Two events about two distinct crimes against humanity -- both in Sudan -- attracted strong Jewish community interest during the Memorial Day weekend.
At least 600 Southern California Jews attended synagogue services around the Southland on Thursday evening, May 26, marking an end to a day of fasting designed to build Jewish awareness to the ongoing genocide in Sudan's Darfur region.
Then over the holiday weekend, the University of Judaism (UJ) helped start a new chapter in the difficult lives of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, a group of 3,900 young, displaced Africans whose refugee camp lives resembled postwar Europe's displaced persons camps.
In western Sudan's Darfur region, experts estimate that 300,000 villagers have been killed since 2003 by militias of Arab janjaweed horsemen, whose genocidal actions have been supported by the Sudanese government. In southern Sudan, the Lost Boys and Girls are the fallout of the Sudanese government's 21-year war with the Sudan People's Liberation Army; that conflict killed 1.5 million Sudanese and created thousands of refugees including the Lost Boys and Girls, who picked up that name while awaiting resettlement at the United Nations' Kakuma camp in Kenya.
Darfur has become significant for Southern California synagogues largely due to Valley Beth Shalom's Jewish World Watch group, which has been holding Darfur awareness evenings since last fall at Conservative, Reform and now Orthodox shuls.
"The least we can do is feel some of their pain," said Shalhevet High School junior Alyssa Birnbaum, one of more than a dozen Shalhevet students among about 180 people attending a Mincha service and Darfur lecture at the Pico-Robertson shul B'nai David-Judea Congregation.
Reform Rabbi Zoe Klein of Rancho Park's Temple Isaiah wore a long skirt, sat in the Orthodox women's section and read from the women's side of the bimah during the Mincha service at B'nai David-Judea.
"Our class that's the most motivated is the one studying the Holocaust," Klein said. "So the whole concept of 'never again' gives them the opportunity to mean what they say by reaching out to another community experiencing genocide."
After speaking at B'nai David-Judea, Klein went to Bel Air's Stephen S. Wise Temple, for its break-the-fast service and a talk by John Prendergast, President Clinton's National Security Council African affairs director, who currently aids the International Crisis Group's efforts to help Darfur refugees fleeing Sudan to Chad.
Prendergast said that when he thinks of the post-Holocaust rejoinder, "never again" and then thinks of Rwanda in 1994 and Darfur now, "that phrase rings in my ear more and more hollow as time goes on."
Once done speaking on Darfur, Prendergast went down the Stephen S. Wise hill and walked across the street to the UJ.
Over Memorial Day Weekend he spoke to the 19-member board of directors of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, a new nonprofit group formed at the UJ that weekend to help the estimated 3,900 lost children who fled southern Sudan in the early 1990s but started resettling four years ago in the U.S.
"We've been born yesterday. We just formulated ourselves," said Deng Mayok Chol, a 2004 Arizona State University graduate and the board's vice president.
Southern Sudan last year saw a peace accord signed to end the civil war. Like some child Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps, some of the Lost Boys and Girls still do not know their exact ages, with those gathered at the UJ ranged from 20 to 29. Most were in, or had recently finished, college, with most studying science, technical or engineering fields.
"I'm not Jewish but I go to Brandeis," said Aduei Riak, 21, a peace, conflict and coexistence studies major at the Jewish university near Boston.
The nonprofit group's California incorporation is being helped along by the UJ's MBA nonprofit management program, with one or two of UJ graduate students expected to do an internship with the budding group.
"Their resources are very limited," said Nina Lieberman Giladi, UJ's nonprofit management program dean. "Until this weekend, everything we did was done via conference call."
The UJ got connected to The Lost Boys and Girls through film producer Bobby Newmyer, whose credits include "Training Day" and "The Santa Clause" and who is waiting for Paramount to approve his script, "The Lost Boys of the Sudan," so he can begin shooting in Kansas City, Mo.
"This project has dominated my life for three years now," said Newmyer, who contacted UJ to help him help the Sudanese primarily because the campus is "right down the street from me."
The Lost Boys and Girls story is overshadowed by the ongoing global interest in Darfur.
"Darfur is kind of blocking everything," said Apuk Ayuel, 24, the nonprofit group's deputy spokesperson and a political science student at the University of Texas at Arlington near Dallas. "They have a lot of publicity. Darfur has become so focused on, so it becomes the only thing focused on. We all went through the same struggle."
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