I returned home less than 40 hours ago. Images of Congo are still fresh in my mind: the children slaving in the Bunia goldmine, the rape victim who told us how her captors held her down in the field by driving a stake through her foot. I am driving to Wildwood school to report on our trip and our work. I am still jetlagged; still, in many ways, dazed from the dramatic contrast between my life and theirs. The images in my mind dance back and forth between the various people we met and the stories they told us.
There was the young 18 year old youngster in Bukavu, an orphan, who told us of the months he served as a child soldier; he recounted stories of his “kills” as if he were an old man talking about someone else’s life. He told us about his being rescued and about how he is now being trained to support himself. He told us how he dreams of finding a wife and starting a family. There was the beautiful young 22 year old girl next to him who told us of the years she was held captive as a sex slave. She told us of her ultimate, daring escape from the clutches of the militia and of her days hiding in the forest “like a wild woman.” She then told us of the local Congolese organization that took her in, 7 months pregnant, fed her, cared for her, loved her, and sent her to school. She is now studying to be a lawyer; her goal is to represent women who are former sex slaves to pursue their rights and remedies.
I drove up to Wildwood, not really knowing what I was going to say and uncertain whose story I would tell. Should I tell them about the depth of the suffering? Will they be able to hear the message at 8 in the morning? Would it be too much for them to bear?
The hour with the students passed; they listened in utter silence as I told the stories of the places we had been and of the people we met. The students stayed after the bell rang and asked intelligent, sensitive questions; questions asked by people who really care…people who will make a difference. They took the Conflict Mineral petitions and resolved to get them signed; they took the forms to register to participate in the Walk Against Genocide.
As I left Wildwood, I no longer felt dazed, and even my jetlag had subsided. I felt re-grounded here at home, and I felt rededicated, yet again, to the mission of Jewish World Watch and the critical vitality and significance of the work we do. This journey has connected the lives, suffering and aspirations of the people of Eastern Congo to our Jewish community. The empathy which we seek to awaken in our community “here” to what we saw “over there” is our primary objective and our reason for existence; empathy is the first, and essential, step to helping to bring change to these regions where killers of humanity seek to destroy all that is good and all that is peaceful. We know what those killers look like, as we have seen them time an again throughout history.
We say each Passover, “In every generation it is upon us to feel as if we, ourselves, were slaves in Egypt…” From our slavery in Egypt, to our expulsion from Spain, to the ovens of Auschwitz, to our struggle for freedom from Soviet Russia; these are all ways in which we have been reminded of the face of those who seek destruction and of the need to continuously pursue freedom and justice. Our Passover reminder extends, of course, not only to our freedom, but that of all of humanity. The divine vision is not a world where Jews are free, but is a vision where all of humanity is free and living in peaceful harmony. This is the vision that propels Jewish World Watch; and Passover is an especially apt time to focus on that vision and take special steps in pursuit of that dream.
Dr. Mukwege is the great Congolese surgeon who performs or oversees all rape-repair and fistula surgeries in the South Kivu province; we had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Mukwege on both of our trips to Bukavu. Last week, speaking of his work with the rape victims, Dr. Mukwege said, “If we have saved one life here, we feel is as if we have saved the entire world.” The words shocked Tzivia and me, as it was a verbatim quote from the Talmud, which Dr. Mukwege has never read and of which he is probably completely unfamiliar. Dr. Mukwege is right, and the rabbis who wrote the Talmud articulated for us what they hoped would become intuitive to those who pursue the lessons of our Torah.
I wish you a wonderful Passover, full of conversations of our past and our present struggles to help shape a world which is closer to the image envisioned by its Creator.