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Jewish Journal

American Jewish World Service and ending violence against women

by Nuria Mathog

June 18, 2014 | 10:22 am

<em>Emma Nesper Holm, senior development officer at AJWS, with Nigerian R&B singer Meaku.  Photo courtesy of AJWS</em>

Emma Nesper Holm, senior development officer at AJWS, with Nigerian R&B singer Meaku. Photo courtesy of AJWS

As musician Craig Taubman strummed some opening chords on his guitar, the audience was quiet, still reflecting upon the words of the community leaders and activists who had spoken earlier. 

For the first half of the performance — a rendition of Pete Seeger’s “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You” — Taubman provided the sole voice, a soothing yet powerful sound that reverberated throughout Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s sanctuary. But with Taubman’s encouragement, the audience collectively rose to its feet, people joining arms and clapping and singing. For a minute or two, the room filled with a single, harmonious melody. 

“That’s prayer, that’s activism, that’s what it’s all about,” Taubman said. 

His moving performance on May 10 was part of an interfaith vigil that bridged religious and cultural differences among community members and stressed the global need to end gender-based violence. The event, sponsored by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), honored nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram in April,
a crime that sparked international outrage and inspired the #BringBackOurGirls movement.

The vigil’s varied speakers found different ways to honor the missing girls’ strength and bravery. Arab-American TV host Maha Awad and Naomi Ackerman, an American-born Israeli actress, educator and activist, shared stories from several girls who had escaped their kidnappers. They said some had run for hours, terrified and exhausted, and yet, remarkably, were determined to finish their education in spite of the injustices they had faced.

Thema Bryant-Davis, a Pepperdine University associate professor who leads the Wow! Women of the Word Ministry of Walker Temple AME Church of Los Angeles, shared a poem she had written, “A Homecoming Message for the Taken Daughters.”

“They took you while you were yet a caterpillar, but you can still learn to fly,” she said.  

Other speakers called upon audience members to join the fight against women’s oppression through activism.

“The world cannot progress until women are free and equal in all societies,” said Grant Gochin, California honorary consul for the Republic of Togo, a country in West Africa.

Allison Lee, executive director of the AJWS Los Angeles branch, asked the audience to call upon Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act. The proposed legislation would require the United States to address violence against women and girls in its foreign policy.

“We are here as people of faith to say that our mutual traditions demand action,” Lee said.

At the end of the night, Nigerian R&B singer Meaku and producer David Kirkwood made a surprise appearance, performing a song called “Nucleus” that Meaku dedicated to the missing girls. Meaku said he was “humbled” to be present for the vigil and thanked the Jewish community for its willingness to give a platform to a cause that has deeply affected his country.

“We need to understand that we are a part of a nucleus,” he said, in reference to the title. “This is what we are; this is what we come from.”

Audience members — more than 130 total — said they were moved and inspired by the night of music and prayer. Sandy Savette of Santa Monica said she was “so happy” to see leaders coming together for an important cause.

“I am so impressed,” she said. “I am so energized by this evening.”

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, who will begin working July 1 at Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Woodland Hills, said he looked forward to bringing the lessons of the night — particularly the awareness of global violence against women — back to his community.

“I think this is a fantastic event,” Botnick said. “As an activist, as a community leader, I’m a little saddened that there weren’t more people here.” 

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