November 21, 2019

Rabbi David Wolpe in Thailand: Have you ever seen a menorah dance?

Traveling reminds us that the old is distinctive and the new melds together. I had never been to Thailand, or indeed to any country in Southeast Asia. As the bus rolled through the streets, nothing in the facade of the 7-Eleven convenience store or the crushed muddle of Bangkok traffic proved startling. They were new phenomena, and modernity homogenizes the world: Golden Arches stretch from Boston to Bangalore. Suddenly though, rising from the Bangkok street was a reclining Buddha, long and languorous, golden and utterly unexpected. The old is distinctive and the new familiar: Buddhism is old. Rush hour is new.

The same question about what is truly old and what is new bubbles beneath the surface of Jewish life. Is it genuine or a newish fad to speak of Judaism as a crusade for economic equality? A traditionalist might say, in the manner of the paragraph above, tefillin old, social justice new. What is distinctive and therefore most precious about Judaism is its ancient legacy.

But that would be too hasty and censorious a judgment. Jews have never cared only for Jews. In the ancient Temple, the Priest would make 70 sacrifices, one for each nation of the world. Helping others mipne darchei shalom, because of the path of peace, is at least as old as the Mishna, a scant 600 years after the Buddha. Any cursory reading of the prophets teaches that economic justice and human rights may not be the sum of Judaism, but there is no Judaism without them. 

 So filled with ideas both old and new, incongruous as it may seem, a busload of Jews from across the United States rolled through the streets of Thailand arguing about the Jewish tradition. What does Judaism have to say about the equitable distribution of resources, or the rights to protection against violence and exploitation of sex workers? Is poverty in the village less onerous than poverty in the city? What was I, and the group from American Jewish World Service (AJWS) I was traveling with, doing in a nation with so little Jewish history? Jews have had a profound impact in numerous lands throughout the world, but the Jewish story of Thailand would fill, at most, a page — if the print were writ large. 

First there are delightful, surprising synergies. On my way into Bangkok, my guide was lamenting how the Buddhist calendar, because it is lunar, mandates a leap year every few years to balance things out. Crazy, huh? “Umm,” I said — thereby cementing Jews’ reputation for snappy repartee — “us, too.” 

We came during a 10-day festival of vegetarianism. Buddhists eat meat, the guide explained, but because they recognize that all meat eating involves death, they have regulations to remind them of that sad necessity of life. “Umm,” I said — invoking my now-familiar mantra — “us, too.”

Then he began to complain how little genuine Buddhist education most Buddhists receive. At this point I just kept quiet, because he was starting to think I was just copying everything he said. 

But perhaps nothing was quite so startling as seeing a traditional presentation, performed by a heavily made-up, costumed “queen” with delicate movements and slow, angled poses. The spectacle was a treat, but its name was better. “Menora” refers to the theater form and may have originated from a proper name. Still, however many Jews have lit a menorah, few can say they saw a menora dance.

AJWS is an organization whose stated aim is to realize human rights and help alleviate poverty in the developing world. But its mission is a specific kind of relief. Although traveling to some of the most bereft spots on the planet, its groups are instructed not to “give” anything to the people whom they meet. AJWS is not engaged in charity as traditionally conceived. The sole and significant exception is that we brought a bunch of T-shirts. That matters for reasons I will explain below.

A Thai woman from a group funded by AJWS offers hospitality to visitors. Photo by Angela Maddahi

Instead, AJWS identifies groups doing important work in their own countries, which are underfunded, and helps them with personal contacts and funds. The amounts are small by charitable standards — $15,000, $20,000 — but they can make a huge difference in the lives of struggling activists in poor countries.

Years ago, while I was teaching at Hunter College in New York in the 1980s, a rally to end apartheid in South Africa and a rally to free Soviet Jewry were both held on the same day. At the end of class, a Jewish student asked me which she should attend. I answered that she should go to the Soviet Jewry rally because, I explained, if you go to the Soviet Jewry rally, others will still attend the anti-apartheid rally. But if Jews flock to the anti-apartheid rally, who will be left to agitate on behalf of Soviet Jews? I added that at the next anti-apartheid rally, she should absolutely go. Ours are not the only causes worth fighting for. If we are only for ourselves we will never succeed in being ourselves.

The question of whom and how to help is urgent. Family first, but not only family. Helping outside your family is part of defining what kind of family you are. Additionally, the remarkable finding of recent surveys is that Jews who give to the Jewish community are also those most likely to give to general causes. In other words, giving is not a zero-sum game. The same people on the bus in Thailand who give time and money to remote villagers are deeply involved and invested in Jewish charities. The president of AJWS, Ruth Messinger, former president of the borough of Manhattan, is also a learned, involved and committed Jew. In her early 70s, she is still constantly traveling to the 19 countries AJWS serves, indefatigably shlepping, exhorting and instructing. Rabbis accompany the trips to provide Jewish perspective, teaching and values. The aim of AJWS is to help non-Jews as Jews.

Thailand is a place where the poverty is not as dire as in many other lands in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean served by AJWS. It is that rare country that was never colonized and, even in a fairly remote village, while there was no cell reception or Internet, we saw several people crowded around an old laptop playing a game and a delighted child with eyes fixed on an iPhone. This village’s livelihood, old and arduous, is the slow and painstaking accumulation of rubber from trees, which forms Thailand’s main industry.

But there is deep poverty, political oppression and an enduring need, and among the marginalized remains a yearning to be heard. Thailand is still a country where criticizing the king will land you in prison, and criticizing the government can get you “disappeared.” AJWS has sought out local groups that are working for human rights and fosters their efforts through encouragement and aid. A fishing village is trying to hold onto the profit from its labors and limit the coal production in its vicinity; a farming village seeks to retain the right to its land, held for generations. Funding does not decide these issues, but it helps to give the people a voice. 

Living conditions in the poor neighborhoods of Thailand can be seen in this makeshift house, yet the residents are generous and anxious to preserve their traditional customs. Photo by Angela Maddahi

In some parts of the world, encouragement means making alliances with people like Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, an early recipient of AJWS grants who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It means rehabilitating child soldiers; fighting human trafficking; opposing the practices of forcing children to marry, sell their bodies or lose their parents. It means supporting war widows and promoting literacy in some of the most forsaken and poverty-stricken lands on earth. 

Like its neighbors, Thailand was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Our guide spoke to us of the courage of the women he knew who identified the bodies, row upon row, from the towns and villages where they lived. He did not want to leave his house until his son, a month after the tsunami, forced him outside and back into life. The undercurrent of trauma continues to ripple through Thailand. Think of 9/11, which took place a few years before the tsunami, and recall that more than twice as many people died in Thailand than in the World Trade Center Towers, in a country with a population roughly one-fifth that of the United States. 

It is not lost on anyone, from the groups we help to the guides we employ, that we are Jews. In a particularly dramatic moment on our trip, one man, through a translator, told Messinger that he had heard good things and bad things about Jews, but he now knew what we stood for because other groups came right after the tsunami and never returned. He said, in a moment of delicious incongruity, that he was going to show his children the Holocaust movie “Life Is Beautiful,” which he had seen, so they would know more about Jews. Another man, in a group that included many Muslims (who make up a mere 5 percent of the population of Thailand), said he knew that in the world there were those who had political divisions, Muslim and Jew, but what mattered was that we were there to help. We gave T-shirts to the group, and I like to think that across Thailand (and all the countries served by AJWS), there are children with “Jewish” emblazoned across their chests. 

These moments may not be crucial in themselves. But in addition to doing good, seeds are sewn. A child from that fishing village, who took a picture standing beside a rabbi with a kippah, may grow up to have influence in Thailand. A lesbian activist, who heard a judge in our group talk about presiding over the same-sex wedding of her own daughter in the United States, may feel less starkly alone. In many of the nations where AJWS works, from Chad to Cambodia to Burma to Haiti, this may be the only time people see a Jew in the flesh. And they see we are there to help them. In the metaphor of Piju, our Thai guide, translator and a member of the staff of AJWS, we were not fireworks who burn bright and then vanish. On subsequent visits, years later, people still ask after those whom they have met. 

For the guides and hotel staff, (who miraculously created a challah following pictures on Google) an image of our Shabbat celebration — from candles to Birkat ha-Mazon to Havdalah in the humid night — serves as a mental image of the beauty of our tradition. 

Of course ambassadorship, however precious, is not ultimately the point. To do good for instrumental reasons is politics, not mitzvah. AJWS is there to help organizations that are fighting for the rights of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the scared, the lost, the thwarted, the abused. The index of a society’s health all across the world is in its treatment of women, one of the pillars of AJWS activism. An impressive and persistent theme throughout the trip was that many of the groups we met with chose women as their spokespeople. We met a lawyer who came to speak to our dinner with her husband and daughter. When asked why she pushes against the government to secure land rights, a woman known by the nickname Thik said, “I decided I did not want to be a lawyer; I wanted to make law.” To encourage her and amplify her voice is to change the world for the better.

Working with 500 NGOs in 19 countries, the individual donations from AJWS are small. But to a struggling group, these grants of anywhere from $15,000 to about $25,000 can be the difference between advocacy and oblivion. Saving a single life is saving a world, the Rabbis remind us. It is not much, in the scheme of our good fortune, when there are so many worlds to save. As Ruth Messinger likes to say, “We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

Naam, from Southern Farmers Alliance, summed it up this way: “If I don’t start, then others won’t follow, so it has to be me.” Somewhere along the way, the alchemy of intimacy changed all of us. We began, “I see you”; moved to, “I feel for you”; and ended, “I’m with you.” Turns out Hineni can be said in every language on God’s good earth.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook/RabbiWolpe.