriate response, saying, “You can burn out doing ‘meaningful’ work, if you lose the meaning.”

In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 13, in particular), God instructs Moses and Aaron on the role of priests when people take ill. The priests play diagnostician. They do not try to cure the sick, but they do examine people stricken with strange skin eruptions. The text — with more than enough description of skin ailments — is a little too graphic for some people. It also often seems irrelevant, as it describes practices no longer done by a priesthood that has long since faded from Jewish life.

But this portion also focuses attention on people who are not well. In order for the priest to evaluate what ails the people who are ill, he must get near to them, probably even touch them. And the priests see those who are ill more than once; they return days later to determine whether the person has recovered.

The daily tasks of the priests described elsewhere in the Torah consist primarily of animal sacrifice and temple caretaking, suggesting that priests are usually apart from the rest of the Israelites. So it is remarkable, and instructive, to imagine the priests — a part of the community — attending to the ill, taking note of those in need. Imagine Aaron, the high priest, coming to see the weak in the midst of the Israelites. Imagine a priest taking the time to speak with the afflicted among the people. Imagine the priest being the one to escort an afflicted person back into the community, declaring them free from contagion and assisting them in offering a sacrifice to God upon their recovery. Simple gestures perhaps, but imagine how welcome they would be to someone who had suffered physical pain and the worry that they might bring illness to others. Imagine how they might have restored someone’s sense of self-worth or desire to remain alive.

This past week saw another Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah, the day of commemoration for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage. When the Israeli Knesset years ago chose the 27th of Nissan for this annual day of commemoration, they did so amid controversy. Some would have preferred the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that landed (by Nazi plan) on the first day of Passover. Still, the Warsaw Ghetto and its heroes surely figured in the minds of those who selected the week following Passover for this memorial day – the uprising itself lasted almost a month.

Irena Klepfisz, whose parents managed to get her out of the ghetto and whose father died a hero in the Warsaw Ghetto, said in 1988, on the 45th anniversary of the uprising: “What we grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events and gestures…. Ordinariness is the most precious thing we struggle for, what the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for. Not noble causes or abstract theories. But the right to go on living with a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth — an ordinary life.”

How poignant to read her words this week as we read of the priests tending to the ill — not focused on the grander work of the Temple or the sacrifices that took place at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

As we read in Leviticus of the extraordinary lives of the priests, tenders of the sacred flame, preservers of the religion as it was then, I like to think also about the sense of purpose God gave them in commanding them to offer simple gestures of concern and care; I like to think about the meaningfulness they might have found in their ordinariness and in their tears.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

I Love You, Carnivore


This column is in response to last week’s Torah Portion by Rabbi ZoĆ« Klein, who confessed her secret enjoyment of meat, despite her family’s predominantly vegetarian diet.

To: My Not-So-Flesh-Eating Wife

From: Her Closeted Carnivorous/Publicly Vegetarian Husband

Worry not, my dear, your struggle is safe with me over vegetarianism. I try to be one, but you know the truth of my dilemma, although it is less debilitating for me than it is for you. After 20 years, I think I’m close to being true to myself when I ignore the leftover Shabbos schnitzel from our Hillel caterer.

You see, as you know, I love meat. Love it! Growing up, although it wasn’t kosher, I took extra delight in my mother’s marinated flank steak. She also made great meatballs, and do I ever miss Shake N’ Bake chicken. How fun it was to overcook hotdogs until they blistered on the grill outside, while watching “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings as a family.

I have absolutely no repulsion toward seeing carcasses; only a sadness that others are troubled by it. Ultimately, “we are like vanity; our days are as a shadow that passes,” as you and I read when we officiate at funerals, so why not accept that the life on the paper plates used in our homes for the kids eating a little meat is temporal? When medical shows present brain surgeries, complete with machines sucking the blood away, I can watch without any angst.

You, on the other hand, must turn the station, and at the site of roadkill, you bristle and say, “God bless it.” Actually, thank you for teaching me to do the same.

“Does it really matter if I don’t turn off the water while I brush my teeth?” one of my environment-conscientious students queried me the other day. Elizabeth had been caught by another conservationist in the throes of committing what some consider a chilul Hashem, desecration of that which was holy. Wasting water is an act of bal tashchit, our tradition’s way of saying that we are stewards of the planet and as such, we have no right to waste or destroy needlessly.

“Industries and big businesses waste far more water every day than people do brushing their teeth and watering their lawns,” she added. “Truth be told, I knew that I should turn off the water faucet, but does it really matter?”

“Maybe the key is to try to turn it off but not feel immense guilt for keeping it on, since it has virtually no effect on the environment,” I offered as a compromise. She seemed content.

As we left this “lunch ‘n’ learn” at USC’s health science campus, I had an epiphany. I wondered whether Elizabeth was channeling Torah from Sinai for me with my struggle to conquer my yetzer hara, the evil impulse toward consuming fleishigs: If I privately eat the Persian kabob leftovers after our weekly Wednesday barbecue, so that no one knows and it has no impact on anyone, might that be the ideal?

My act of civil disobedience — refusing to consume the flesh of once-living, breathing animals — has virtually no effect, perhaps none whatsoever. Agribusiness decides far in advance how many cows to raise and then slaughter without regard to my individual case.

It is almost entirely unlikely that the good folks at Rubashkin’s or some other slaughterhouse would ever take an inventory that would reflect my decision. It seems that being a vegetarian in America is as effective for slowing down meat production as trying to convince our son, Rocky, that muesli tastes better than marshmallows.

However, perhaps eating leftovers is still a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of these animals. Kabbalah teaches that when we eat foods, we elevate the divine sparks within them, so by consuming these leftovers, I am ensuring that these sparks are not wasted. It would be wrong to let the leftovers get dumped, as that would certainly be a violation of the law of bal tashchit.

The purposeful consumption of leftover meats then makes sense. However, if anyone were to find out that I was not a true vegetarian, they might never consider a vegetarian lifestyle. This would betray my values: While I can’t individually change the meat production levels in this society, creating a vegetarian movement would help keep cows jumping over the moon in perpetuity. I’m pretty much convinced that had my sister, Sylvia, never been a vegetarian, I might have never ended up in this dilemma, which pits my conscience against my cravings.

So, dear, continue to chew gum after eating a hamburger in order to mask the taste of once-living animals on your breath. Even as I argue for public vegetarianism with a strictly private consumption of leftovers, I am beginning to reach the point where even my interest in meat is disappearing. One too many PETA videos, I suppose.

Hoisting and shackling the cows horrifies me, and while kosher, I would much rather take my cues from the likes of Shlomo Goren, Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.I. Agnon and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Albert Einstein, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, all famous Jewish vegetarians.

Our prayers are for Moshiach, a messianic era in which the world order will improve in its very essence. When I say “Bayom Hahu,” on that day, I join Rav Kook in imagining a world when we need not sacrifice animals on any altar ever again.

I love you, even if you do sneak a roast beef sandwich from time to time.

Jonathan Klein is the Allen and Ruth Ziegler rabbinic director at USC Hillel.

The Lost Words


“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei.” Three words into Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, Yoni stumbled on an unfamiliar vowel. Then, again and again, as he continued reciting the traditional prayer at his mother’s funeral in Jerusalem, he twisted and mangled the words. He frowned in concentration and tried very hard, but the words would not take their proper shape. The life of a secular young man, even in Israel, contains little preparation for the rituals of a Jewish funeral.

I had come to the funeral for Yoni’s sake. He and my son had been best friends when they were in grade school. For me, Yoni was still that tousled-haired kid in the photo squinting into the sun as he stands next to his bike.

It was Yoni who had come to visit his mother one weekend but instead had found only her body. I wanted somehow to comfort this boy turned young man, whose mother had died so young. Instead, I found myself cringing at his tortured recitation.

Why did it matter? After all, religion was not important in Yoni’s home. His mother, an immigrant from the United States, never mastered Hebrew. She certainly didn’t know Aramaic, the main component of Kaddish and Yoni’s stumbling block.

Yoni’s father, a secular sabra, had no use for ritual. Yoni never had a bar mitzvah; possibly never set foot in a synagogue. There was no way he could have been prepared for this moment. And, perhaps, for his family that did not matter.

So why did it matter to me? This prayer that combines Hebrew and Aramaic speaks not of the dead but rather about the God who has created the world “according to his will.” It continues as a thesaurus of hosannas: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.”

The language is light years from anything a secular young man in Israel might say or think. For a moment I thought that it might be time for a pop version, one that would roll easily off any Israeli tongue.

One thing I knew for certain: I want my own children to be able to recite the Kaddish without stumbling. That Friday at dinner I told them the story of the garbled prayer, hoping they would get the message without my having to come out and say, “Get it right!”

And it’s impossible to get it right without some practice.

They responded blithely, as if it was no concern of theirs.

“The dead person doesn’t care, anyway,” my youngest son scoffed.

Nevertheless, I sensed they’d gotten the message. But why was that so important? I have so little interest in praising, exalting and lauding any supreme being. And I know that the only afterlife is the memory we keep of the person who is gone. The body at the funeral is but an empty shell.

Perhaps what’s at issue is my own life: I’m a word person. For more than 20 years I’ve made my living by writing and editing. Getting the words right is what I labor to achieve, all day every day. It’s a struggle that often leaves me in despair.

But there’s more to it than that. In the face of the greatest anguish, words fail. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a compulsive sender of messages of sympathy to those far away who have lost someone dear, and I sense that those words give some comfort, if only the reminder that someone on the other side of the planet acknowledges the loss.

But what can one say to the mother of a toddler who has died of cancer; to the father of a youngster who has committed suicide; to the teenager whose father has been killed in a car accident? Words seem an intrusion, a violation of the mourner’s right to grieve undisturbed. Nor can even the most eloquent eulogy offer more than a moment’s balm.

It is here that the ancient formula stands in for mere words, since these can never encompass the loss. The repetition of the set phrases, whose literal meaning escapes most people, is a remedy where words fail. It is a recognition that no words, not even the most beautiful or the most caring, can undo what is done. It is a recognition that at times like these one should not have to seek the words. The mourner has a set role, and the participants have a supporting one, reciting one of the lines with the mourner and completing the prayer with a chorus of amen.

This is how it has been from generation to generation, through the chain of Jewish history. The Kaddish is a way of touching all the mourners who have been and all those who will be. It offers both a sense of community and a sense of continuity.

That’s why we have to get it right.

Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.

 

Why Scapegoat?


 

On March 31, The New York Times ran an astonishing page: a photo showing Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics gathered in what the newspaper called “a rare show of unity.” What brought these sometime enemies together? The headline told the story: “Religious Chiefs Decry Gay Pride Fest in Jerusalem.”

Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, sent the article out to many of us in the community with a short introduction:

“Finally, the way to peace in the Middle East. Uniting against us!”

Do we laugh or cry? The people in the photo would have us hang our heads in shame, but instead we shake our heads in disbelief. When I read further, I realized why they are afraid — the people they imagine us to be are not the people we are. They envision a scary “other,” a kind of “terrorist” actively seeking to destroy their way of life, while I picture people I actually know, people like me and my partner and my congregants — Jews who take Judaism seriously, living Jewish lives in a caring community. Like many who journey to Israel, we look forward to visiting Jerusalem in the company of others who would gather to study, to pray, to celebrate respect and appreciation for one another, earnest in our belief that we too are created in God’s image, and charged with the responsibility of making our world a better one.

This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, gives us the first of two verses in Torah that have been understood for generations as prohibiting men from having sex with other men: “You shall not lie with a male like lying with a woman: it is an offensive thing” (Leviticus 18:22). Along with Leviticus 20:13, the verse continues to be the source of much agony in our time as gay men and lesbians struggle for civil rights and for a place in religious communities. During discussions of marriage equality or who can be a rabbi, it is still the verse most commonly quoted.

In response to the three clerics who made the front page of The New York Times, in just one week several hundred clergy, mostly from the United States, signed on to a letter of support for WorldPride in Jerusalem, saying, among other things, that “Jerusalem, a living, holy city, a pilgrimage site for people of many faiths and many beliefs, increases in holiness when all are welcome within her walls.”

I am grateful to be hearing voices of other clergy speaking out. But I’m also saddened by the necessity of pitting ourselves one against another, spending our time and energies fighting each other instead of looking for common ground.

Acharei Mot begins with a different set of instructions before arriving at the litany of sexual prohibitions. God instructs Moses to instruct Aaron on the sacrifices of expiation to be offered on Yom Kippur. Therein we find the original scapegoat — an actual goat on whose head “Aaron shall lay both his hands … and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites” (16:21) before sending it off into the wilderness. Ever since this practice ended (or maybe before it began), individuals and groups have served as scapegoats — the declared cause of this, that and another ill that has befallen society or that prevents people or nations from being all they could be. Having invented the idea of scapegoat, Jews ironically are no strangers to serving as one. So we know the unfairness and inaccuracy of the practice, yet we ourselves also often manage to engage in scapegoating. Liberal Jews scapegoat Orthodox Jews and vice versa, to name but one example.

But as Aaron did with the original scapegoat, when we scapegoat human beings we also send them away into the wilderness. We banish them from our lives by describing them as enemies, by imagining we have nothing in common, by deciding to fear each other, by condemning or dismissing or blaming one another. All of which, of course, makes it increasingly unlikely that we will ever instead get to know one another, ever look for our common humanity, ever discover our shared respect for the values and ethics of our shared religions or our shared God.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach begins, a time to ready ourselves for this z’man kheruteinu — the “season of our freedom.” Wouldn’t it be a wonder if “this year in Jerusalem” we found both freedom of religion and the freedom that comes to each of us when we feel true respect for one another?

Chag Pesach sameach.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

 

Episcopal Church Saves Silver Lake JCC


 

Just two months before its probable closure, the Silver Lake Independent Jewish Community Center has gained a new lease on life thanks to the efforts of a benevolent high-ranking member of the Episcopal Church.

In a bid to save the center, Bishop Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has joined forces with the Silver Lake group and jointly purchased the property from its owner, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). The $2.1-million deal closed April 20 and gives the Episcopalians a 49 percent ownership stake and the Silver Lake supporters a 51 percent share. They will share the facility, with the Diocese planning to hold Sunday services and night programming.

"I’m thrilled. I’m in heaven. It’s still hard to believe we did it," said Silver Lake president Janie Schulman, who spearheaded efforts to save the center, which has more than 100 children enrolled in its preschool and kindergarten and offers many social, education and cultural programs.

Bruno grew up in the area and played basketball at the center in his youth. He dipped into a church discretionary fund to help with the purchase.

If Silver Lake proponents had failed to purchase the property, JCCGLA planned to put it on the market and shutter the center June 30, Schulman said.

For Silver Lake supporters, the sale represents a happy ending to their four-year struggle to keep alive what they consider an important piece of Jewish Los Angeles that has helped create a sense of community among Jews in Silver Lake, Echo Park and Los Feliz.

Even though Silver Lake has constantly made a profit in recent years, its fate was tied to the JCCGLA, the property’s owner and, until recently, the overseer of the cities Jewish community centers. Plagued by financial mismanagement and debt, the JCCGLA shuttered the Conejo Valley JCC and the Bay Cities JCC threatened repeatedly to sell Silver Lake — much to the chagrin of its supporters. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of the Southland’s largest philanthropic groups, held a $550,000 lien on the Silver Lake property.

The Federation, long criticized for failing to forgive the debt that Silver Lake inherited from JCCGLA, contributed no money to the recent purchase. Instead, Bruno, individual contributions from center supporters and a loan from Far East National Bank made the deal possible, Schulman said. The Federation, which in recent years has allocated more than more than $2 million in total subsidies and free services to Valley Cities JCC in Sherman Oaks, the Westside JCC and West Valley JCC, has offered Silver Lake no financial support.

"My focus is on the terrific new partnership and looking forward," said Jenny Isaacson, a Silver Lake board member. "That [relations with the Federation] is water under the bridge."

 

Call Me Shoshynsh


 

One of the worst things to say about an American Indian is that he or she acts like they have no family. Every spring I go back 200

years; I go upriver to see my American Indian family.

Last Yom Kippur, Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple read the names of the past year’s departed loved ones during the Yizkor service. One name was Tseluknot –my Dad. This might have have been the first speaking of Chinook by a rabbi and the congregation probably missed it.

I am the son of a chief of an Indian nation. Tseluknot and Ceotit adopted me, the son of Max and Grace Schwartz of Brooklyn.

Back in 1979, after four years as a lawyer representing American Indians charged with murders and insurrection, I moved to Oregon for a simpler, quieter life. But, in 1982, the state and federal governments decided to finish a process begun in the 19th century. They wanted all Indians moved away from the Columbia River. Mass evictions, military raids and undercover arrests of fishermen and their families hit the region like a firestorm. I was asked by the American Indians to move in and join the tribes’ struggle. And after a number of years in court, we again won the right to live, fish and pray along the Columbia River. One of the defendants, who was also the chief, adopted me as his son.

My Indian mother decided that I would have the family name Shoshynsh. This means Steelhead Trout, the one fish that always makes it back up the river, to sustain the people.

A ceremony was held along the Columbia River many years ago, in the Celilo Village Longhouse beside what was once the great Celilo Falls of the Columbia River Gorge. My birth parents were invited to the ceremony. They were given presents from the tribe, including a long knife for my father, because the American Indians thought it was probably dangerous for them to live in New York City.

As I stood before the gathering, I listened to speeches of the elders. They talked about why they approved of my adoption and naming. I did not know most of the speakers, but they had been watching me for quite some time. They stated that most outsiders came and helped for a little while, and then left before the job was done. However, I did not leave.

Two of the men who spoke said that they had not known a Jewish person before they went to Europe during World War II. They learned that I was Jewish, and said it made sense that their tribe’s lawyer would be Jewish because what the white people had done to the Jewish people in Europe made the Jews the only non-Indians who would understand what it would be like to be Indian.

In August of last summer, after being hounded by the authorities over the care of his horses, my American Indian Dad took ill and went into intensive care. He died, and his grandchildren dressed and painted him. We, the sons of the chief, buried him by our own hands, on Labor Day.

In January, the Jewish world and its friends memorialized the death camps at Auschwitz. We mourned the victims and honored the dead. Today, we must struggle to prevent genocide wherever and whenever it happens. Indian America had its own holocaust. And, sometimes, in some parts of our country, race hatred as public policy still rears its ugly head. We have to stop it — now and forever.

Jack Schwartz is a lawyer and adjunct professor of law, and is still looking to meet someone to have Jewish children with. He can be reached at jackblacktrout@verizon.net.

 

Rolls of Veterans Groups Dwindling


Seymour Goldman spent World War II with an Army cleanup crew handling mustard gas drums in India.

“It was a terrible job,” said the 83-year-old, a retired TV repairman who lives in Culver City. “When I got out, I just didn’t want anything more to do with it.”

For Goldman and millions of other veterans — Jews and non-Jews alike — service in World War II was not a grand struggle, but exhaustive work.

Of the estimated 12 million to 13 million American men and women in uniform during World War II, only 1 million to 2 million of them saw actual combat. While Thursday’s Veterans Day services brought out many veterans who have vivid memories of fighting the Nazis, scores of veterans served in support positions, which left them with little interest in remembrance or nostalgia.

“I had no illusions about action. We were quartered in mansions,” said the Brooklyn-bred Goldman, whose unit was composed of himself, another Jewish soldier and 26 non-Jews, all from Texas.

The paucity of Jews serving on front lines may explain the dwindling numbers of members belonging to Jewish war veteran organizations.

Other reasons for the fewer members in the organization include the graying of the membership, and the fewer younger Jews serving in the military — and therefore joining — local Jewish veterans groups.

The San Fernando Valley’s Jewish War Veterans Post 603 has 325 members, but that is a decline over the past decade. The post is part of California’s 20,000 members who make up the Jewish War Veterans 110,000-member national roster, once dominated by World War II veterans.

Navy veteran Si Prussin, 81, spent most of the war in San Diego, waiting to be shipped out as a motor machinist on a landing craft.

“I wouldn’t have avoided going into the service; there was a feeling that it was an important and useful thing to do,” said Prussin, who later used the G.I. Bill to go to college

Prussin, raised in the Bronx, received an advanced degree from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University. He has had a long career in metallurgy and semiconductor engineering and still teaches electrical engineering at UCLA.

He briefly joined a veterans group for a short time, but then dropped out. “It was not my atmosphere,” he told The Journal.

Prussin and other Jewish veterans who did not see combat said they didn’t need to belong to veterans groups, with Prussin noting that no combat means no nightmares.

Yiddish translator Hershel Hartman, 75, also didn’t serve on the front lines in the Korean War — but not by choice. The Army kept him at New Jersey’s Ft. Dix for 15 months, because he was considered a security risk due to his memberships in left-wing, communist-allied groups.

“I refused to sign the loyalty oath,” said Hartman, who was trained at an Army radio school but never was sent to Korea while he and his family were being investigated.

What Hartman remembers most of his service is not combat but tragedy. With Ft. Dix being close enough to New York, Hartman traveled to Manhattan for a rally on the day in 1954 that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as Soviet spies. “I remember that day very well.”

There are other Jewish veterans who saw terrible events, and do participate in Veterans groups. But Jewish veterans from World War II and Korea are aging and their memories are slipping, which is why it’s important to the groups to attract younger members.

At 32, U.S. Army Capt. David Sellen is the youngest member of Jewish War Veterans Post 603. The Valley Glen resident was an infantry officer in Afghanistan and now serves as a civil defense operations officer at Missouri’s Ft. Leonard Wood.

“I think the next guy is in his early 60s or late 50s,” said Sellen, whose mother is a nursery school teacher at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom. “There are more Jewish soldiers at least known today, and so I think more of it has to do with getting the word out. I didn’t know it existed.”

Why don’t younger Jewish war veterans join organizations?

“They don’t have the time to get into organizations,” he said. “They save most of the [free] time for their families.”

Haitian Songs


The following piece was written after a recent trip to Haiti, during which a delegation from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger was hosted by the Lambi Fund, one of MAZON’S longtime grantees.

It starts with a song. Soft at first, then louder, like slow rolling thunder, gentle harmonies that keep time with the clapping of hands.

Soon there will be time for serious talk — of politics, hard labor and the struggle to find food — but for now there is only the music.

Every Haitian man, woman and child knows this music, and during a recent trip to Haiti, I came to know it, too. I was there to visit several grass-roots organizations that help Haitians — most of them poor, many of them hungry — develop the skills they need to improve their everyday lives.

Haiti is a startling place. By all accounts is seems to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Driving around, I found a vast, barren wasteland, what you’d expect to find on a desolate moonscape or in some futuristic science fiction movie. Plagued by years of war, famine and political mismanagement, the country has been stripped of its natural resources, and with them its industry. Electricity is undependable, and running water an unheard of luxury. With mile after mile of nothing but rocky dirt road, Haiti seems like a place without hope, and certainly a place without a viable future.

And yet, five minutes into a conversation with a Haitian woman, I realized my first impression was wrong. I visited a grain mill in the center of the country, where local women bring their corn. In Haiti, women bear the brunt of the work burden. They are responsible for milling grain and working as vendors at local markets, while simultaneously tending to the needs of their families. The mill represents a significant improvement for the women who use it, and who previously had to walk great distances to process grain for family meals.

Despite their heavy loads, the women I met bubbled over with enthusiasm. These were not bitter, defeated women resigned to a life of poverty. In fact, the women — and the men — were decidedly upbeat. They recognized that they were poor but not powerless, and that systemic change would have to start with them.

Take Marie-Carmel. A 35-year-old mother of three, she understood what it would take to turn her fortunes around. When we were first introduced, she didn’t hesitate to make her views known.

"The politicians will do what they will," she said dismissively. Then she pointed to the mill and said, "This is my president. This is what I believe in."

In the face of extreme poverty, Haitians retain a tremendous sense of dignity. They may be dressing in rags caked with mud and clinging to machetes, but their children are spotless, wearing immaculate school uniforms and clutching battered books. Like parents all over the world, Haitian parents will sacrifice everything to give their kids a chance at a better life.

Several days into my trip, I drove through a torrential downpour to visit an agricultural site in a mountaintop village. After my visit, I climbed back into a rickety van with threadbare tires and began to descend the mountain, which was rapidly deteriorating into sludge. Several miles outside the village, the van sunk into the mud and was stuck. Within the hour, what seemed like the entire village had descended to help me. There was a sense among these people of the need for collective action, of getting around a problem and solving it. As I stood getting soaked, pushing the van out of the muck side by side Haitian men, women and children, I understood how poverty (unpaved roads, decrepit transportation) can be a physical obstacle to getting things done. But I also felt inspired by a sense of community and possibility.

For weeks leading up to my trip, I wondered what relevance all of this could have for the American Jewish community. For me, the question was more than academic, since I’ve dedicated the past several years of my life to raising funds from the Jewish community and distributing them to fight hunger in our country and around the world. How does Haiti affect Jews when it is a country with so few of us?

I found my answer in the faces of the Haitian men and women I was fortunate enough to meet. We are a people consumed by a vision of a more perfect world, and we are a people, many of us blessed with abundance, who can help build it. As Jews committed to tikkun olam, we send food to poverty stricken Haitians for the same reason we teach inner-city children to read and provide housing assistance for new immigrants in this country. We do it because we believe in kevod ha’beriyot, the respect due to every being. MAZON, the anti-hunger organization I head, was founded with this in mind, and shaped by the principle that Jews don’t discriminate.

Every meeting I attended in Haiti started with a song, and every song told a story. As I’ve replayed the lyrics in my head, I’ve become more convinced that the stories hold a lesson for us as Jews. It’s true that we have our own stories and songs. But ever since I’ve been back from Haiti, it’s struck me that it is the overlap, where our stories meet, where the real work gets done.


H. Eric Schockman is the executive
director of MAZON. For more information on MAZON, call (310) 442-0020 or visit

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