Religion & Beliefs

Notes From The Delegation: Expanding the Village

Across the globe our narratives are unique but we share universal human qualities that bind us together and make us responsible for each other. To illustrate this point with a group of rabbis from across the spectrum of Judaism we study. Read More

By / February 28, 2011
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American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development organization, is hosting a global justice conference for rabbis, rabbinical students and Jewish communal leaders near Baltimore this week. The conference, called the Rabbinical Students’ Delegation Alumni Institute, will focus on leveraging participants’ power to elevate global justice as a core expression of Jewish tradition, both locally and in the larger North American Jewish community. Over the next few days, Rabbi Vered Harris will share her account of the Institute and the issues it raises for 21st century Jews.

Across the globe our narratives are unique but we share universal human qualities that bind us together and make us responsible for each other.  To illustrate this point with a group of rabbis from across the spectrum of Judaism we study Maimonides, Seforno, Talmud and Midrash. We learn sources for a Jewish ethic of obligation and concern. We confront the authenticity of Jewish social justice for all of the people in the world, all created in God’s image.

The true illustration for me, though, presents herself as flesh and blood. In addition to her impressive role as the General Secretary of the World YWCA, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is the founding chairperson of the Rozaria Memorial Trust in Zimbabwe. Ms. Gumbonzvanda visited our group to tell us the story of her AJWS supported NGO assisting children and adults living with AIDS in her village and surrounding areas. You can see more at www.rozaria-trust.org.

But if I didn’t know the texts, if I didn’t know about the Rozaria Memorial Trust, if I didn’t know about AJWS, Ms. Gumbonzvanda herself would convince me to support causes of global justice.

The vast majority of public speakers thank their hosts and the audience that came to hear them. After being introduced by Ruth Messinger, Ms. Gumbonzvanda brought the polite “thanks for having me” to a new level of grace. Slowly, with eye contact, in a voice both gentle and strong, she told us, “I want to begin by giving my respect. My respect to the ground here. My respect to you, for who you are. You are here. I begin by giving my respect.”

I am flipping through the file cards of experience in my mind. My training is to say “thank you. If instead I said “I respect you,” what message would that send? To the foreign born busboy in a restaurant? To the bedraggled homeless man washing my windshield? To my adolescent daughter clearing the dinner dishes? “I respect you” instead of “I thank you.”  It is a profound, incomparable statement. When I offer you respect, I recognize your dignity. “Thanks” says you did something for which I am grateful. “Respect” offers a framework for our relationship.  I heard in her opening words that Ms. Gumbonzvanda, a devout Christian, lives the messages of the Jewish texts. She considers us in relationship. This is a universal ethic.

Ms. Gumbonzvanda went on to honor her mother’s memory, reminding me that what Jews value as zachor, remembrance, is a trait we share with other soulful people. Whether they went to school without shoes or sold fruit to assist the family, Ms. Gumbonzvanda’s mother taught all eleven of her children: “The dignity inside you is that space who you are and nobody under the sun can touch. Poverty does not define dignity. It only shifts perceptions of dignity…  You are born in the image of God and you are just as great as the other person who ‘has’ [material goods] even when you ‘have not.’”

Ms. Gumbonzvanda’s NGO assists in neighboring villages where many children are born HIV-positive, where thanks to the Rozaria Memorial Trust families don’t have to choose between food, AIDS medicine and paying for their children’s education. It’s the actualization of the oft referenced book title It Takes a Village. How much more real could it get than this real life example of people in a literal village reaching inward to each other and outward to their neighbors to care for children, many without parents, seeing to their medical care and ensuring their education and health?

She respects us. She recognizes the God in all people. She knows first-hand that happiness and poverty are not opposite words, and the strength to pursue justice and social change stems from a love of life. The people in her village show it can be done.

And then Ms. Gumbonzvanda expands the village. In her closing words to us she affirms: “I think, I know, I believe that we need in our every day life to hold somebody else’s hand. Let’s look at the world together, because the world is bigger than my village. Including here in the U.S. The U.S. is only a village in the world of global dynamics.”

It takes a village joining hands to make a difference. Joining with others in our global neighborhood expands the change we can make. It’s the Jewish thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the challenging thing to do. It’s the only thing to do.

Rabbi Vered Harris is the Education Rabbi at Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kansas. She participated in AJWS’s Young Rabbis’ Delegation to Muchucuxcah, Mexico last summer.