The Jewish people have a long history of persecution and victimization. Our sufferings as a people have undeniably shaped who we are as individuals and as a people today. Throughout the world, people are still being silenced and exterminated, just as millions of us were in Europe 65 years ago. Just as we begged the world to help, so are our brethren the world over. There is no better time to fulfill our promise of “never again” and our biblical duties as God’s caretakers of the world. Although there were those who came to our aid, it is acknowledged that not enough was done to save the 6 million Jews that perished in the Holocaust, just as we did not do enough in Rwanda when that genocide erupted.
Everyone now knows about the atrocities committed in the Holocaust, because Jews have dedicated themselves to educating others about the horrors of the concentration camps and sharing stories of our suffering. Other stories of atrocities and disasters affecting millions of impoverished people the world over are less frequently told, but those individuals are no less deserving of justice.
We have studied such stories in our Jewish Civics Initiative (JCI) class at Los Angeles Hebrew High School. For the past few months, we have learned about areas of humanitarian crises discussed in “I Live Here,” a paper documentary created by actress Mia Kirshner. “I Live Here” is a collection of poems, essays, fiction, photos, videos and graphics collected from people in troubled areas around the world. They are assembled on the Web site i-live-here.com, and in a book (Pantheon, 2008).
Through “I Live Here,” we learned about such untold stories as the 15,000 refugees currently living in Ingushetia, Chechnya, where more than 150,000 people have been displaced by separatist conflicts over the past 15 years. We talked about Burma’s 100,000 people currently living in refugee camps on its border with Thailand, because of the Burmese army’s policy of ethnic cleansing and use of child soldiers (which takes children away from families as early as age 10). Up to 1 million people overall have been displaced in Burma. In Juarez, Mexico, a town that borders the United States, young women who work in factories frequently disappear, a crime usually attributed to drug cartel violence, sexual assault and homicide. Malawi, Africa, is one of the most underdeveloped nations, with an AIDS rate close to 20 percent, where disease and poverty orphan children.
To positively impact these regions and other areas of humanitarian crisis, Kirshner has created the I Live Here Foundation, which seeks to help the displaced by working with local aid organizations. The motto of the foundation is “stories can change the world,” and it seeks to empower the citizens of Malawi and Burma by starting creative writing programs in the regions. These programs allow participants to tell their stories while providing them with income opportunities to make a better life for themselves than that of a sex worker on the Thailand-Burma border.
Jewish Civics Initiative examines the relationship between Jewish values and political advocacy. Our class trip to Washington, D.C., in February to participate in the PANIM Seminar, sponored by PANIM — The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, focused on the Jewish people’s ability to lobby, push for social service agendas and raise huge amounts of money for a cause. We discussed that we have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but to everyone in need. We can empower others by raising our voices to bring others out of silence — the sex slaves, child soldiers and AIDS orphans. Regardless of our motivation to do mitzvot, helping those most vulnerable allows us to practice tikkun olam and make the world a better place.
As Jews, we believe in tzedek tzedek tirdof, literally, justice, justice you shall pursue, and pikuach nefesh, which is translated as “saving a soul.” At Hebrew High, we have found an effective channel through which we may direct our help to the I Live Here Foundation, by focusing on the foundation for our class mitzvah project. By hosting fundraising events and raising awareness about global issues in the regions explored in the book — Malawi, Chechnya, Ciudad Juarez and the Thai-Burmese border — we hope to help the residents of these areas and make sure their stories are heard.
Recently, our class organized a garage sale that raised more than $1,000 for the I Live Here Foundation. With the help of the entire Jewish community, we can fight genocide and oppression. No matter how small, all contributions and individuals matter, and through our work, we have the opportunity to give voice to those who were silenced and provide their future generations with hope for a brighter tomorrow.