I’m dedicating my last post of 2014 to Rabbi Harold Schulweis who I’ve interviewed several times and who was the voice of wisdom and humanity to so many at Valley Beth Shalom and to the community at large, Jewish or not. The rabbi died this year in December. He was 89. His life and work reminded me of how much we need voices such as his. In 2014, when there were so many examples of inhumanity, from civil wars to epidemics, mass shootings to heinous crimes, I also was reminded of a saying by George Bernard Shaw: The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity. Here’s a story I wrote (Daily News, Oct. 20, 2007, ) about why Rabbi Schulweis founded Jewish World Watch and the work the organization was doing. The photo above is by Hans Gutknecht. May 2015 be a year when we find our humanity.
Thousands of miles from the San Fernando Valley, three local women are bearing witness to the power of giving in a place where so much has been taken away.
As part of a mission through Encino-based Jewish World Watch, Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, Janice Kamenir-Reznik and Rachel Andres have traveled to Africa in a two-week journey taking them deep into the refugee camps of Chad.
Thousands have settled in the area to escape the violence within the Darfur region of Sudan, and the women are seeing for themselves how the refugees are learning to feed themselves by using solar-powered cookers – devices made of tinfoil and cardboard that operate on sunshine.
And they have found that the simple device is saving thousands of lives.
“We have tremendous feedback on the effectiveness of the solar cooker,” Schwartz-Getzug wrote in an e-mail on behalf of the three women.
“Because of the way this project was organized, it has helped to empower the women in the camp in many important ways.”
The solar-cooker project is one of many created by Jewish World Watch. Through the nonprofit organization, synagogues, temples, churches and other community organizations from dozens of states have helped to raise $1million.
In addition, the organization has assisted in building water wells and two health clinics in refugee camps.
Made by KoZon, a charitable organization based in the Netherlands, the cookers seem simple in design but are proving invaluable.
They reduce the need for women and girls to venture miles outside of the camps to forage for firewood. Beyond the parameters of the refugee camps, women and girls are exposed to brutality by roaming militias.
So far, 4,500 women in the Iridimi refugee camp are using a total of 10,000 cookers. The goal of Jewish World Watch is to introduce more of the cookers to families in the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps.
The conflict between rebel groups and government-backed militias in the Darfur region of western Sudan has been called a humanitarian crisis by the United States and other nations.
Since 2003, an estimated 200,000 people have been killed or have died of starvation or disease, though that figure is disputed in published reports, with some saying up to 400,000 people may have died.
Militias, known as the Janjaweed, have reportedly burned and looted villages and carried out mass killings, torture and rape.
The violence has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes into refugee camps in Chad. Peace talks are expected to take place later this month in Libya.
But the atrocities ring familiar to Jews, said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino.
“The Jewish people have experienced genocide,” he said. “We know this by the marks on the arms of those in Holocaust.”
But knowing something and doing something are two different things, Schulweis said, which is why he founded Jewish World Watch three years ago.
“During the Holocaust, people asked, `Where are the priests? Where are the churches?”‘ Schulweis said.
And he doesn’t want history to repeat itself.
“We don’t want people to ask: `Where were the rabbis? Where were the synagogues and where were the temples?”‘
So far, Schwartz-Getzug, Kamenir-Reznik and Andres say their two-week journey has become an emotional one because of the unbelievable conditions they are witnessing.
“First, just seeing the poverty in N’Djamena was overwhelming,” wrote Schwartz-Getzug, executive director of Jewish World Watch and a former attorney who served with the Anti-Defamation League.
“Now in Abeche, seeing the very rudimentary standard of living, coupled with the many trucks full of armed soldiers, has been unnerving.”
Reaching the camps also has proved difficult because of transportation and document checks.
“One major challenge is the bureaucracy and the waiting for all of the permission to travel,” she wrote. “The other is the sheer amount of time logistically it takes to get from the capital city to the refugee camp.
“It is also very, very hot … sort of like the San Fernando Valley on its warmest day ever.”
But the women say they admire relief workers already in the field distributing food, teaching the women to use the solar cookers and providing medical care.
“The relief workers and the United Nations personnel are amazing,” Schwartz-Getzug wrote. “They are not frightened, despite the very real possibility of violence. We admire them greatly for the sacrifices they make.”
Besides observing how the cookers are working out, the women’s goal is to bring home firsthand accounts of the plight of the people of Darfur.
Schwartz-Getzug says the trio wants to “bear witness to the genocide and to let the people who have lost their loved ones and who have been unsettled and dislocated by this genocide know that they are not alone.”