March 18, 2019

SoCal Rabbi Advocates for Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

American Jewish World Service visits legislators on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC March 12, 2019. Photo by Chuck Kennedy for AJWS

Rabbi Zari Sussman of Temple Sholom in Ontario, Calif. was among 28 American rabbis and social justice advocates who traveled to Washington, D.C., this week urging officials to take action on human rights issues.

The rabbis started March 11 and advocated for human rights in Guatemala; justice for the Rohingya people in Burma, who have suffered genocide; and an end to the “global gag rule,” which restricts U.S. funding for life-saving sexual and reproductive health programs overseas.

Sussman told the Journal her knowledge of the trip came from her district representative. Since her congregation was largely Latino, she said she was very excited for the chance to go.

“It was important for me to go to support my community,” Sussman said. “When I told the congregation, they opened up about their own experiences and they were quite amazing. I was happy to understand where they were coming from and have a better understanding of what we can learn from each other.”

Sussman and the other rabbis worked alongside American Jewish World Service (AJWS). The Jewish organization supports advocates for human rights and social change in developing countries.

On March 12 they were on Capitol Hill meeting with members of Congress. Fourteen meetings were scheduled with senators and house representatives. Sussman attended seven back-to-back meetings with staffers from the California and Oregon senators office. She met with a member of Nancy Pelosi’s team and got to meet Rep. Norma Torres (D-Ontario) in person.

“It was one thing to see her on television but I got to walk into her office, shake her hand and hear her speak,” Sussman said.

The rabbis ended their trip March 13 by meeting with officials from the State Department and United States Agency for International Development.

“The new Congress is already challenging the Trump administration on issues of American foreign aid and support for human rights,” President and CEO of American Jewish World Service Robert Bank, said in a statement. “These rabbis are playing a key role in educating elected officials and the public about the importance of U.S. leadership on the global stage in standing up for human rights.”

Congress is currently preparing to to debate legislation demanding that the governments and military in Burma and Guatemala respect human rights of everyone in their countries, including long-oppressed ethnic minority groups.

Sussman said she had never done anything like this before, but was awed by all of it. She said she wasn’t just fighting for her congregation and the people in Guatemala, she was honoring her family, who were in the Holocaust.

“This was a master class in government civics. Normal people can be activists and can have their voices heard” Sussman said. “The bill is bringing war criminals to justice. My uncle went through the Holocaust and someone who gave his testimony for Nuremberg and I know the important that is to have that ability to tell your story. So many years later I’m on Capitol Hill lobbying for the ability for other people to have that same opportunity. When I was walking through the day, I was really walking with my family.”