Who would want to go to Africa in June? The American Jewish World Service, that’s who, and the 30 people, myself included, who — despite three connecting flights, the height of the rainy season, and temperatures in the 80s — signed up for its Liberian study tour.
AJWS isn’t about feel-good tourism (though we stayed in a perfectly nice hotel in Monrovia). It’s about tikkun olam, alleviating human misery, and mobilizing the Jewish community to advance global justice. To that end, and to give donors and friends of the organization a first-hand look at the daunting poverty and privation in Liberia, we visited several of the grassroots groups that are funded by AJWS, groups dedicated to combating epidemic rates of illiteracy, rape, and teen pregnancy, empowering women, providing basic health care, fostering democratic institutions, and building upon the fragile peace achieved after a 14-year civil war. We learned by watching, listening, and engaging with the Liberian people up close and personal.
In Bensonville, we visited a refugee community of 3,500 people — but no school – where we observed the literacy program operated by the Self-Help Initiative for Sustainable Development, an AJWS grantee. The group’s sweet welcome ceremony featured a half dozen adult women who had recently learned to read and write. Each stepped up to the blackboard in turn, printed her name with great care and concentration, then proudly, as if reciting Proust, read it aloud. I was especially touched by the beautiful young woman who wrote her name in large block letters, proclaiming, “I used to put my thumb print. Now I can write my name and I know how to read money and do math!”
Another AJWS project partner, Imani House, runs a small clinic, the only medical facility that serves 16,000 patients a year from 13 villages within a 30-mile radius. At lunch, a soft-spoken gentleman thanked AJWS for helping their projects since 2003 and making it possible for them to upgrade from a tent to a community house. The clinic’s facilities were sadly modest and its supplies meager (including a jug of Clorox that I was told is used for sterilization), yet Imani House manages to provide childhood immunizations, malaria treatment, obstetric and gynecological care, condoms, treatment for rape victims, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and prenatal care to prevent infant mortality. After our hosts serenaded us with a hymn, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” we countered with Debbie Friedman’s version of the Shehechiyanu blessing and the Liberians swayed along with our chant.
That AJWS’s mission is rooted in Jewish ethics was made clear each time Ruth Messinger, the organization’s president, or any of us tour participants, introduced our delegation to the local people. We all made a point of emphasizing that AJWS’s support for the Liberians, whether Christian or Muslim, is motivated by the Jewish belief that all human beings are created in the image of God and every person is of infinite value and equal value.
What struck me most about our week-long visit – besides the inspiring projects we visited — was the unique way our leaders integrated socially-responsible tourism with applied Jewish values and the study of Judaic texts. We weren’t just piled into vans and trucked around to view the decay and despair; we spent hours in face-to-face encounters with memorable individuals who are working on the ground to make life more livable. We met with high officials, including Liberia’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and activist Leymah Gbowee, as well as “ordinary” people working to improve the country’s collapsed infrastructure, fiscal disorder, joblessness, gender violence, and the difficulties of the truth and reconciliation process. And we were tasked with considering our responsibility as Jews to repair the brokenness we had witnessed.
Day after day, we asked ourselves how Judaism’s save-one-life-you-save-the-world ethos could have an impact in a country with so many overwhelming burdens. In group sessions, we talked about what it means to spend two hours in a squalid village, amid simple mud huts and garbage-strewn roads, to meet children mired in poverty and clad in tattered clothes…and then return to our hotel for dinner and eventually fly home to the United States.
Our days began or ended with a d'var torah led by Rabbi Sharon Brous, one of our trip participants and the founder of IKAR, an innovative congregation in L.A., or by Riva Silverman, an executive with AJWS with a B.A. in Talmud studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In one session, Rabbi Brous evoked the biblical Hannah, the “inventor” of prayer, asserting that prayer is humanity’s dialogue with God and protest is a form of prayer, an expression of “holy chutzpah.”
Riva, in her d’var torah, recalled that Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land because he disobeyed God’s order and struck the rock. She posited that Moses’ fatal flaw was not just impatience or violence but replicating what he had done before (the last time the people needed water God had instructed him to hit the rock), when he should have realized that a true leader must change with changing circumstances. Likewise, Liberia’s current leaders, who struggled long and hard to achieve peace, had to change and grow and adapt to peace.
It’s clear to me that our intense engagement with Jewish texts greatly enriched our experience of the country and deepened our connection to its beleaguered people. By the end of the week, I felt grateful, as a Jew, for the work that AJWS does in struggling nations and pride in the fact that its mission is being carried out in fulfillment of our tradition and in the name of the Jewish people.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the author of nine books, including "Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America". She has just completed a book entitled, "How To Be A Friend To A Friend Who’s Sick. "