Yearly Archives: 2012

Ask Big Questions: Where Do You Give?

Ruth Messinger

Originally posted on the blog of Ask Big Questions

Like many people in my generation, I first associated tzedakah, the Hebrew word loosely understood to mean “charity,” with the pushke—the little metal box given out in Hebrew school, rusting on my parents’ windowsill.

I learned in the 1950s that Jews were supposed to collect pennies in the pushke to plant trees in Israel. There was no passion or intensity embedded in this ritual; no real understanding of the values or texts behind this seemingly strange act of generosity; and no opportunity to innovate. It was just something Jews did. Read More »

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Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill Is Delayed Once Again

Good news: A vote on Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill has been delayed once again. Despite a promise by the Ugandan speaker of parliament to deliver the bill as a “Christmas gift to the nation,” it was repeatedly downgraded on parliament’s agenda.

Last Friday, parliament adjourned without taking action on the proposed legislation. It’s unclear whether the bill will resurface when the parliament reconvenes in February.

Local LGBTI activists are relieved but wary about what may come next. At a public event on Monday, Uganda’s President Museveni sent mixed messages about the bill, saying “If there are some homosexuals, we shall not kill or persecute them but there should be no promotion of homosexuality.”

Gitta Zomorodi is an AJWS program officer for Africa.

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What Does Obama’s Visit to Burma Mean for Burmese People?

The night before President Obama’s historic visit to Burma last month, Nge Nge—a Burmese woman from Rangoon—was so excited that she couldn’t sleep. In the morning, she was the first person to arrive at the University of Rangoon where Obama was scheduled to deliver his speech. Nge Nge had graduated from the University of Rangoon in 1988. Upon returning to her old stomping ground, she recalled, “This university used to be vibrant and warm with students who had close relationships with professors and had an enjoyable learning atmosphere. Students could ask professors if they did not understand something. Now, those times have gone.” Read More »

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We Need More Than Meds To End AIDS

When I was a member of the New York City Council in the 1980s, I changed my vote on an issue only one time. It was during the debate over whether the city should fund needle exchange programs for drug users. My first instinct was that we should not be enabling drug addicts to abuse heroin. Then, someone from an HIV organization invited me to visit an illegal needle exchange program—now known as a “harm reduction program”—that he was running on a street corner in a very poor part of the city.

I visited the program at night, and people spoke with me about how gaining access to clean needles was helping them to avoid infecting their friends and fellow drug users. By the time I spoke with the third person, my perspective had shifted. I understood why these programs were so important, and I decided to vote in favor of funding them.  Read More »

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Why We Must Fight for Land Rights in Thailand

On November 19, 2012 at 7:00 AM, two villagers from Khlong Sai Phatthana in Surat Thani province in southern Thailand were shot and killed less than 800 meters from their homes. They were on a motorcycle en route to their local open-air market to sell the vegetables they had farmed on their land that week. After shots were fired, the daughter of one of the women and a neighbor ran out to find two women shot dead. Later the villagers and police found shell cases from M16 and HK rifles. The women were small-scale farmers and had moved from other provinces in the South to farm a small plot of land in Khlong Sai Phatthana. They had no known enemies. So why were these women senselessly killed?

Because of land. Read More »

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Corruption—Not Homosexuality—On Ugandans’ Minds

As stories about the resurgence of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill inundate the blogosphere and international media, you could easily get the impression that Ugandans are rallying on the streets demanding the bill’s passage. In fact, the bill is not foremost on the average Ugandan’s mind.

“They are thieves, stealing the money.” The young man shook his head in disgust as he navigated our car through the traffic-choked streets of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. We were listening to an update on the Ugandan government’s latest corruption scandal: the theft of millions of dollars meant to aid the recovery of northern Uganda, a region grappling with deep poverty and neglect six years after the conflict there had ended. Read More »

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Dvar Tzedek: Parashat Lech Lecha 5773

One of the things I find most inspiring about studying Torah is that the biblical characters are human. They may be our valorized, mythical ancestors, but they also consistently make mistakes, leaving a record of paradigmatic human foibles from which we can learn. There is one biblical failure, however, that I have always struggled to understand as a useful example. It occurs for the first time in this week’s parashah, as Avram goes to Egypt to avoid the famine in Canaan:

As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” Read More »

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Commemorating the UN’s International Day of the Girl

A community outreach team run by AJWS grantee, Fortress of Hope, teaches about gender-based violence. Photo: Evan Abramson

Last week on October 11th, the United Nations commemorated the very first International Day of the Girl. My colleagues and I were still reeling from the tragic shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani activist who was unjustly targeted for going to school and speaking up for her right to get an education. But we were grateful for the outpouring of support for the UN’s decision to dedicate a day to advancing the status of girls worldwide.

AJWS is committed to promoting girls’ rights, preventing gender-based violence and improving access to education and healthcare for girls in the developing world.

A few sobering facts:

  • Two-thirds of the world’s children who receive less than four years of education are girls. Girls represent nearly 60% of the children not in school.
  • Child marriage is a threat to the fundamental human rights of girls, and to the health of communities.
  • Ten million girls every year become child brides.
  • One in seven girls in the developing world marries before she turns 15. These young girls are forced into motherhood before their bodies are ready, and too many die giving birth as a result.
  • Every year, some 14 million adolescent girls give birth. They are two to five times as likely to die owing to pregnancy-related complications than women in their twenties, and their babies are less likely to survive. Read More »
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Dvar Tzedek: Parashat Breishit 5773

We are, by nature, creatures of habit. We find comfort in things that are familiar, carving out routines that give our lives order. But repetition also leads to the curious subduing of awareness that we call “autopilot”—the feeling we get when we arrive at work having absolutely no recollection of the roads or steps we took to get there. Autopilot can free our brains for daydreaming or creative thinking, but when its numbing effect starts to creep into important activities in our daily lives, it can dim our passion for things that once excited or inspired us.

This week, as we begin the familiar refrain of the opening chapters of the Torah in Parashat Breishit for the umpteenth time in Jewish history, it’s so easy to zone out in this way. After all, “In the beginning” is not really the beginning; we’ve heard it before. How often do we sit in synagogue hearing the chant with our ears but thinking other thoughts? Suddenly the Torah is being lifted and tied 30 minutes later and we have no recollection of all of the aliyot in between—let alone any deep thinking about the vital content within them. Read More »

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Sukkah of Peace: Chag v’Chesed Holiday Dvar Tzedek, Sukkot 5773

Few symbols associated with our holiday cycle are as colorful and interesting as the sukkah. Following the biblical command that we should dwell in this temporary and frail shelter for seven days, many Jews today will not eat under a fixed roof during the entire period of the festival, taking their meals in the sukkah and eating, conversing, singing—truly a moving experience.

What is the meaning of this commandment? I offer one insight from a line in the Hashkivenu prayer, contained in each evening service, which reads: “Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha—Spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.”  Read More »

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