Essay: American leadership and international human rights
My daughter has been protesting since the womb. The month before she was born, we blocked the street outside the stadium at the end of an Eagles game, calling out "Black Lives Matter!" When she was 6 months old, she rode in the carrier through the Capitol building to demand full and fair funding for public schools in Pennsylvania. Last summer, she gripped a clipboard in her stroller as we registered voters. Last month, she sang with me at a Jewish communal action in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. And recently, we attended a meeting at Mother Bethel AME church with a broad-based organization called POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild) made up of over 40 congregations in the city. She played with her Daniel Tiger figurines on the floor as we asked "What now?" How do we respond powerfully, with courage, and moral imagination in the wake of our new administration?
As I looked around the room at Philadelphians of different religious, racial, and class backgrounds, I thought about my own parents, active civil servants who taught me to cherish democracy and the stories and obligations of Jewish tradition. How will I live out the values they instilled in me and model them for my daughter? What will our country look like when she is old enough to have children of her own?
Holding all of this concern about our country, I am traveling to the Dominican Republic with a group of rabbis and cantors as part of American Jewish World Service's Global Justice Fellowship. We will hear the stories of individuals and communities facing oppression and fighting for human rights. In 2013, a number of laws and court rulings were passed in the Dominican Republic that stripped the citizenship of more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent. On our trip, we will meet with organizations working for civil and human rights and for the dignity of Dominicans rendered stateless, and who fear deportation due to these policies. We will also learn about grassroots efforts to support the rights of LGBTQ individuals.
Our group of rabbis and cantors first met to prepare for our trip in November, the week after the U.S. election. We connected with one another in our grief and anxiety about the election results, and in our commitment to stand with the most marginalized people in our country moving forward. A number of us raised the question of whether it was the right time to travel abroad when there is so much work to do at home. In hearing from the talented AJWS team that works tirelessly to support human rights in the developing world, we remembered that the world we live in is already deeply interconnected. As one member of our group commented, "With a global economy comes global responsibility." Though we may be doubling down on our work at home, we cannot turn our backs on the suffering and struggles of our brothers and sisters around the world.
Additionally, we have much to learn from leaders and organizations working for human rights in the Dominican Republic and in other places around the world. As civil, sexual, and reproductive rights stand in jeopardy here, we can look to those who act each day for justice as role models of resilience and resistance to oppression. We can listen to their stories, stand with them in solidarity, and learn how to harness our power as U.S. citizens to support them in the changes they want to see in their countries.
Of all of the commandments in the Torah, one appears more than any other. "Love the stranger!" our scripture demands of us, at least 36 times. We are reminded that we know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. Year after year, we delve into our story of coming out of slavery, and we tell it out loud. We have repeated our sacred story during times of freedom for the Jewish community as well as during periods of oppression. Our collective memories are meant to awaken our empathy and to move us to action on behalf of those who are vulnerable in our communities and in our world. I look forward to teaching this to my daughter as she learns to navigate the world.
As I set out on a journey to learn about life in the Dominican Republic, I pray that those of us who are now strangers to one another will become friends and allies. May our partnership with activists in the Dominican Republic advance the vision of a world of human rights and human dignity for all.
Rabbi Annie Lewis is a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.