“We come from a tradition that tells us that one day out of seven we’re supposed to celebrate the world as it is,” said Rabbi Amy Bernstein. “That’s Shabbat. The other six days we’re commanded to change the world to what it should be.”
On Wednesday night, Kehillat’s women’s group, Society of Sisters, sponsored an event designed to help heal the world. They presented a program dedicated to raising awareness about the relentless and savage violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the aim of raising funds for a women's health center there.
Participants entered the synagogue’s sanctuary to the rhythmic a cappella harmonies of the Congolese Choir from the African Christian Community Church of Southern California.
The evening's featured speaker was Naama Haviv, assistant director of Jewish World Watch, “a hands-on leader in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities.” She introduced the audience to the lush splendor of Congo’s landscape.
“Congo is the most arrestingly beautiful place I have ever been,” she said. The country is rich with gold, diamonds and minerals and its jungles contain rare species of flora and fauna that hold “God knows what mysteries for science and medicine,” she said. It’s an incredible place “brewing with potential.”
Yet Congo has been the site of unimaginable brutality and killing, much of it particularly targeted against women. Since 1998, 5.4 million civilians have died from war-related violence, hunger and disease. More than two million people have been internally displaced. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been repeatedly raped – 1,100 a day, nearly one every minute.
“Its minerals have never benefitted the people of Congo,” Haviv explained, “but instead have been a consistent source of exploitation and degradation.”
Tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold, minerals that end up in all of our electronics, are extracted from mines in eastern Congo by warring militias who have been engaged in conflict for decades.
“These armed groups know that by attacking the women, they attack the center and soul of a community,” Haaviv said. In this way the combatants can control, terrorize and even displace the populations, thereby taking control of the minerals whose sale earns them hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
“If we can break the link between armed groups and minerals, we will not end the war but we can begin a fundamental shift in the status quo … and that is the first step in a long but very possible road ahead.”
Together with the International Medical Corps, Jewish World Watch is now rebuilding the Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center and adding a reproductive health hospital and satellite health programs with field workers to go out into the remotest areas to reach women who have been victimized.
“It’s crazy cheap to build this place,” Haviv enthused. $30 can provide services for two women for a year. According to JWW’s Web site, The Vladimir and Araxia Buckhantz and Dillon Henry Foundations (the latter in memory of a young man who lost his life in a traffic accident in the Palisades) are offering matching funds up to $100,000 for the project.
Haviv introduced Esther Ntoto, who spearheads two more projects supported by Jewish World Watch in Congo. Generation Hope is a leadership academy designed to raise a new generation of enlightened leaders for the country. Sons of Congo uses a Bible–based curriculum to transform the perspective of Congolese men.
“Because helping women and children will not be enough if we want change that will last,” Ntoto said, “because we are just dealing with the consequences. The real hope is to look to who is doing it, the men.”
The final component of the event was an interactive work of art by Doni Silver Simons, called Hineni, “I am here” in Hebrew. It's Adam’s reply to God in the Garden of Eden when challenged, “Where are you?” The crisis in Congo extends the same challenge today.
Three painted canvas boards incised with slits are reminiscent of the western wall in Jerusalem where supplicants insert slips of paper inscribed with prayers. Here, Simons invites supporters to write blessings and messages to the women of Congo and Sudan on strips of canvas which she inserts into the boards' crevices.
“I believe that words have power,” Simons said. “Thoughts are transmittable. Art can change the world.”
The three boards will remain in Kehillat Israel’s sanctuary for 30 days before continuing their journey through synagogues, churches and schools to their final destination at the United Nations in New York.
Haviv closed by announcing Jewish World Watch's first lobbying mission to Washington, DC, on Feb. 28. The delegation is scheduled for a White House briefing and one at USAID. Haviv encouraged those present to participate with specific delegations representing Kehillat Israel and Palisades Presbyterian Church, who were also present in the audience.
JWW’s next Los Angeles Walk to End Genocide is scheduled for Apr. 29.