It was not the most difficult question our American Jewish World Service lobby team faced during our day of advocacy for human rights issues on the Hill, but arriving at an answer required consensus.
Where were we going to eat lunch?
We agreed to eat in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building. I was glad.
It is hectic and crowded in the cafeterias of the office buildings on Capitol Hill; but there, more than anywhere, one senses her place in the experience of civic engagement.
As I looked around the large room, I saw Americans of every age and ethnicity, spending time in Washington to advocate for vital issues. I overheard conversations about leadership training for teachers in struggling school systems, sanctuary cities, and Medicare funding of psychological services. Sitting in the midst of New York physicians in their white lab coats, Kentucky firefighters, and environmental activists, we ate our lunches and discussed our meetings in the afternoon ahead.
As part of the AJWS Rabbinic Convening, we had been educated on crucial issues: Burma and the Rohingya crisis, Guatemala and the Rule of Law, and the repeal of the Global Gag Rule. These issues were our issues not because they involved Jews, but because we are Jews. AJWS is an international human rights and advocacy group founded by Ruth Messinger decades ago. Today AJWS is operating in 19 countries in the developing world by supporting grassroots organizations fighting for human rights in their home countries. American Jewish World Service is inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice.
Almost thirty rabbis accompanied by AJWS staff held 63 meetings with Senate and Congressional offices, reflecting our values in discourse regarding global human rights. We had access to our elected officials because of the communities we represent.
One could rightfully ask why thirty rabbis with busy pulpits from across the United States would come to Washington for three days to learn about, discuss, and advocate for issues other than Israel and the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in America. Stated frankly, how did I have the chutzpah to prioritize global human rights for three days of my completely scheduled rabbinate? When I think about the way I see my rabbinate and all that I learned in D.C., I answer the question with a question: How could I not?
In one month we will be celebrating the Pesach seder where all of the storytelling and discussion points to one core Jewish value – redemption. We remember our slavery and revel in our freedom so that next year we will be in Jerusalem. But not just today’s Jerusalem with its fast train, Knesset building and Ben Yehuda street. No, as Jews, today’s reality is not enough to be called “Jerusalem.” We want Yerushalayim Lemala, the heavenly, spiritual perfected Jerusalem. And for me, Jewish liberation and freedom only comes to fruition when all people created in God’s image experience the same. This reasoning is why we are called Or l’Goyim, a light to the nations. The covenant we made with God calls us to work toward redemption for all. The Israelites merited the Torah not because of what we were, but because of what we would become. For many Jews, this deep universal understanding is in our souls, or our DNA, however you see it.
With two other New Jersey rabbis, Rabbi Jay Kornsgold and Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, I visited the offices of Senator Menendez and Representatives Gottheimer, Watson Coleman, and Sherrill. We spoke about three complicated crises that are currently represented in legislation on the Hill.
Discrimination against the Rohingya people has been going on for decades, stripping them of citizenship and subjecting them to waves of mass violence and persecution. Today, almost one million languish in camps in Bengladesh. The Jewish Rohingya Justice Network, made up of nineteen major Jewish organizations, and representing all four streams of Judaism in America, agrees that the crisis constitutes a genocide. The legislation authorizes humanitarian assistance, restoration of citizenship and a safe and voluntary repatriation process as well as use of the Magnitsky Act to use targeted sanctions and visa denials against military officials implicated in human rights abuses.
The Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act seeks to return democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala. As Jews, we understand from our historical experience of being denied our human rights that guaranteeing the rule of law is crucial in society. The bill seeks to defend the inherent dignity of Guatemalans and the right of people to live free from fear and exploitation. In recent years, Guatemala has made strides in its battle against corruption with the UN-backed CICIG, a commission that investigated illegal groups and secret intelligence organizations with ties to political and military elites, identifying 600 elected officials and bureaucrats and breaking up 60 criminal networks. Current President Jimmy Morales threw CICIG out of Guatemala when they started investigating him and his family. The bill promises to take meaningful action against the current crisis in rule of law and support the Guatemalan people in their fight against corruption and impunity.
Repeal of the Global Gag Rule is a human rights violation that violates women and girls’ rights to health, life, privacy and access to information. The Gag Rule states that foreign NGOs receiving money from USAID’s global health programs must affirm that they do not support or refer for abortions or advocate for the liberalization of abortion laws. The policy causes a “chilling effect” on grantees who believe that they can no longer talk about contraception, HIV prevention or even sexuality education. These practices have cascading negative health impacts and disproportionately impact marginalized people such as LGBTI people, sex workers, and young women and girls.
The issues are all complicated with many more layers of nuance and political understandings than I could explain in one opinion piece. But when I was on the Hill this past week, I know that I was calling for justice in the names of vulnerable people around the world and in my own name, as a Jewish person committed to a vision of a perfected world for all of God’s children. I heed the call of AJWS founder Ruth Messinger: “We cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed.” And so we must act where we can, when we can. And as an American with access to my representatives, I found the place and the way to act.
In grammar school, I studied Civics. More than fifty years later, those lessons came to fruition in three days of life experience in civics. This is what makes our government work for all of us, for all those people in the cafeteria of the Longworth building, and for three rabbis working hard to heed the call of our tradition: Justice, justice pursue!