On Human Rights Day in December 2014, activists from around the world gathered at The Daily Beast’s “#Quorum: Global LGBT Voices” to share their struggles and achievements in working for LGBT rights worldwide. Essy, a Kenyan activist who works for AJWS grantee Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved (PEMA Kenya), shared her story about her work fighting for the rights of LGBT people in Kenya. Watch her speak with AJWS President Ruth Messinger from behind a screen, to help protect her privacy and her ability to continue her work for LGBT human rights.
On Passover, Jews are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus and to see ourselves as having lived through that story, so that we may better learn how to live our lives today. The stories we tell our children shape what they believe to be possible—which is why at Passover, we must tell the stories of the women who played a crucial role in the Exodus narrative.
The Book of Exodus, much like the Book of Genesis, opens in pervasive darkness. Genesis describes the earth as “unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep.”1 In Exodus, darkness attends the accession of a new Pharaoh who feared the Israelites and so enslaved them. God alone lights the way out of the darkness in Genesis. But in Exodus, God has many partners, first among them, five brave women.
There is Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Shifra and Puah, the famous midwives. Each defies Pharaoh’s decree to kill the Israelite baby boys. And there is Miriam, Moses’ sister, about whom the following midrash is taught:
[When Miriam’s only brother was Aaron] she prophesied… “my mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel.” When [Moses] was born the whole house… filled with light[.] [Miriam’s] father arose and kissed her on the head, saying, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.” But when they threw [Moses] into the river her father tapped her on the head saying, “Daughter, where is your prophecy?” So it is written, “And [Miriam] stood afar off to know what would be[come of] the latter part of her prophecy.”2
Finally, there is Pharaoh’s daughter Batya, who defies her own father and plucks baby Moses out of the Nile. The Midrash reminds us that Batya knew exactly what she doing:
When Pharaoh’s daughter’s handmaidens saw that she intended to rescue Moses, they attempted to dissuade her, and persuade her to heed her father. They said to her: “Our mistress, it is the way of the world that when a king issues a decree, it is not heeded by the entire world, but his children and the members of his household do observe it, and you wish to transgress your father’s decree?”3
But transgress she did.
These women had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day.
Retelling the heroic stories of Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Batya reminds our daughters that with vision and the courage to act, they can carry forward the tradition those intrepid women launched.
While there is much light in today’s world, there remains in our universe disheartening darkness, inhumanity spawned by ignorance and hate. We see horrific examples in the Middle East, parts of Africa, and Ukraine. The Passover story recalls to all of us—women and men—that with vision and action we can join hands with others of like mind, kindling lights along paths leading out of the terrifying darkness.
1 Genesis 1:2
2 Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14a
3 Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12b
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Appointed by President William Jefferson Clinton in 1993, she is known as a strong voice for gender equality, the rights of workers, and separation between church and state.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt is a rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.. She is co-creator of two nationally recognized community engagement projects—MakomDC and the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington.
This essay is part of American Jewish World Service’s Chag v’Chesed (“Celebration and Compassion”) series. Written by prominent leaders, Chag v’Chesed draws on teachings from the holidays to inform our thinking about Judaism and social justice. AJWS is committed to a pluralistic view of Judaism and honors a broad spectrum of interpretation of our texts and traditions. The statements made and views expressed in this commentary are solely the responsibility of the author. To subscribe to Chag v’Chesed, please visit http://www.ajws.org/cvc.
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View all of AJWS’s Passover Resources at http://ajws.org/passover2015.
On Sunday, March 15th, AJWS’s first-ever NYC Half Marathon Team will race through Manhattan on a run for global justice! Through tireless training and dedication, our team has raised more than $7,000 for AJWS’s work in the developing world. We hope you’ll cheer on Team AJWS as they take on the city and race to the finish line to build a more just and equitable world! Donate to Team AJWS here.
Amy is an educator in the New York City Public School system. She currently teaches Social Studies in grades 9-12 at the NYC iSchool in Lower Manhattan. Amy loves teaching both United States and Global History, and her students have held exhibits at the New York Historical Society, taken trips to meet policymakers in Washington, and gone to national and international Model United Nations conferences. Amy has also worked as a school coordinator with the NYC Department of Education Mentoring Program, matching public school students with mentors in the business community. With her husband and three children, Amy loves spending time exploring New York City, visiting family in Pennsylvania, and taking vacations inside and outside the USA. She also loves running, reading, and sharing photos on Instagram (@citimouse). She did her first Manhattan Half Marathon a long time ago on a hot August day in Central Park, so she is looking forward to the cooler temperature for the NYCHalf this March!
A recent transplant to New York, Eliza originally hails from Virginia but lives on the Upper West Side and loves traveling, cooking, and running! When she’s not running through Central Park, she is dreaming up adventures at Absolute Travel. She is looking forward to the NYC Half Marathon with equal parts fear and excitement, but so proud to be running for AJWS!
Paul is looking forward to joining the AJWS team to run his first half-marathon! He is excited to support AJWS’s outstanding work that he gets to hear about first-hand from his wife Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield, Director of Experiential Education. Besides running, he enjoys long bike rides, competing in triathlons, and skiing with his children Maayan and Yonah. He is a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai St Luke’s, where he is Director of the Outpatient Clinic and Associate Director of the Psychiatric Residency Training Program.
Samantha Shabman and Andrew Trief
Samantha hails from Scarsdale, New York. She is currently a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. Prior to rabbinical school, Samantha attended the George Washington University. In her free time she likes to run (obviously), and even better, take long walks! Sam also enjoys spinning, meeting new people, cooking veggie dishes, swimming and sunshine! She is always up for new and exciting experiences and hopes that this is one of many, many more half marathons she will run in her lifetime!
Andrew hails from northern New Jersey, although he spent the majority of his adult years traveling abroad and living in Israel. He is currently a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in New York City pursuing his love for Judaism, the Jewish people, Hebrew, and Israel. In his free time, Andrews spend a lot of time running, traveling, and figuring out how to connect his many passions together. He is very excited to be running as part of the AJWS team in the NYC half marathon!
Child Marriage isn’t just a women’s issue—it’s a human rights issue.
I walked into AJWS’s DC Action Team meeting in December to find a conference room with a delightful array of cheeses, crackers and fruit. There were pitchers of water on the table, hot coffee and tea. The chairs were nice and everything seemed comfortable, but I was about to get really uncomfortable.
Whenever I attend an AJWS event, I always feel productively challenged. That evening I was challenged by Dr. Manisha Gupte. Dr. Gupte is co-founder of Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM), an organization supported by AJWS that works to help young men and women in western India learn about their rights and how to advocate for greater choices about their own futures. Rights and freedoms that we take for granted in the United States are not always respected and understood in Indian society.
Dr. Gupte shared stories about the lives of young men and women from the Dalit (“untouchable” caste) in western India. For a variety of reasons and pressures—including gender inequality, poverty and limited sexual health education, to name a few—many of them find themselves in early marriages. Getting married before the age of 18 often limits the opportunities for these children, especially for girls. The issue remains complex. Perhaps the most impressive part about MASUM is that, through its partnership with AJWS, the organization strengthens youth-led advocacy and empowers children to ask for and create change from within their own communities.
As Manisha spoke, I looked around the room with about a dozen women and realized that I was the only man. It was surprising that no other men had made the choice to be there that night. What did that say about the issue at hand? Was it strictly a women’s issue? I tended to think not, and frankly, from the talk that I had just heard, it seemed like men had a lot to learn and gain from their engagement in this conversation.
We were asked to reflect on what we had just heard and how it might impact what action we might take next. I recognized that there was a lot that I needed to learn, and because of what I had heard, I was willing to learn more in order to make a difference. Dr. Gupte had left us with a final thought that really stuck in my mind. “I don’t think women need protection; women’s rights need protection,” she said. Protecting human rights is the bottom line, and is something that people of all genders can—and should—support. All of us, regardless of gender, have a stake in ensuring equal protection for all people’s dignity and human rights.
Andy Kirschner is a member of AJWS’s DC Action Team. AJWS Action Teams mobilize advocates for global justice throughout the United States, helping to create lasting policy change that benefit many of the most marginalized people in the developing world. To get involved, email email@example.com.
AJWS’s We Believe campaign is mobilizing American Jewish and other supporters of human rights to demand that the U.S. Congress fully fund efforts designed to end child marriage in the developing world. Learn more and get involved with our We Believe campaign.
This week, my AJWS Los Angeles Global Justice Fellowship cohort and I are preparing to depart for India to meet with local human rights activists working to overcome poverty and injustice in their own communities. I have been reminded these past few days (especially in the countdown to our departure from LAX) that I am experiencing a familiar feeling. It is so easy to get fixated on the packing list, the details of travel insurance, Malarone™ prescriptions and visa applications. Do I have the right clothes…my trusty travel pillow? …and where did my universal travel plug go?
And when I was traveling for work to the developing world it was even worse: do I have the in-country contact phone numbers, the materials for our field office, the conference freebees and photo consent cards, and all the necessary files and PowerPoints backed up on my computer in case rolling blackouts restrict my internet access?
Originally published in PBS Newshour.
On Jan. 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake reduced the impoverished island country of Haiti to rubble, leaving 220,000 dead, another 300,000 injured, and more than a million homeless. Many of those who survived also lost limbs to falling walls and debris from buildings that weren’t constructed to withstand seismic waves.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the tectonic plates hadn’t produced a large-scale earthquake of comparable strength in the Caribbean area for 150 years.
The tragedy triggered an international response that raised $13.5 billion in donations from governments and individuals, with the U.S. leading the relief operation. President Barack Obama spoke directly to Haitians — “You will not be forsaken. You will not be forgotten” — but every year since, critics have asked the same question: Where did the money go?
Five years later, the “build back better” reconstruction promise remains limp, critics argue, while tens of thousands of people are still in temporary housing. While the number of Haitians living in these tent camps have decreased since the earthquake, 123 camps housing more than 85,000 people remain open, Amnesty International said.
“On paper, with that much money in a territory the size of Haiti, we should have witnessed miracles; there should have been results,” Haiti-based photographer Gael Turine told Time magazine.
Then, for the first time in a century, Haiti suffered a cholera outbreak that emerged 10 months after the earthquake. As of August 2014, the disease had claimed 8,592 lives and sickened more than 700,000, the United Nations Children’s Fund said.
A four-person panel appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon released a report in May 2011 that investigated if U.N. peacekeepers had inadvertently caused the outbreak when an overflowing septic tank in one of their camps spewed into the Artibonite River, a main water source for many Haitians. The report did no find the U.N. at fault. Haitian plaintiffs, in response, filed a class-action lawsuit in the hopes of holding the U.N. accountable for the outbreak.
Frustration in Haiti has boiled over into public outcry against government corruption. Two days before the fifth anniversary of the country’s earthquake, anti-government demonstrators gathered in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, to protest the long-delayed elections and called for the departure of President Michel Martelly.
Although reconstruction efforts have removed much of the rubble — the National Palace, once the symbol of slow recovery, was demolished in 2012 — the most visible reminder of the earthquake has been the country’s displacement camps, where poor conditions are compounded by chronic poverty and political upheaval. With an unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent, the majority of Haitians live under the national poverty line, the Associated Press reported.
Photographer Ed Kashi, working for American Jewish World Service, captured earthquake survivors still living in Haiti’s tent camps. Kashi photographed Camp Immaculée, which will soon close, leaving its residents with an uncertain future.