January 27, 2020

The High Holiday sermon that saved thousands of lives – and changed mine

Ten years ago, my connection to genocide began and ended with the Holocaust. As a Jew growing up in the 1950s, I internalized a deep sense of responsibility to safeguard the memory of the Shoah, ensuring that the world would understand the dangers of anti-Semitism and act differently in the future. Yet, over the years, when I heard about atrocities facing other people in far away places, like Cambodia and Rwanda, the idea that I could do something – that I should do something – never surfaced. That all changed on Rosh Hashanah in 2004.

I sat in synagogue, as my longtime teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, “>Jewish World Watch – an advocacy organization rooted in the biblical passage from Leviticus, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Our organization would work to protect those threatened by genocide and mass atrocities by educating our community, lobbying our policymakers to take action, and providing moral support and direct assistance to survivors on the ground.

Soon synagogues across Southern California embraced Jewish World Watch. Our group spread to churches and other organizations throughout the state – and well beyond. We built a coalition of hundreds of thousands of advocates from many different backgrounds and faiths. We staged marches and rallies. We held seminars in schools and City Halls. We brought delegations to Sacramento and Washington, successfully advancing a range of legislation to isolate those perpetrating genocide and protect those who were threatened. We took missions to Darfuri refugee camps to stand in solidarity with the survivors  – and bring their stories back to our communities.

In the decade since that day, we have raised millions of dollars for projects to aid more than 500,000 survivors of genocide and mass atrocities – from “>Solar Cookers, a simple invention that has dramatically improved the safety of Darfuri refugees, allowing women and girls to avoid the frequent assaults that result from leaving their camps to search for firewood.

I’ll never forget my first trip to the Darfuri refugee camps to meet with genocide survivors. Puzzled looks filled the room in our meetings with Darfuri women, who had been raped and tortured, and watched their entire families brutally murdered in front of their eyes. These women were so perplexed by our presence; they couldn’t figure out who we were, where we were from, and most of all, why we would tavel for four days on five separate flights to see them in the barren desert between Chad and Sudan.

We tried to explain why we were there. We spoke about the Jewish people’s experience – how, just like them, we were from an ancient tribe that once faced annihilation.  We told them that the memory of the Holocaust drove us to organize – to speak out when a government attempted to perpetrate genocide on another people. Tears filled the room. The women took off their head coverings and hugged us. We embraced as family, with new bonds of kinship.

I’ve met thousands of survivors from countries in conflict. There are always differences between them and me – in religion, language, culture, and opportunities.  We could define our relationships by those distinctions, but that is never what happens.  Rather, our quest for humanity, our shared hope for a better tomorrow, and our common belief that every person deserves respect and dignity serve as bonds much more powerful than any differences that stand between us. 

As a human being, it is natural to become mired in your own struggle – in righting the wrongs that have been done to your family or your community. Over the past decade, I’ve come to see so clearly that the quest for justice, compassion, and decency will never be successful in a Balkanized world. Our genocides are integrally connected. Allowing injustice to prevail without raising our voices is the same as accepting a world without humanity – and in such a world, no one is safe.

A decade ago, I never could have imagined how one sermon could transform my life – and the lives of so many others. This year, as we enter the holiest time on the Jewish calendar, the need to spread Rabbi Schulweis’ message has never felt more important. In a world plagued by growing conflicts and unimaginable cruelty – from Iraq and Syria, to Sudan and Congo – we must speak out louder and act with more urgency. Indeed, as the Rabbi said from the pulpit ten years ago, nothing less than our humanity is at stake.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is the President and Co-Founder of Jewish World Watch. She is pictured above with fellow Co-Founder Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis.