September 22, 2019

AJWS goes to Washington

I always have an answer.

It is a tricky character quality, I admit — often amusing, but just as easily infuriating — and which one of the two you find it to be almost always depends on the question. Even when I’m not sure of something, I’ll concoct an argument to defend my position anyway. People like to tell me I should have been a lawyer. My mother (z”l) used to tell me to go to my room.

So it was deeply discomfiting and entirely out of character when, during the first meeting of Los Angeles’ inaugural American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellowship, I found myself speechless.

“What commitment is there in your life that has no direct benefit to you or your family?” one of the organizers asked the group.

Almost everything I could think of — career, religious life, world of ideas, charity — provided some tangible or intangible benefit, whether in the form of recognition, reciprocation or prestige. Give to this organization and you belong; give to that organization and you’re a chair; give more and you’ll get a plaque, a name on the wall or your kid into school. There is so much giving that has a getting-in-return.

And while I do not believe that self-interest can diminish the impact of a gift, it disqualifies the act as benefit-free. According to Maimonides, there is a higher aspiration, a steeper spiritual stairway that comes with anonymous giving and human empowerment. The deepest expression of generosity, the great sage teaches us, should occur somewhere beyond the periphery of your own life; it should enlarge someone else’s status and your soul. 

As I reflected on my own giving record, I could count a few small things: tutoring a young girl at an East Los Angeles nonprofit, a few weekends spent volunteering at the Downtown Women’s Center, and some meals I had cooked and delivered to PATH, a collection of local agencies assisting the homeless. But I had been shamefully less than devoted to each of these pursuits, and so when I was asked, I felt I couldn’t give them as my answer.

Nine months later, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, I’m saying “Goodbye to all that.”

Earlier this month, I traveled to Washington, D.C., with 16 of my “fellow fellows” (that’s what we like to call ourselves), as well as a handful of other L.A. locals, for American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) first-ever Policy Summit, where we were joined by nearly 200 other activists from New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington to lobby members of Congress. For a fast and furious 48 hours, we attended more than 90 meetings with elected officials or their staffers, pressing them to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, a bipartisan bill that seeks to end gender-based violence against women and girls around the world. 

It was the culminating event in a yearlong fellowship that took us to Oaxaca, Mexico, last November, where we traveled not as tourists but as trusted partners. Our task was simple: Listen to their stories and then magnify their voices. 

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, the vivacious Liberian woman whose nonviolent resistance movement ousted a corrupt despot, once said that true empowerment means sacrificing some of one’s own power in order to embolden others. 

In Oaxaca, we saw firsthand what happens when individuals forget that they are their brother’s — and their sister’s — keeper. We met Efemia, a quiet, unassuming woman whom we would never have guessed was nearly stabbed to death by her husband, whom she wed at 12, and who had to endure multiple invasive surgeries while he ran off scot-free. We saw what happens to impoverished, vulnerable communities when multinational corporations discover precious metals in their land — the toxic water, the dead animals, the dead end. Every single day, we saw things that enraged, enlightened and inspired us. We saw that all it takes to subvert justice is for good people to carry on unfazed.

Since its founding in 1985, AJWS has been in the business of global justice. It remains today the leading Jewish human rights and international development organization in the world, working in 19 countries with more than 550 non-governmental organizations. AJWS is audacious enough to dare to repair the world, yet humble enough to know that it cannot achieve that alone.

Three decades of international fieldwork combined with the deeply attuned leadership of Ruth Messenger has taught AJWS that the most promising partner in its tikkun olam effort is U.S. foreign policy. The transformation of whole societies can only occur through a combined effort of grass-roots activism and top-down policy change. So over the last several years, AJWS has been increasing its political engagement, shifting focus from extended volunteer experiences to the global justice fellowship, designed to foster and support sustained engagement by a new cohort each year.

Traveling on one of its effervescent and exotic trips is not meant to be the experience of a lifetime; it is meant to inspire the work of a lifetime.

But nothing could have prepared me for the strange paradox of asking my California representatives — Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Karen Bass — all of whom care about my voice because I represent a vote, to also care about the plight of hundreds of millions of endangered women and girls who might as well live on another planet, most of whom we’ll never meet and who have nothing whatsoever to offer us. 

That day at the Capitol was the first time in my life I got a glimpse of the world from the top of Maimonides’ ladder.  

And let me just say: The benefit is enormous.