February 22, 2020

A new teacher in 5776

This past year, my congregation at Valley Beth Shalom – and the greater Jewish community – lost a giant. Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l, of blessed memory, was an incredible scholar, a visionary for justice, and an exceptional leader in the deepest sense of the word.  As we move through the High Holidays this year – our first without Rabbi Schulweis – I can’t help but think about him and his legacy.  

Rabbi Schulweis’ sermons during the High Holidays were legendary.  They moved your soul and encouraged you to take action.  I know from personal experience.  Just over a decade ago, the Rabbi spoke to our congregation about the horrifying news of a genocide emerging in Darfur. “Silence is tantamount to complicity,” he said, calling on our congregation to truly live up to the words “Never Again.” Later that year, together we founded Jewish World Watch (JWW) – an organization committed to ending genocide and mass atrocities in our time.

As we built JWW from an organization at a single synagogue into a national coalition that includes schools, churches, individuals, and partner organizations, I learned so much.  And I must admit, since he passed, I have wondered what it would be like this High Holiday season without Rabbi Schulweis here.  Who would my teacher be?

Yet, soon I realized that the Rabbi left me with many teachers.

As co-founder and President of Jewish World Watch, I’ve seen firsthand the power of the human spirit in the thousands of women and men who have rebuilt their lives and communities following devastating atrocities, against all odds. Each of them is an inspired teacher – a reminder of the capacity within each of us to rebuild and renew. 

As I reflect on the last year, one face shines particularly bright. This teacher’s name is Samuel. He is from the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country where an estimated six million people have been killed over the course of a decade of conflict. Raised in an exceptionally violent and turbulent world, Samuel joined a street gang at the age of 15 to survive. He was pick-pocketing and breaking into homes before his 16th birthday.  In 2007, Samuel enrolled in school through a JWW-partner program, Generation Hope, only to go back to the streets a few months later. Two years ago Samuel returned, asking for a second chance.

This time, he flourished. He re-enrolled in classes and began participating in Generation Hope’s after-school activities. Samuel started a leadership club on campus to share what he was learning in the program with his fellow students. Then, he got his Principal involved, encouraging him to learn about another program called Sons of Congo, which teaches men to respect women and protect their rights – a critical effort in a country where sexual violence is rampant, having been used as a weapon of war for many years. The principal was so moved by the Sons of Congo program that he made it school policy for every male faculty member to join. Samuel has sparked something major – the tenacity and vision of a bold teenager has ushered in a new way of thinking about women throughout his entire school.

Samuel could have walked a very different path. Instead, by sheer force of will, he chose to transform his own life, and when he saw that change was possible for himself, he knew that it was within reach for his entire community.  What a blessing for the people of Congo to have Samuel as a leader. What a blessing for us to have him as a teacher.

Jewish World Watch’s work is often met with skepticism. Why should Americans get involved in that mess over there, many ask me? What impact can we really have on the ground, they will often say? Rabbi Schulweis taught me to see through the moral flaws in such an argument – to recognize that if we are able to help support just one Samuel, to save one life, to change one community, then all of our efforts are worth it.

As we move through this season of high holidays, I find great inspiration knowing that the Rabbi’s fervent belief in the power of individuals to fight injustice and make transformational change has been spread to thousands of new teachers across our community – and around the world. May 5776 be the year that we breathe new life into his legacy – to choose the path of hope and justice –refusing to allow our communities to stand idly by as others face genocide and mass atrocities.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is the Co-Founder and President of Jewish World Watch – an organization dedicated to fighting genocide and mass atrocities.