Guatemala, Day 6: If Not Now, When?

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We woke up this morning to the gorgeous views of the Filadelfia Plantation. We arrived in the dark last night, so it was a delightful surprise to wake up to views of the “Water Volcano” and see coffee beans being worked outside our windows. Those who wanted to get their morning started with a run or a walk were treated to the glorious fresh and warm air. Eisa eynai, we lift up our eyes to the mountains.

Our first session of the day started with a conversation on how our personal stories connect to the stories of the courageous men and women we’ve been meeting while we are here. We began by reading the speech Rabbi Joachim Prinz gave at the March on Washington in 1963. I was struck by the similarity to the problems we’re still dealing with in America and the world today. “Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity,” he wrote. Yes! V’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself. Every person is created with dignity in God’s image, and it is our job to see the humanity in all beings. He also reminds us that it is “not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together.” Thoughts and prayers are so easily shared in our world today at every tragedy, from gun violence to natural disasters. Ours is not to sit and pray, it is to get up and act with moral courage.

This story would repeat as we met with the women of Nuevo Horizonte. These women are my heros. They travelled over 27 hours to be able to meet with us. They fight daily for the rights of women and children. They try to reduce violence and discrimination against women. They began with a role play scenario about a woman who was a leader being undervalued and mistreated by the male counterparts. The woman in the room made eye contact and laughed. This is all too familiar to our own stories as female clergy and women in the world.

The women shared that education is not allowed for women, that while they sit on the council for their villages, they are simply decoration, not taken seriously. They work to seek gender equality in a society filled with machismo. I met with Ana, who shared that women carry shame and fear to speak up. They are now finding their voices because the day they stop speaking up is the day that they die.

In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person. Hillel teaches this in Pirkei Avot. These women are trying to teach the men what it means to be a person. L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, Ana shared. They must teach the next generation what is fair and just or society will never change. The women ended our time with them by telling us how grateful they were to see a society in which men and women work together and partner. Suddenly, the injustices of my own experiences as a women are put into place.

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From here it was time to eat again, so we went on our way to a delicious lunch, followed by contributing to the local economy. It ended a bit unnervingly as we were swarmed in the plaza by a group of street vendors.

Finally we returned to Filadelfia to prepare for Shabbat. On Wednesday the midwives taught us that rest and restorative time is essential to living a balanced life. As rabbis we often don’t have a Shabbat, a time to rest, because we’re always taking care of others. This Shabbat in the beautiful envelopment of Antigua was restorative as we sang away our week and entered into the holy community we’ve established in this very awesome and powerful week.

Shabbat was an interesting and comfortable way to end a week of exploration. Gathering a group of rabbis together for Shabbat is always a treat. As Aderet mentioned, we spend all our lives guiding others, so when we have the chance to sing our hearts out without caring what our board president might think, magical things happened. For me, the melodies of Kabbalat Shabbat were unfamiliar and foreign. I sat in discomfort as the words sounded familiar, but the melody was not. This resonated as the experience of the week. I found my story in the words of the speakers, but their experience was foreign to me. We sang, we danced, we ate, and then, we oneg’d.

We told our stories and the story of this journey through song. Ozi v’zimrat ya. God is my strength, and I will sing to God. We ended this experience with the words we opened with. Lo Yisa Goy, Gesher Tzar Me’od, a Hinei Ma Tov sing-off, Olam Chesed Yibaneh, If I Had a Hammer, and more. We sang and sang. I fell asleep listening to my colleagues and friends sing the hopeful lyrics of “Ba shannah, haba’ah…” Next year may the grantees be that much closer to the justice they are pursuing.

Last week I led a PJ Havdallah program with our young families, and they blessed me as we went from kodesh, holy, to chol, the mundane. This last week was anything but mundane. We witnessed holy work and holy community. As we step into the next week and our next phase as advocates, may we be blessed to see the mundane, the ordinary, through holy eyes; may we never see injustice as the status quo, and may we continue to lift one another up in holiness.

Guatemala, Day 5: Everywhere in Between

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This morning began like the others, with an early and somewhat chilly walk around our host city, in this case Quetzaltenango. We walked quickly and early so we could pack up and get on with our day.

Our first session was an opportunity to learn about the life of the in-country consultant for the organization that sponsors this trip. As unbelievable as it sounds, he spent years of his adolescence hiding in the trees of the jungle to avoid the same fate as some of his family members, who were killed simply because they were indigenous, they were different. Escaping with his life, he chose to devote his life to helping others in the same situation. He finds strength in his faith and in the good he sees in humanity. (Just, wow.)

From there we boarded the bus for the long and beautiful ride from Quetzaltenango to Antigua. The roads were punctuated with small villages and fruit stands. From the windows we saw different parcels of land dedicated to crop production and very slim cows grazing. We saw the three volcanoes that surround the area, and Fuego was even giving off puffs of smoke as a show for us.

Our upbeat conversations were quickly halted when we learned about the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, as the genocide is being committed against them in Burma/Myanmar. Once again I’m reminded that “never again” is sadly still a slogan and not a reality. We’ll be learning more about this genocide and the work we can do to raise awareness and mitigate it as we prepare for our advocacy day in D.C. in March.

After a long and winding road, we finally made it to Antigua. We had a delicious lunch at a local restaurant and then went to meet with an organization dedicated to free and fair press. These people dedicate themselves to being on the front lines in all areas of the country and reporting on what they are actually seeing, not what the government wants them to publish. They rely on social media to get their messages out. Mayn of the investigative journalists face grave danger for their work, and yet they keep fighting. They are the voices of the resistance and do it through their persistence. Their stories resonated with me as I reflect on the state of journalism in America.

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From there we had some time to boost the local economy. I bought local chocolate and then engaged in a delicious tasting of three local rums. About half the group joined together for this tasting, and it was a relief to have some time to reflect, rejuvenate, and simply be together. The conversation turned to where we should go on our next advocacy trip. I’ve caught the bug of advocacy and would be honored to continue to travel with this organization and promote the work they do.

Dinner was another delicious feast, and then after dark we arrived at our final accommodations: a coffee plantation with gorgeous views and stellar rooms.

I have so much to ponder and reflect upon, and so much gratitude for the honor of being on this trip and for the grantees we are meeting who show me what moral courage, bravery, and persistence look like in the human spirit.

Guatemala, Day 4: Moral Courage

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Today began as all the others have, with a bleary-eyed, yet invigorating and enlightening walk with Ruth and other inspiring friends. I only got about five hours of sleep last night because my hotel room was quite chilly (there’s no heat) and, as it turns out, the walls are also a bit thin. That made it challenge today to get my spirits up, but just like the past few days, the scheduled experiences did not disappoint.

We went to meet with one of our organization’s grantees who works on behalf of local midwives. This organization is absolutely incredible. The women and a few men work tirelessly to promote safe and healthy birth experiences for women and children. The statistic given was that out of 2,000 births a year, only 600 happen in the hospital. That leaves midwives, who in many instances are shut out of hospitals and threatened for their lives, to provide care.

These women made us delicious tamales and snacks, served tea, and shared their experiences as providers of life. We viewed their birthing rooms and exam rooms for those mothers who choose to have their child in the clinic as opposed to their home, and we learned the Mayan rituals for providing safe birth.

They shared a beautiful invocation tradition, using the spirit of the sunrise, sunset, wind, and sky. Every child has a gift and a purpose determined on their birth, and the midwife’s job is to teach the parents about this gift.

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I was especially touched as we arrived at one midwife’s home. The “house” was really a series of cement structures connected by tin roofs, and her exam room was surrounded on the outside by dogs, cows, roosters, and chickens. We heard all about her experience in her district. She shared that they feel birth is a spiritual practice, in which you prepare your heart and pray along the way.

These women work 24/7, often traveling late at night and early in the morning to provide support. They face dog bites and sometimes abusive husbands to do the work they do. These women exhibit moral courage on a daily basis. They understand that women and their children deserve safe, healthy, and supportive birth environments and heed the call to do this work when the government tries to shut them down. They fight for the mother and baby to have a spiritual and personal beginning in their journey together.

As we left, they were filling out paperwork. One of the midwives cannot read or write. She’s been a midwife for over 30 years, and truly knows babies. One of her co-workers was filling in the paperwork for her, and she signed using her thumbprint. We all have unique fingerprints. When we touch others, literally and figuratively, in kindness and with our full spirit, it gives birth to a better future, so to speak. What imprint will you make on others?

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Guatemala, Day 3: Mountains and Beauty

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Today began like yesterday, with a brisk and enlightening walk with Ruth and two new, wonderful friends, as we took in our last moments in Guatemala City. The city was bustling with people going to work and school, riding bikes and scooters and motorcycles and cars and buses.

From there we gathered as a group for some (much needed) reflection on yesterday and some learning before we had our meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. The meeting was diplomatic and short. We were allotted one hour with our representatives there and did the best advocacy for human rights we could manage in that time.

From there we got on the bus to transfer to Quetzaltenango. The ride was absolutely magnificent. Many of you know that I like to move and walk as much as I can. Today, I spent six hours on a bus taking in the changing landscape, the vast differences between the towns we drove through, and the beautiful and complex country around me. The bus ride was punctuated with conversations about our goals in our rabbinate and how we find “moral courage.” This conversation was difficult for me, as I’ve often shied away from conflict and advocacy work. After my time on this trip I know that I can no longer do that. I have power in my role as rabbi and as a citizen of the United States, and I must stand up against injustice. I’m not sure what this will look like when I return from this trip, but I do know that something inside me has been turned on.

From the bus window I saw volcanoes and lakes, flowers, stray dogs, roadside stands, and women tending their crops. Just as we approached our hotel we passed a statue in the center of town. This is a statue of a local man, waving goodbye. It represents good luck to those who make the journey to be immigrants to America. Yes, immigration to America is one of the top exports from Guatemala because life here can be so bad that the only way to survive is to immigrate, work to make money, and send the money back to support your family. I have so much to think about.

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One of the best parts of this trip are the new friends I’m making among my colleagues. It feels like a luxury to spent this much time engaging in meaningful and deep conversations with new friends. I’m looking forward to conversations that continue to nourish my soul and feed my heart.

Off to dinner and a good night’s sleep! This was a much needed day to catch my breath.

Guatemala, Day 2: Persistence and Resistance

After a decent night’s sleep, day two began with a lovely walk around the area of the hotel in Guatemala City. I am surprised and a little bit saddened by how Americanized the city is. Carl’s Jr., McDonalds, and Papa John’s are everywhere. The only chain I haven’t seen is Starbucks, and for that I am grateful. I also realized how paralyzing the language barrier is for me.

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Following my walk I enjoyed a DELICIOUS breakfast. The fruit is incredibly fresh. We then did some learning on what it means to have ethical community engagement and discussed what it is to look at versus look with. We need to engage in ethical community by CHIME: understanding Context, Health and wellbeing, Informed choices, Mutual benefit, and Ethics, as a process. Unfortunately this was the last part of the day that left me cheerful and hopeful.

Before lunch we met with an organization we’ll call the “Human Rights Defenders.” A quick side note on security: because of the political unrest and because the people we’re meeting with are often working against the corruption and impunity in government, we have been asked not to name them or their organizations while we are in the country. This organization works to provide safe passage for those who come under attack for protesting or working to end corruption. They protect civil society from attempts by the government to stifle fair land ownership, wages, etc.

We discussed how we can use our “whiteness” and American citizenship to defend the defenders. The men and women of this organization put their lives in danger every day fighting for justice and the underprivileged and poor. They engage in “accompaniment” which they define as face to face interaction with the persecuted and their families, encouragement and moral support, standing with others in court and informing them of the process, and sustaining the families of those who flee. The leaders of this organization started it in 2000 as a response to the rise in crime and violence four years after the Peace Accord was signed.

I walked away from that meeting with despair for the number of poor who simply want access to basic needs, but at the same time impressed with the work they do. This is moral courage. My question from this meeting: What does it mean to have “civil society”? I’d love you to help me answer this!

Lunch was followed by a bus ride to the Museum of Memory, the place that commemorates and teaches about the history of Guatemala from the Mayan people through today. On the way there we drove past the protests happening against the corruption of the government and the government attempts to shut down CICIG, the commission against impunity here.

We then heard from the human rights law firm in Guatemala and some of the people they work to support. This meeting left me in tears. The firm helps community leaders demand collective rights, when they are almost always criminalized for it. The land in Guatemala is important to the people, those who are indigenous and those who happened to land here. None of the speakers asked for a job or a home. They asked for the rights to work their land, to have a place to call their own, rather than be stripped of their rights and land by big corporations or the government. The head counsel for the firm shared that he has to dress in upscale suits because his skin color is so dark, he is seen as lower, other, and less than by officials and lighter skinned Guatemalans. White supremacy is not just an American issue. The common feelings in this session were fear, helplessness, despair, and suffering. It was devastating to sit in that room. They ended by asking us to fight on their behalf when we go to Congress in March.

So where does this leave me? Well, with a lot of questions. The genocide in Guatemala shares much in common with the Holocaust in Europe and the pillaging of the land in America. In the Museum of Memory they had a book entitled “Never Again,” vowing to teach people about the Guatemalan genocide and the “armed conflict” so that it won’t happen again. I stood there wondering if “Never Again” was possible. The similarities from genocide to genocide are striking. How do we break that pattern? How can we respect others and recognize as equal those who are “other” to us? Why do we fear difference?

How can we change a culture of corruption if the only thing the children see in their society is corruption? Can we raise a generation of children to be different, stronger, more just and fair than the “leaders” they see today?

We asked the leaders of the law firm how they sustained their mental health, knowing the deep despair and injustice they see daily. They responded, “Persistence and resistance.” Amen to that!

I was grateful after that session for the few minutes to regroup in my room before dinner, which, like all the meals so far, was delicious. Now it’s time to sleep and pack for tomorrow’s journey. This trip is at times humbling, heartbreaking, and inspiring.