John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, stepped to the front of a synagogue in Agoura Hills on a recent Friday evening and, after wishing the congregation “Shabbat Shalom,” spoke of Darfur.
He told of the anguish he witnessed at a refugee camp there. Of the thousands of people he saw living in the open, under tarpaulins. Of how there’s little water for drinking and none for hygiene. Of how women are often raped as they go hunting for firewood to heat the food donated by relief organizations. Of how they return to the camps beaten, bloody and shamed.
The suffering, he said, is unimaginable. Jews know what suffering is, he said. Jews must act.
It is a sentiment being repeated throughout the region as Jewish leaders ask congregations to consider the carnage in Sudan and think carefully about the words: “Never again.”
What do these words mean? they ask. Do they mean that Jews vow never again to endure a genocide? Or are they also a promise that Jews will not sit by while others are systematically destroyed?
It was Rabbi Harold Schulweis who first posed the question at Rosh Hashana to his congregation at the temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. The killing of black Muslims in Darfur, a region in western Sudan torn by civil war, was a desecration of the phrase that strikes at the core of the Jewish soul, he told them.
What will Jews say to the children, he asked, when in response to the bitter question, “Where were the churches, the priests, the minister, the pope, during the Holocaust?” they counter with: “Where were the synagogues, the rabbis, the Jews during the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda and the people of Darfur?”
In the 18 months since his sermon, a Jewish movement to stop the genocide in Darfur and send aid to displaced refugees has swept Southern California.
Today 47 synagogues have joined Jewish World Watch, an organization born of Schulweis’ plea. The group has raised $300,000, built two medical clinics in refugee camps, funded the digging of wells and begun raising money to provide solar cookers for a 20,000-person camp. The cooker project, undertaken with the help of a Northern California company, is meant to see to it that women no longer have to forage for wood and make themselves vulnerable to attack.
Earlier this month, Rabbi Zoe Klein brought a solar cooker to evening services at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles. She had used it earlier to cook a pot of vegetable stew, and she served a taste to the cantor to show that it worked.
Janice Kamenir-Reznik, Jewish World Watch’s founder and chief executive officer, was there when Schulweis first spoke of Darfur. She thought of Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda.
“I’m 54 years old and I was alive during many of those genocides,” she said. “I was a lawyer during most of the genocides, and I said, ‘What did I do? What did I personally do?’ I realized that I needed to correct my own behavior and engage.”
Reznik, then a partner at the firm of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, quit her job.
Now she speaks at eight to 10 events a week and is a passionate advocate for Darfur. No, she says, the problem is not complex. If the world wanted to stop the genocide, it would stop. “I don’t think people care about those lives,” she said.
She walks a fine line, offering enough information to inspire but not overwhelm listeners. “You don’t have to know a whole lot to know right from wrong,” she said.
In Sudan, more than 180,000 people have died and an additional 2 million have been displaced from their homes since rebels rose up against the Sudanese government in 2003, citing years of oppression and discrimination. The Arab-dominated government unleashed a counterinsurgency, which eventually developed into brutal pro-government militias called the janjaweed.
Key to the growth of Jewish World Watch is its 45 trained volunteers who have fanned out through the region, giving presentations at civic groups, schools and churches. Schoolchildren have pitched in too, writing to President Bush and raising money with bake sales, car washes and the sales of wristbands that say “Do Not Stand Idly By ... Save Darfur.” Jewish summer campers will be sending crayons, papers and educational toys to the children in Darfur, along with notes written in Arabic.
Anyone can volunteer with the group, and people of many ethnicities and faiths have taken part in Jewish World Watch events.
In April, 300 people attended “Seder for Darfur,” which featured actors Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Ed Asner, as well as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The Gwen Wyatt Chorale sang spirituals and saxophonist Dave Koz and other musicians played traditional Passover music. To mark the shortage of food in Darfur, no food was served.
Father Alexei Smith of St. Paul Melkite Greek Catholic Mission has worked with the group and invited Reznik to speak at his parish in El Segundo.
“I don’t know of a collective effort in this area other than that mounted by Jewish World Watch,” Smith said. “And actually that’s sad.
“I fear that many see this as an African problem and not as a human problem,” he said. “It just hasn’t resonated with people to the extent that I think it should resonate.”
It has with Jews, Schulweis said.
“I have been a rabbi now for over 50 years, and it’s the most contagious event I’ve seen,” he said. “I’m unusually delighted by the response of the community; it buoyed up my spirits.”
As a boy, Schulweis said, he was immersed in the words of prophets. Abraham defended Sodom and Gomorrah. Jonah was chastised for refusing to preach to the gentiles of Nineveh.
“It’s part of my own theology,” Schulweis said. “It’s the way in which I understand Judaism.”
Earlier this month, Schulweis addressed a national conference of Reform Judaism rabbis in San Diego, urging them to rally their congregations to the cause. He is hopeful that they will. To do otherwise, he said, would not be Jewish.