April 04, 2014

Partnering with friends in the Punya Foundation and Bhutanese Diaspora

Punya Foundation scholars, parents, and Jana Yuba Kalyan Samuha
(JYKS) volunteers in Birtamod, Jhapa, Nepal. Photo credit: JYSK

I am honored to have partnered with Dr. Lakshmi Prasad Dhakal and Vidhyapati Mishra to produce The Punya Foundation Annual Report 2013. (We each live in a different part of the world; see pages 2 and 3 of the report for our bios and how we became a team.)

In 2010, a group of exiled Bhutanese citizens established the Foundation as a charity honoring the sacrifices their community made in the struggle for human rights and democracy in Bhutan. Driven by their 100,000-person experience of expulsion from their homeland beginning in 1991, and subsisting in refugee camps in eastern Nepal nearly three decades, the Foundation has been working hard helping fellows still in the camps and those rebuilding their lives and becoming self-supporting and productive in countries of resettlement.

The Foundation mission is “Seeking Justice through Education and Empowerment” for vulnerable, often traumatized young children, high school students, women, and families in the Bhutanese Diaspora and in refugee camps in Nepal and beginning in 2013, in Kenya, too.

In Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, participants in the Punya Foundation
life skills development project to help empower victims of
rape and gender based violence. Photo credit: The Kanera

The annual report, lavishly illustrated with captioned photos, describes programs, activities, scholarship winners, partners, operations, and financial data. Also covered are new initiatives in the coming year, 2014. (For report highlights, see pages 4, 5; for project details, first-person narratives, and scholarship profiles, see the full report.)

Fellows in the Bhutanese Diaspora and friends are invited to support the charity work — donate funds, volunteer talents, make suggestions, and request more information. Please contact Punya Foundation.

My related post
Bhutanese Atlantans repurpose "the vine that ate the South"

March 28, 2014

In Tel Aviv: The orange on the Passover seder plate

African refugees and asylum seekers at the
Freedom Seder in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv

Passover celebrates the escape of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Our original Independence Day, Passover marks the shift from a nation of slaves to a free people, from a collection of tribes to a nation of law. The festival offers rituals, lessons, and actions for everyone, whether a particularist Jew or a universalist one.

On this occasion for praise and thanksgiving, we are commanded (Exodus 13:8) to retell the liberation story to our children each year. We do this at the seder meal ceremony, which includes a Passover seder plate containing symbolic foods, each with special significance in the narrative.

Since the early '80s, adding an orange to the seder plate
represents solidarity with marginalized people

For the scripted seder meal, we follow the Haggadah ("the telling" — compiled between 280 CE and 360 CE) that states, "It is praiseworthy to expand on the story of the Exodus from Egypt." For through our storytelling we can refine and improve ourselves, internalizing the lessons and noticing contemporary parallels.

When is Passover?
This year, 2014, Passover starts Monday, April 14, at sundown, and continues through sundown, Tuesday, April 22. In the Hebrew calendar (or Jewish calendar), Passover (or Pesach) falls on Nissan 15 through 22. Nissan is the seventh month of the religious year and the first month of the civil year.

Solidarity with marginalized people
in the Jewish community and outside
At the top of the seder, immediately after the introductory blessing, we read from the Haggadah:
כָּל דִּכְפִין, יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוּל; וְכָל דִּצְרִיךְ לְפַסַּח, יֵיתֵי וִיפַסַּח Let all who are hungry, come and eat! Let all who are needy, come and celebrate the Passover with us. 

Who is hungry? Who is needy? 
In 2013, the Israel National Insurance Institute and the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that Israel’s poverty rate was 23.5 percent! One-fifth of families and one-fifth of retirees are officially poor. Further, the Israel National Council for the Child reported that one-third of Israel’s children live in poverty.

And, in the past ten years, more than 50,000 hungry and needy refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, Southern Sudan, Darfur, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other nations have entered Israel and seek protection here. Most have fled from armed conflict, civil wars, violence, and persecution.

"Every heart to love will come like a refugee" (Leonard Cohen)
In Levinsky Park, demanding refugee status for eligible applicants.

Passover Freedom Seder for Israelis and
African Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Since 2007, the joint freedom seder has become an annual expression of collective remembering turned into action. This seder, which retells our story and the stories of people still enslaved, oppressed, and suffering, has been held in Levinsky Park, in south Tel Aviv's Neve Sha’anan neighborhood near the New Central Bus Station, a seedy, rundown living area of mostly African refugees, southeast Asian foreign workers, streetwalkers, and junkies.

A coalition of activist-volunteer-visionaries from a wide spectrum of synagogues, Zionist organizations, youth movements, and international humanitarian agencies organized and prepared the Joint Seder for hundreds of people, double the number anticipated.

To those people who ask, How is a seder relevant to them, the African refugees and asylum seekers?

My reply, a paraphrase of the Torah injunction:
כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם, וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם Like the native among you shall be the sojourner who sojourns among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Leviticus 19:34

In Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, and outside the Holot detention center in the Negev desert. 

At the 2010 Freedom Seder in Tel Aviv: 3 profiles in courage
Philmon, age 23, is an Eritrean psychology student seeking refuge from political and religious persecution. Until he can safely rejoin his parents and siblings in his homeland, Philmon does menial jobs that Israelis don’t want, for very low pay and no benefits.

Philmon (left) and Kidane hold up the multilingual Refugee Voice —
English, Tigrinya (in Eritrea and Ethiopia), Arabic, and Hebrew

Nine-year-old Hebrew-speaking Saram
Most African refugees, like Saram's mother (shown together in the photo) entered Israel from their native lands through Egypt, from where the Israelite slaves similarly escaped to freedom millennia ago.

We seek help from you, people
who understand our misery"
Johannes (shown in the photo) graduated from an Eritrean university with a degree in political administration. In our conversation at the seder, I sensed that he spared me details of the harsh life he has known since his government arrested him with fellow students protesting against the military regime. For more than a year, they were beaten, tortured, starved, and enslaved until Johannes escaped, as did many "fortunate" — as he called the surviving political prisoners.

We came to Israel, a place of miracles, and we seek help from you, people who understand our misery, he replied to my dumb question, Why come here? As I probed, with his permission, the narrative of his suffering touched on key points: longing for home, loneliness, unemployment, language barriers, fear. I came through the way that Moses and his people, your people crossed. Help us, please help us get out of this suffering, he pleaded.

° ° °

Kabbalat Shabbat 

That evening, at the weekly service welcoming the Sabbath Bride, I had forgotten the oranges on the seder plates and the stories behind the ritual meal. Gone was the sunny spring late afternoon. No longer was the loud music sung in the languages of the seder participants ringing in my ears. The seder had ended. Yet instead of releasing the struggles and cares of the week as Shabbat was beginning, I was hearing Johannes' exodus story, and I couldn't stop listening to his plea screaming inside me.

My related posts

March 16, 2014

Purim celebration in Tel Aviv

Dancing in Purim costumes
[Note | I updated the festival dates this year from my original post on Purim 2009.]

Purim celebrates a story in the biblical Megillat Esther (Book of Esther), in which Queen Esther saves the Jewish people from (Ahasuerus advisor) Haman's plot to destroy them.

This year, 2014, Purim started after sunset on Saturday, March 15, and continues for two days until Monday, March 17. In the Hebrew calender, a day begins at sunset on the previous day.

Purim eve, 2009, Tel Aviv's tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard was a virtual sacred space where the Megilla reading, singing, playacting, and music blared under glowing night-lights while children and dogs wandered around and beneath rows of white plastic chairs.

On this holiday (observed with fanciful costumes), the spirited multigenerational crowd also listened to Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau's history lessons and encouragement. Other highlights included "Secrets of the Palace," an enactment of the Purim story told in the Megilla, awards for best costumes, and merry singing and dancing — all celebrating the festival in which, instead of being annihilated, the Jews lived.

Watch my video (5:13 minutes).

Four mitzvot, commandments on observing Purim:
  • Listen to the reading of Megillat Esther
  • Participate in the Purim feast
  • Send Mishloach manot, gifts to friends
  • (most important) Give Matanot LaEvyonim, gifts to the needy
My Purim posts

March 02, 2014

Happy 107, Alice Herz-Sommer: Oldest surviving Holocaust survivor

Note: I first published this post November 14, 2010. On February 23, 2014, Alice Herz-Sommer died in London. She was 110 years old. May her memory be a blessing.

I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times — including my husband, my mother and my beloved son. Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.
Alice Herz-Sommer

During World War II, Czech-born Jewish classical pianist Alice Herz-Sommer performed for her Nazi Germans captors in the Theresienstadt (English, Terezin) Jewish ghetto.

"As long as they wanted music, they couldn't put us in the gas chambers."

Watch Alice Herz-Sommer still playing, still speaking (3 minutes).

“I have not spent one minute hating”
Herz-Sommer's spiritual American cousin, Mamie Till, uttered these words years after the bereaved mother forced the nation to look at the horror of racism in the racially motivated murder of her son Emmett Till (1941-1955), in the Mississippi Delta. She had demanded the U.S. federal authorities return the 14-year-old's mutilated body to his hometown, Chicago, and placed in an open coffin on public view.

Related posts

January 20, 2014

Happy birthday, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia . . .
(from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, in 1963)

We honor the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) as "A Day On... Not a Day Off" this federal holiday, today. ". . . [A] drum major for justice" Dr. King galvanized us to witness America's disparity between promise and reality, and through nonviolent resistance ensure basic rights for all Americans — natives, immigrants, refugees, asylees, and guestsSince his life and assassination, and when I first published this post in 2009, we have steadily engaged in this struggle locally, nationally, globally

Fifteen miles from my home in Atlanta, Stone Mountain is the world's largest exposed mass of granite. On one side, a giant Confederate memorial carving depicts American Civil War champions of slavery — Confederate General "Stonewall" Jackson, Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee.

Following the Civil War, each Labor Day from 1915 until recent years, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) met on the mountain summit, igniting 60-foot cross-burnings to advocate and restore white supremacy. Founded in 1865 in southern USA, the national terrorist organization featuring white-robed terrorists in conical hats and masks would preach and commit violence and lynching to intimidate, murder, and oppress African Americans, Jews, and other minorities, and to intimidate and oppose Roman Catholics and labor unions.

So, when Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in a defining moment during the March on Washington, his allies in the Civil Rights Movement and others understood the context of the phrase, "Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia." (Watch a video of the 17-minute speech here.)

Born into a culture poisoned by racism, economic injustice, and militarism, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called us to address these evils through nonviolent resistance. Thirty-eight years later, a crazed product of this culture assassinated the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Moses of my generation. Today, the poisons steadily erode cultures and the environment. And, nonviolent resistance continues. Everywhere.