Sunday, January 24, 2016

Signs Large and Small

I paid my 10 dollars for my visa and waded through the customs sign.  Curious, there's a sign stating that half a dozen countries do not have to pay for a visa to enter and Israel is among this ragtag group. I was intrigued.

I waited for the two other rabbis on my flight to make it through customs: Elise, the rabbi at Brandeis University and Ronit, a rabbi at Ikar in Los Angeles. 

As we read through the thorough directions that AJWS, Elise must have also been reading my mind.  "I wonder what they mean by a large sign? How large is large?"

I reply, "Are we talking burning bush large--or Mt. Sinai large." 

She is kind so she laughed at my nerdy bible joke, most likely unlike you, the reader.  We walked our winding route, through the doors to the main lobby of the airport as we talk about the subjectivity of large.

I uttered, "Now, the journey begins."

As I say these words, I am reminded of the poem Josè Caldas shared with me from the poet Antonio Machado:
Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.

Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.

Feeling kind of like Jews making their way through the Sea of Reeds, we  walked the middle path of throngs of people many holding up signs.  None of the large variety.  We made our way to the end of the people and we did not spotted the large AJWS sign.

There's a small current of anxiety, miniscule but many scenarios started playing out in my head and I read it in my colleagues eyes (or projected) as we assess next steps.  I went to look outside and aside from eager taxicab drivers I came up with bubkes. 

I head back in and signal to my colleagues that I will look through the throngs another time.  Sure, enough their was a tall slender man with a shaved head  holding the AJWS sign.

Incredibly warm and friendly Richard muses how we could have missed each other but efficiently dispatched us into a van as he waited or the next group. 

Into the van, Elise remarked to me humorously, "That was not a large sign."  "Actually no, it wasn't. It was actually a small sign."

Little did we know how large the signs...and the wonders still yet to come.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

I Will Pray For You

"So you are like a missionary group, too?"  Carol asked with the most delightful Southern drawl, after the man to her other side had closed his eyes. 

I began to explain that what motivates most of us to join AJWS on a journey like this one are our Jewish values and teachings.  We are guided to recognize the dignity of everyone and a desire for justice for all human beings--but the particularity of our faith rarely extends beyond ourselves except when we are with each other.  As Jews, we do not proselytize. 

 "But what is most interesting to me about this journey is that it might have been more like yours building and serving the community directly.  But in the last few years, AJWS has taken a different approach, a human rights approach.  Because of this different perspective, we work  with Non-Governmental Organizations so that they can advance agendas that will give them tools for long-term systemic change. Much of the work that they do falls in one of three areas: Civil and Political Right, Sexual Health and Rights and Natural Resources Rights."

She seems to be excited about this and confessed  that after 10 years of visits she has learned so much.  I look over and on her tray table are handwritten lists of people, mostly children's names with their ages and a series of checkmarks and Xs along with other notation that I could only make out with committing the visual equivalent of eavesdropping.  

We speak in hushed tones perhaps not to wake or upset the man next to us.  I explain to her the two categories of people that the laws have created: one is someone who by law had been a citizen but has been "denationalized" and the other are folks who were never properly registered or were not given the correct birth certificates ---and yet there seems to be a third categories, those who are migrant. Thus, if we can support the people advocating for their human and civil rights it leads to more choices and options.  It supports a dignity and self-determination in ways that sometimes direct service does not and even some cases diminishes.

What I will come to learn that there may be 2 groups according to law, yet it is confusing, intentionally so.  Here only a few days, I begin to hear how each individual story is a group onto its own. Real lives rarely fit into the neat boxes that bureaucracy demands. 

Her experience in the batey confirms what I have shared, so much so, that she is surprised that I have never walked in the country. Afraid that I have disparaged her work, I commend her commitment and resolution but it seems as if not only have I avoided offending her, but there is also some kernel of truth that appeals to her.

Her confession continues as she responds to me how much she had fallen in love with the Dominican Republic and with the people of the batey, which is made up with many resident in the groups I described. She admits as if its a huge betrayal that being in the Dominican Republic has shed new light and understanding on the Mexican migrant workers and the children born in our country.  I register that this is why labels like Democrat and Republican always gloss over the human underneath them.

Reflecting on her time there, she has learned a great deal about life, materialism, compassion and unintended consequences or perhaps the damnation of good intentions.  She laughs about the money she raised with her church community to put in a water filtration system because when all was finished no one was happy. They did not like the taste of the water.  Or the time when she built a home for a young woman that she and her husband "adopted" who does not live in the home but rents it out to others.  Or the dozens of necklaces that a woman at her church made for her to give to the women in the Batey, but because of the crosses on them, she was told it was voo-doo and not an appropriate gift.  

She said these things with laughter and such humility.  Her heart so loving in its persistence that all of the ways life separated us, I deeply appreciated the awakening in her. It was inspiring.  Any resentment or expected gratitude had worn away.  Even when she said things like "many people of the batey are Catholic but it's not Catholic at all, it is really voo-doo." it was expressed with the surprise of a human learner.  These obstacles had not hardened her and her care was real enough for her to question some of her mission work's choices and her own.  It is what intrigued her about a human rights approach; she was aware that after 10 years that some of what her church provided was a mere band-aid for a wound that would not heal.

When she asked me if I traveled a great deal, I told her about the trips I take with Jews, Christians and Muslims from Atlanta to different parts of the world.  I told her about Spain and Morocco curious if I had crossed a line. Understanding that she was a member of a conservative congregation in the PCA, (the conservative branch of the Presbytery), I misjudged her thoughts on Muslims.  She said, "How interesting to travel with people with all kinds of beliefs." At one point she brought over her mother and a member of her congregation to meet a rabbi.  

And though she put herself down a number of times, as Southern women often do, saying she was not very smart, I looked at her lists, the pictures of children and understood that she had a created a complex system that took great intellect.  And while this may have seemed like some act of poverty-porn, she was in reverence of not only the people, but of her own journey. She was sitting with some of the same challenging questions that I sit with even with our different approaches and different contexts.  She was not telling me the story of the people as much as she was telling me the discovery of her own becoming human.  

I did commit one act of visual eavesdropping at the end when I intentionally spied her customs form to see her full name.  It made me smile ironically to see that "God" was the first half of her last name--and all the more so when we exited the plane and she turned to me with the sincerest Southern smile and pure warm-heartedness and said to me, "I will pray for you."  

And indeed, I know she will--and I her.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Even though the flight had taken off to the Dominican Republic, I had not yet fully left Atlanta in my mind.  Signing on to the in-flight wifi, I began to take care of some synagogue business.  Before I could accomplish all that I hoped, the man sitting in the window on my row turned to me and the woman sitting in between us and asked us in a cheerful Caribbean accent, "Why were we traveling to the Dominican Republic--and if we were a couple?" 

The woman quickly corrected the assumption that we were traveling together.  "I am going to visit my friend, who is a doctor that has set up a clinic in one of the bateys. My church has been going down there for the last 10 years and I come to the DR three to four times a year."  

A batey, were formerly housing villages that were built for the sugar cane workers to live. They currently resemble shanty-towns. Since the largest majority of sugar cane workers were (and still are) Haitian, most of the residents are Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants. My journey with the American Jewish World Service will include a visit to the batey.

I listened for awhile.  He was Dominican living in the United States and he still had a home in the DR.  He had such a big smile talking about the Dominican Republic. He must have been in his 70s.  He and the woman next me traded restaurant suggestions and suggestions for sights.  She was from a small Alabama town and fell in love with the Dominican Republic through her relationship to the people.  

When I shared that I was going to the Dominican Republic with a group of rabbis to better understand the human rights concerns with statelessness.  I could not finish my sentence before the man who had been so cordial and friendly, barked at me that there is no issue with statelessness. Simultaneously, the woman next quite surprised, asked, "Are you really a rabbi."  I bit my tongue as my favorite response to that question, "Is no I just play one on TV."  Her eyes grew wide as she too, noticed the severe change in tone.  I was being chastised.

"They have ruined their country and they come to the Dominican Republic to destroy ours.  They cross the border expecting to be citizens. It does not work that way.  They will not turn the Dominican Republic into another Haiti. You have misunderstood the whole situation."

This was not the turbulence I expected and noted ironically that even though the seat belt sign had dimmed while he was speaking; I needed to keep my fastened.

I listened quietly and when he finished, I gently said, "I understand that there are many Dominicans that are of Haitian descent--who have lived in the Dominican Republic for decades.  They came to work in the sugar cane fields built on promises--and even if one wants to consider them migrant, what about the children born in the Dominican Republic who are now grown and all they have ever known is the Dominican Republic--aren't they citizens who have had their citizenship stripped."

He sized me up, "Yes, I agree with you there.  But that's not the majority.  But let me ask you another question." 

 He asked me my opinions about couples who live together without getting married.  What happens to the children.  Now it was a good two minutes into his question that I realized that he was not asking a question but giving a sermon and that this was his way of changing the topic.   

Now, my journey had begun.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Becoming Human

I marvel at the Best Buy Express vending machine, knowing that in other places in the world like Japan I could do almost all my shopping via this medium.  I check out the cost of a USB cord and it’s actually reasonable.  As I go to purchase, both out of necessity and novelty, I can feel someone watching me. I turn around and see no one, until I look down and there is a 5 year old with impossibly long lashes looking at me with fascination.  
“Where are you going?” he asks in the eager way of a child.  “I’m headed to the Dominican Republic.”  He jumps up and down a bit, “Me too! We are going to the same place.”  I scan the gate to see where his parents are.  As much as I adore speaking to inquisitive and wonder-filled children, I am overly cautious about what it looks like when a non-related man speaks to a child.  “Have you been before?”  I shake my head no.  “Me, neither.  This is my first time.  My Mom was born there.”
“Wow, you get to see where your Mom lived when she was a girl your age.”  He squealed a bit with delight and continued speaking as if he was a balloon that needed to let the air out.  “I am going to see my uncles and my grandparents. I never met them.”
“A family reunion? Wow, are you lucky!”  
“We are staying at a place that has a pool and we are going to the beach.”  
“That’s sounds like a great.”  I said.
“What are you doing in the Dominican Republic?” Before I could formulate an answer, his father came asking his son to “let the nice man finish his purchase.” As he walked his son away I could hear him say, “But he is going to the same place we are.”
I wondered if I was going to the same place. Even in the same city, there are often different worlds that are further apart than an international flight.  As people swim in the pools and relax on the beautiful beaches, in another universe with the same address there are people living in fear.  While the Dominican Republic economy has relied upon an “informal” and at times undocumented workforce from Haiti, there is an upsurge in violence and discrimination against them.  Both those that have been citizens and those that are there as refugees have been rendered stateless.  
Even if I desired to cloak myself in a veil of denial, it is MLK Jr Day and the weekly portion speak of the Exodus.  There are many arrows pointing to repeating narratives. I have heard versions of this story.  Last year, Ruth Messinger, the president of the American Jewish Wolrd Service wrote and op-ed where she noted, “ In the Dominican Republic, where there is a prevalent culture of racism and discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent, the situation is sadly reminiscent of very difficult chapters in Jewish history. For generations, politicians have used Haitians as scapegoats, blaming them for problems such as poverty and disease. Now the situation is getting worse, including a sharp increase in attacks. A February lynching of a Haitian immigrant and other recent assaults reflect a culture of violence against people of Haitian descent, and it is common to see racist depictions of Haitians in Dominican newspapers.”
In other words as the very start of this experience,  I am recognize that this is a familiar story.  It is one where I have experienced connection to both sides of the narrative.  As a Jew, the group massacres of Haitians in 1937 sound uncannily familiar.  As an American, I see our checkered history and current treatment of immigrants and how much racism is still prevalent and I know what fear can do.  So I do not come with anger or rushes to judgment, but to witness another complex problem unfolding.
I do believe AJWS often does good things here and can continue to do so--but the answers are not always so clear cut.  Before the strategy of it, at the beginning of the journey I come because I have the capacity to be Pharaoh-like and protect my heart by hardening it. I can be Pharaoh-like and declare that my heart has borders.  I can be Pharaoh-like and mute the cries as not to be confronted.  And so the journey begins with me.
This is my heart practice so it does not become calcified and numb.  I choose to confront the materialism and comfort in my life to find some productive discomfort.  I come to listen, to witness, to honor and to break open the shell of complacency.   I witness the dark places and how even there the human spirit illuminates these seemingly hopeless tangles of human greed, distrust and fear.  I see my shadow and the potential of my spark.  The time for “good” has not come.  Rather, this is a spiritual practice of becoming human.
In the long line of customs across the room at the end of my flight, I stand on Dominican ground.  My journey is beginning.  Across the room, the little boy is in line, but he sees me and starts waving profusely.  I wave back; he smiles a huge grin and satisfied, he turns back around. We are going to two very different Dominican Republics--and yet, we share the same excitement meeting family we have never met,  I begin this journey by becoming human.