March 13, 2008
Darfur project cooks up first for Bronfman prize
The simplest innovations sometimes lead to the greatest rewards, as Rachel Andres learned this week when she was named the 2008 recipient of the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize.|
The annual prize is awarded to a person or team under 50 years of age, whose Jewish values spark humanitarian efforts that contribute to the betterment of the world.
In Andres' case, her work gives succor to some of the most helpless and brutalized people in the world, the 10,000 refugee families, mostly fatherless, who have escaped the massacres in Darfur.
The genocide in the Sudanese province, now in its fifth year, has so far claimed 400,000 murdered civilians and created some 2.5 million refugees, predominantly women and children.
For the past two years, Andres has directed the Solar Cooker Project of the Jewish World Watch (JWW), which has expanded from a small Los Angeles base to synagogues, churches, schools, Girl Scout troops, civic organizations and individual contributors across the United States and parts of Canada and Australia.
The solar cooker concept is an elegantly simple response to a terrifying fact of life facing the women and young girls in the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps on the Sudan-Chad border.
While foraging for scarce firewood outside the camps for basic cooking and water purification, the women and girls were in constant danger of gang rapes by roving bands of Arab terrorists.
If the women could somehow find an alternative source of heating within the camps, they could largely eliminate the assaults, reasoned Andres and her colleagues. Her answer was an effective sun-powered cooker made of cardboard and aluminum foil at a cost of $15 each.
Andres discovered a small Dutch company to furnish the material, which is shipped to the refugee camps. Doubling the mitzvah, the cookers are assembled in small camp plants by the women and girls over 14, who get paid for the work and become income earners for their families.
So far, 15,000 cookers have been distributed, which have also proven an environmental boon, slowing the deforestation of the region and cutting down the time women have to spend over open brick fireplaces.
Since each family needs two of the $15 cookers, JWW has pitched its donation appeal at $30. So far, more than $1 million has been received from some 20,000 contributors, mainly in $30 donations, though there have been larger gifts.
In the Los Angeles area alone, nearly 60 synagogues, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, have joined up with JWW. As Andres was talking to a reporter, she interrupted herself to announce jubilantly, "I just got an e-mail from the United Methodist Church in Seattle, and its members are sending us $3,200."
Andres, born and reared in Dallas, has been an activist since graduating from UCLA with a degree in political science. She credits her paternal grandmother for her sense of Jewish responsibility toward others, regardless of race or religion.
"Bubbe left Suwalki in northern Poland in 1919 and came to Texas," she recalled. "Most of her family stayed behind, and 22 relatives perished in the Holocaust."
Grandmother Andres took Rachel and her other grandchildren along to learn by doing.
"She had three sons; she worked in her husband's grocery store; she wrote four books of Yiddish poetry; she met new immigrants at the airport and helped settle them; she was involved in the Arbeter Ring [Workmen's Circle]," Andres said. "Her legacy to me was her sense of social justice. She was larger than life."
In following her grandmother's inspiration, Andres worked for 10 years at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as director of its Commission on Cults and Missionaries and subsequently as a volunteer for AIDS Project Los Angeles. She was also involved in a variety of other projects, such as the Breed Street Shul renovation and the Museum for the History of Polish Jews.
Now 45, she lives with her husband, Ben Tysch, chief administrator for the regional Planned Parenthood, 6-year-old Rebecca and 10-year-old Ezra in the Hancock Park neighborhood.
Andres is an active member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation, and her two children attend the temple's day school.
Asked how she manages her various responsibilities, Andres laughed and responded, "I really don't know; I'll have to think about that." And, after a pause, "It's a bit of a juggling job, but I'm focused on whatever I'm doing. I try to give it my all."
She will use the $100,000 prize money "to expand the solar cooker project to more camps and to publicize the desperate needs of the refugees."
JWW president Janice Kamenir-Resnick noted that "Rachel's work with Jewish World Watch has made a huge impact on the lives of thousands of refugees." Kamenir-Resnick joined Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in co-founding the organization and in nominating Andres for the Bronfman Prize.
Andres and her colleagues are sometimes asked why they spend their energies on the suffering in Darfur, rather than focusing on specifically Jewish and Israeli concerns.
She agrees with the answer given by Schulweis: "Some people say about the Darfur genocide that it's an internal matter; that reports have been exaggerated. These are the same excuses we heard during the Holocaust," Schulweis said.
"There is always an alternative to passive complicity," he said. "If we now turn aside, that would be our deepest humiliation."
The Charles Bronfman Prize was established by the children of the Canadian philanthropist in honor of his 70th birthday.
Andres is the fourth person and the first woman to receive the prize, which will be formally awarded May 6 in New York.
This year, some 80 nominations were received from individuals or for projects in 16 countries, including Iran and Belarus. One member of the prize selection committee, Dan Meridor, Israel's former minister of justice, summed up the basis for this year's choice: "The thread woven through Rachel's life and professional career is that of uplifting others, especially the neediest, so that all individuals may live to their fullest,"
He added, "Caring for others is among the highest Jewish ideals, and Rachel's work fully embodies that ideal."
For more information on Jewish World Watch, visit www.jewishworldwatch.org