Like many of us in Boulder, one of my favorite stores is REI. I love going there and buying gear for outdoor summer or winter adventures, some of which are fantasies and some of which are part of my Colorado life. As I was preparing for what turned out to be a life-changing trip to Ghana, I think I paid visits to REI at least three times, eager to have just the right stuff for this African journey. I bought a mosquito net (actually essential and life saving), a silk sheet sack, several items of super-light-weight breathable clothing, including great quick-drying underwear, a bright orange travel towel and a couple of new hats. A couple of days before my departure, I went back again because what I really needed was a new backpack for the trip.
Proudly packed with all the right equipment in my shiny new pack, I flew to New York and after a couple of nights in temperatures that turned out to be way hotter than any day in Ghana, I met the fifteen other rabbis and our group leaders at JFK for the long flight to Accra. We were all excited and anxious about this experience into the unknown and certainly the unfamiliar. I was going as part of the second Young (defined by years out of rabbinic school rather than age) Rabbis’ Delegations with AJWS (American Jewish World Service) in Southern Ghana.
From the airport in Accra, we crammed into a small school bus and hit awful traffic on terrible roads making a long ride to our destination, Challenging Heights in Sankor, Winneba in the south of Ghana. As soon as we arrived in this community with whom we were going to be living for the next twelve days, we were so struck by just how little they have and how simply the people live. Burning piles of garbage everywhere, including plastic and used toilet paper, human waste running down the sides of the streets, buckets that double up as “showers” and “washing machines.” Retrieving my brand new REI backpack full of just the right gear for Africa, the irony stung me in my heart like the smoke from the fires stung my eyes. I had spent more money to prepare for this trip and had more stuff crammed into the pack than most of the residents of this community will see in their lives. My great pride turned into shame as I contemplated the very sparse accommodations that were to become our home for the next twelve days. How privileged I am and how much I have. (The irony of the backpack continued on my return too when United Airlines lost it for a while and, guess what, I had plenty more of everything back at home, so I didn’t even miss it!)
We were witnesses to so much in our time there and while my senses took in new sights, smells and tastes, my heart was trying to process a very complex array of joy and inspiration; pain and sorrow; hope and courage; hunger and desperation. I am still getting used to hot showers and safe water from the tap, after adjusting to the rituals of washing with a bucket of cold water and a small jug like a Jewish hand washing cup, and carefully rinsing my toothbrush and my mouth with only purified water. It is amazing how much we take for granted, just in the simplicity of our access to clean water when so many people in the world do not have even this.
Challenging Heights, an NGO and grantee of AJWS, is nestled in the heart of this desperately poor community and offers hope through education and renewed vision by rescuing and buying back children who have been trafficked as slaves from as young as four years old, mainly in the fishing industry, providing them with a safe, nurturing environment and a school. The center’s founder is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. James Kofi Anan was himself sold by his parents into slavery at a very young age, worked 17 hour days and was severely punished and abused every time he made mistakes. He never lost hope and always dreamed of getting an education. Against impossible odds, he escaped from his masters, put himself through high school and college and began a very successful career in banking. After making good money, he realized that it was time to dedicate his life to saving other children from a fate similar to his own and Challenging Heights was born out of his passion and tenacity. The AJWS rabbinic delegation of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis spent our twelve days building an IT Center for these children, most of whom have never seen a computer, to learn these skills so important in our world. It was an immense privilege to be part of this project as the final days of my sabbatical. Although it may have been quicker, more efficient and cheaper to build with local labor, there was tremendous value in the relationships we formed in this community with workers, teachers, children and staff and our hard, if unskilled, work, was valued and appreciated. It felt good to be doing such demanding physical work and seeing the fruits of our labors in bricks and mortar and in sparkling, grateful eyes. We pretty much completed the building and the computers will be arriving soon as a gift from the Rotary Club of Canada. I would love to go back one day and watch the beautiful children, who were so much a part of our lives while we were there, learning how to use technology.
While in Ghana, we also visited Cape Coast, where the largest slave castle in Africa sits on a hill above a roaring sea. Of the 24 million African slaves, 12 million came through the ports of Ghana. Seeing the dungeons where hundreds of human beings were shackled and imprisoned like animals, lying in their own filth, waiting until the mighty slave ships arrived, was another appalling reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink in its cruelty. The slaves would walk through the “Door of No Return” and be transferred into the bowels of the ships like cargo, setting sail for lives as slaves; a third in America, a third in Brazil and a third in the islands of the Caribbean. The shameful and pernicious grasp of colonialism can still be felt in various ways in Ghana, but now Ghanaians are masters of their own fate and there is joyful hope and courage for the future among many in the population, as well as a warmth, hospitality, love and pride that transcend, it seems, the suffering that comes with a lack of food, sanitation and clean water, and even the appalling, continued presence of forms of slavery today.
AJWS works with many organizations throughout the very poor regions of the Global South and helps communities become more sustainable and able to dream of a future so much brighter than the painful past and present.
In our group discussion and study sessions on this trip, we learned some of the definitions and very disturbing facts about global poverty and hunger, and we also discussed what it means to expand our universe of obligations as Jews. Our traditional sources have always considered the responsibilities we have to those outside our immediate sphere, whether non-Jews or those in need who live far from us. It is clear that a core Jewish value is that every human being is created in the image of God. The Torah reminds us often that we know what it is like to be a slave and with that knowledge comes an obligation to those who are still enslaved. I feel so immensely privileged for the opportunity to have been part of this delegation to Africa and, more than ever, I am convinced that the developing worlds that are so far out of our sight and our consciousness need our attention, concern and help. We cannot stand idly by while so many people around the globe are dying of hunger and perfectly treatable diseases; when so many do not have access to clean water. It is so easy, I know, to give in to a sense of powerlessness and despair; cynically questioning what we can really do that will make a difference. It is all just too overwhelming, we say. Judaism places great and significant meaning on our lives and the actions that we choose and knows well that what may seem meaningless can save a life.
In the Jewish calendar, we are in the seven week period between Tisha b’Av, where we remember the destruction of the two temples and so much else, and Rosh HaShanah, when we renew our lives and take stock of the past in order to live a better future. Soon it will be the month of Elul, escorting us to the High Holiday season with a daily blast of the shofar that wakes us up to a call to action deep inside our own souls. The terrifying questions in the liturgy of the Days of Awe, “who will live and who will die? Who by famine and who by sword?” remind us of the fragility of existence, yet also invite us to consider that we can change fate, ours and others, by how we act. What if we knew for sure that we could save the life of a child, however far way that child may be?
There are many worthy causes that deserve our Tzedakah and our time and it is hard to choose which ones to support. I know that if you want to support the work of international development through a Jewish organization, AJWS is leading the way. If you feel inspired to make a donation, please visit my personal fundraising page here.
In our conversations during our afternoon and evening sessions while in Ghana, we talked much of what we were to do now that the veil had been lifted. For most of the rabbis in that group, our eyes had never seen such sights, our ears not heard such stories, such sounds nor our hearts felt so much. Now they have and, I think, we have all been changed forever by this experience. Sadly, I already feel my sense of entitlement creeping back into my consciousness, but I try to catch myself and remind myself how blessed I am, how much I have and how rich and abundant is my life. I still like REI.