Remembering Leonard “Leibel” Fein: An AJWS Fellow Traveler on the Path to Justice

Jewish leaders, rabbis and educators reflect on their AJWS journey with Leibel

One full day after receiving the news of Leonard “Leibel” Fein’s death, I am reflecting on the loss of this dear friend: a truly brilliant and moral man, and a profound Jewish voice for social justice in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many of us literally traveled the world with Leibel, just as we also joined him on a journey toward a fuller understanding of how to create a more just and equitable world and of our role as Jews in bringing it about. Given this journey, it feels natural to be sharing memories of Leibel in a “virtual shiva” today with so many friends and colleagues at AJWS and in other corners of the Jewish social justice universe.

AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegation with Leibel Fein in El Salvador, 2004

AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegation with Leibel Fein in El Salvador, 2004

We were truly blessed that Leibel was the scholar-in-residence for AJWS’s first Rabbinical Students’ Delegation, a program that sent emerging Jewish rabbis and cantors on service-learning trips and inspired them to return to the U.S. to become vocal advocates for alleviating poverty and routing out injustice around the world. It was in January 2004 that Leibel joined 26 rabbinical students on a trip to El Salvador, and the students sought his guidance in merging their passion for Jewish text and tradition with their desire to become activists for human rights. Fein wrote emotionally about the trip in the Forward shortly after his return.

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Congress Passes Bill to Assess U.S. Funding in Haiti

Ian Schwab, AJWS's associate director of advocacy (far left), speaks at a Haiti Advocacy Working Group event.

Ian Schwab, AJWS’s associate director of advocacy (far left), speaks at a Haiti Advocacy Working Group event.

More than four years after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, the country is still struggling with deep-rooted inequality, rampant poverty and a troubled government. Congress recently passed a new bill to reform how the U.S. tracks the progress of its development projects in Haiti—with the hope of making those projects more effective.

“Our government laudably committed a significant amount of aid to help Haiti rebuild, but a lack of transparency made it difficult to understand how U.S. government funds were being used,” said Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service. “The bill will help establish clear and transparent goals for future U.S. involvement in Haiti and will ensure that U.S. dollars are spent in responsible ways that create long-term, positive change.”

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A Must-See Movie: “Finding Fela”

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

If you’re looking for a powerful, thought-provoking film to see this summer, look no further than Finding Fela—a new documentary that opened this past Friday in New York City at IFC and has bookings throughout the country opening on various dates this month.

Fela Kuti was the brilliant Nigerian performer who became a human rights activist challenging the corrupt government in his country. He used his music as a mobilizing force, galvanizing others to join him in the battle for social and political change. During his lifetime, he became a beacon for oppressed peoples in Nigeria, in Africa and elsewhere in the world. He also became a target for his government, which was eager to silence him and stop his organizing. Read More »

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An AIDS-Free Future Requires More Than Medicine

Originally published in The Health Care Blog.

In 1985, during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City, I was elected to the New York City Council. Time and again, I felt heartbroken as my friends and constituents lost their lives to a deadly disease without a cure. Too frequently, they suffered the effects of ignorance, fear and hate.

Now, nearly 30 years later, advances in biomedical treatment have been stunning in their power to achieve an AIDS-free future. But the truth is that prejudice and fear are as persistent as HIV. Medicine alone cannot deliver the future we seek. Even as we celebrate the scientific discoveries and treatments that dramatically reduce HIV transmission and death, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that a biomedical solution can overcome the devastating effects of bigotry. If, as the United Nations agency UNAIDS urges, we wish to get to zero—zero discrimination, zero new infections, and zero deaths—we must take an integrated approach that combines biomedical treatment and an enduring commitment to human rights.

Without a doubt, medicine is working. As of September 30, 2013, the United States’ program, PEPFAR, is currently supporting life-saving antiretroviral treatment for 6.7 million men, women, and children worldwide. This exceeds President Obama’s 2011 World AIDS Day goal of 6 million people on treatment—a four-fold increase (from 1.7 million in 2008) since he took office. But, unfortunately, the World Health Organization predicts that 50 million people will need treatment for HIV by 2030. This means we face a tremendous uphill climb and must somehow identify between $22 and $24 billion—a truly ambitious financial target.

As a frequent traveler to Africa and Asia, I meet with courageous activists supported by American Jewish World Service who are pioneering innovative approaches to stemming HIV in their communities. Over time, I’ve learned from them that eradicating the AIDS pandemic requires two additional strategies to complement treatment:

First, we must strengthen community-organizing efforts to keep HIV funding a priority not only for high-income and middle-income countries, but especially for low-income countries that often have the highest rates of infection.

Second, we must address the violations of human rights—particularly in the developing world—that exacerbate HIV transmission and severely diminish the quality of life for people who are infected or at risk.

If people are afraid to be tested or receive treatment for HIV, if they experience discrimination from healthcare providers, or if they simply don’t have access to health services, prevention efforts can’t succeed. The World Health Organization, the UN Development Program and UNAIDS have argued that increased stigma and fear of criminalization prevents people from accessing treatment and obtaining information they need to engage in safer sex practices. This has been true in the case of Botswana, a country that made commendable efforts to maximize access to HIV treatment. In the early 2000s, Botswana rolled out an ambitious plan to test and treat all Botswanans for HIV. But the number of people without access to treatment remained high. This was the result of a number of issues, including stigma. Former President Mogae said, “I’m very frustrated. Because of the stigma attached to this sexually transmitted virus, and because some religious people have said this is a curse or that those who have HIV are sinners, many are afraid to get tested.”

More recently in Uganda, efforts to slow the spread of HIV and AIDS have been obstructed by the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Law—a piece of legislation that Ugandan President Museveni signed in February 2014 to further criminalize Uganda’s LGBT community. Even before the bill was signed into law, LGBT people in Uganda faced enormous hurdles in accessing health care. Many service providers discriminated against sexual minorities, refused to treat them, or simply lacked basic information on how to provide care. Today, state-sanctioned hate against LGBT Ugandans is making it harder to stem HIV transmission and is contributing to a national public health crisis.

Bottom line: The medical treatment of HIV must not exist in a vacuum. It must be integrated with broader global health strategies and policy. Most importantly, we must ensure that our efforts to expand treatment and prevention work in tandem with our efforts to advance human rights worldwide—especially for people whose access to health services and information is severely limited. The people who need HIV and AIDS treatment most are those who are marginalized and are often difficult to reach.

When I think back to the 1980s in New York City, a time of incalculable loss and suffering, I am grateful for the medical innovations that have prolonged the lives of millions of HIV-positive people today. Yet if we wish to usher in an AIDS-free future, we need more than medicine. We must fight for the human rights of every infected person and every person at risk around the globe. Only when bigotry is vanquished will we reach a day when AIDS is a distant memory.

Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.

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The End of the Road

Despite global praise for Burma’s democratic reforms, the country hasn’t resolved its decades-long legacy of ethnic persecution. Burma’s refugees fear what will happen to them next. To learn more, American Jewish World Service’s Elizabeth Daube interviewed refugees living along the Thailand-Burma border.

Karen refugees on the Thailand-Burma border

Karen refugees on the Thailand-Burma border

Naw Htee Ku doesn’t want to talk about the past. She’s sitting on a concrete floor not far from the amplified music and clapping of Mae Ra Moe refugee camp’s public square, where a crowd has gathered to celebrate the birthday of Thailand’s king.

He’s not their king, of course. But it’s a Thai tradition that the Karen refugees—pronounced Kah-REN—have grown accustomed to in the camps. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of Karen and other ethnic minorities have fled from Burma* and into Thailand, for reasons Naw Htee Ku prefers not to dwell on.

“Even if we discuss it, we can no longer do anything about it,” she says, slowly chewing on a betel nut. “Things that happened to me in the past will remain in the past. If we talk about these things, we will just feel upset.”

What Naw Htee Ku wants to talk about is happening now. The Karen refugees fear a forced return to Burma—and with it, more of the oppression that pushed them into Thailand in the first place.

As we walk back to the festivities in the square, green mountains enclose us on all sides. I know there’s a way out of this place: a tedious drive past the clusters of thin bamboo houses, past the Thai border guards, climbing up and up a winding road. But it’s nowhere in sight.

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How Beverly Bell’s Book “Fault Lines” Offers a Portrait of Haiti Through the Lens of Haitian People

Fault LinesThe fourth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti has come and gone. There were the usual speeches, press conferences, updates and flurries of attention. There was also, at least in some quarters, an expressed concern that it is “taking too long” to make a difference on the ground, that the problems of weak government, corruption, misdirected aid, and missing land titles are inhibiting efforts to put the country back together.

Yes, it is all taking a long time. We at AJWS are not surprised because we know the people who know Haiti well, and they predicted that the recovery process would not go smoothly. They warned those of us who were ready to listen. Haitian people understand the incredibly complex 210-year story of their country better than Americans because they live the complexity—day in and day out. They also know that too often, and in too many ways, the U.S. government has been complicit in creating problems for Haiti and in Haiti and that, in some ways, this is still the case.

All of this is to say that to understand Haiti, I believe everyone should read one of the few books that really tells the story authentically: Beverly Bell’s Fault Lines. Read More »

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Celebrating LGBT Pride Month

What a month! Throughout the country, AJWS was buzzing with LGBT Pride to shine a spotlight on our work to fight for the human rights of LGBT communities in the developing world. One of our grantees, a leading LGBT rights activist from Kenya, traveled to the U.S. to speak about the struggles that LGBT communities face in Kenya and throughout Africa. We also organized screenings of Call Me Kuchu, an award-winning documentary about the efforts of Ugandan LGBT activists to stop the passage of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which was tragically signed into law in February, followed by a discussion with our Kenyan grantee.

Hundreds of activists and leaders marched with AJWS in exciting and colorful LGBT Pride Parades in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago to demonstrate support for AJWS as the Jewish voice for LGBT rights worldwide. Here are a few visual highlights:

Photo Credit: Jeff Zorabedian

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For Eddie: I Am Keeping My Promise

Photo: Associated Press

Photo: Associated Press

Originally published in LGBTQ Nation.

Twenty-two years ago, I made a promise that has shaped my life and my work ever since. My beloved partner Eddie, a talented musician, was dying of AIDS.

At the time, we felt powerless, isolated and angry—there was no effective medical treatment, no hope for recovery and too much hate rooted in fear of a mysterious disease and its association with gay men. As his final days neared, Eddie asked me to swear to him that he would not become “just another AIDS statistic.”

I’ve done everything in my power to keep this promise to stop HIV-positive and LGBT people like Eddie from being forgotten. Read More »

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Nigeria: Update on Abducted Girls, AJWS Allies Respond

Over the past week, the search for more than 250 girls abducted from a school in northern Nigeria has intensified. The U.S. and other countries are now assisting the Nigerian government in an effort to quickly locate the girls and their captors, the Islamic militant group Boko Haram.

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Protesters in Nigeria call for an end to Boko Haram terrorism, including the kidnapping of the schoolgirls. Photo courtesy of Spaces for Change

International media and U.S. activists and politicians have continued to focus attention on the story, particularly after the Monday release of a video showing the girls in captivity. In addition to repeated calls for the girls’ freedom, the story has sparked debate about a spectrum of problems facing Nigeria and how foreign countries should (or should not) assist in counter-terrorism efforts there.

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Our Journey to Capitol Hill

Summit Capitol StepsMore than 150 AJWS supporters gathered in Washington, D.C. this week for the 2014 AJWS Policy Summit. Yesterday, after 48 hours of inspirational programming and skills building, we headed out to Capitol Hill to urge our legislators to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which was introduced in the Senate on May 8th.

Together we visited 100 Congressional offices all in one day—and secured new allies in our fight to end violence against women and girls worldwide!

As a result of these visits, many Representatives learned about the bill for the first time—and others committed to support it as co-sponsors. We crisscrossed the Hill from the House to the Senate and back, and felt the momentum for We Believe building.

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