Last week, we had an invigorating parent meeting at J School, as we discussed the Walk to End Genocide, that we are participating in as a school. Only not so many families are coming, despite parents earlier in the year (and the year before) agreeing that this was a worthwhile endeavour for the school.
I’ve walked or marched with my family for decades: we marched against the Vietnam War and the Iraq War and nuclear testing, for women’s rights, gay rights, immigrants rights, civil rights…
I remember being jealous and a little broken-hearted that my mother left me behind when she drove my two older sisters to the big march in Washington against the Vietnam War after Kent State. I’ve always admired the Freedom Riders who put their bodies on the line to achieve civil rights, and their descendants in Jerusalem who are riding buses to make sure women don’t have to ride in the back of the bus. To me personally, walking is about showing up and being counted, providing the numbers that help people in power know there is a sizable group of people who are willing to do something for their beliefs, even if it is simply putting one foot in front of the other.
I always knew this to be part of both my family’s political upbringing and Jewish cultural inheritance. I was not standing idly by the blood of my neighbor. I was taking care of the widow, orphan and stranger. And as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described about his participation in the march to Selma, “I felt like my legs were praying.”
Some parents at our meeting raised very real concerns about exposing their young children to the topic of genocide so early in their lives. I do understand that, although, for the life of me, I can’t remember when I wasn’t aware of it as a child. My understanding deepened and opened to what the atrocities specifically were as I grew older. And I have no desire to make Jewish education and tradition focus on the Holocaust (or even the tagline about our holidays: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat) because there is so much joy and awe and communal growth within the tradition. That parents want to shelter their young children from harsh realities is completely understandable. Some children are easily triggered, ask questions parents haven’t formulated an age-appropriate response to yet, some are very sensitive. And the word “genocide” is a hard word to describe to a young child, who cannot imagine that one people (let alone HER people) could be so targeted for hatred and destruction. It’s not unlike having to explain to one’s young African American son what to do when accosted by the police, because there is a chance such an encounter could end in death. What age is the “right” age to explain to a child that another group could think we – or any other group – could be thought of as so much less than human that our lives are worth less than theirs. I can’t remember how we talked to our children about it, but it was mostly in response to questions. Or maybe we just talked about it in front of them, and they gradually learned.
At the same time, several of the parents of older children commented that they had been bringing their children to the Walk for years, and found that their children accepted the walk and their discussions at age-appropriate levels. Each had their own way of dealing, but all described that their children had been fine with their explanations at each developmental spot.
Some parents raised concerns about the effectiveness of walks, as did some of our older children. In response to the children’s concerns, I arranged a Skype talk with Eden Banarie, the Youth Engagement Coordinator for Jewish World Watch, the agency that organizes these walks around the country. (I have been aware of JWW for years, through following the work of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z”l, whose approach to Judaism has always inspired to me. He was one of the founders.) Eden offered four primary reasons to walk:
1) it raises awareness in the local community and offers an opportunity for us to say that we will not stand idly by the blood of our global neighbors suffering the same fate as our ancestors;
2) it allows JWW to count us as they speak to our leaders in Washington, DC about taking leadership to end genocide: they can say honestly that they are representing X people who were willing to walk/march to bring awareness to this issue;
3) that it raises money for JWW’s programs in areas of genocide, programs that bring actual physical and psychospirital relief to survivors; and
4) that when they go to the countries of the world experiencing genocide or its aftermath, they bring photos of the hundreds or thousands of people walking, and that gives hope and strength to the survivors: to know that they are not forgotten, that people know what they are going through and trying, trying to make a difference.
Eden stressed that of course we are not going to end genocide with one or even twenty walks. But as Rabbi Tarfon pointed out in Pirkei Avot (Teachings of Our Ancestors), we are not expected to finish the work, but neither are we allowed not to take it up. Just because a task takes longer than our lifetime or abilities to accomplish, we are not excused for doing it.
The second of this week’s double torah portion, Metsora, continues the discussion of tza’arat. This is often translated as leprosy, but is certainly some kind of psychospiritual illness, that strikes one’s skin, clothing and house, all the layers of protection from this world. The priests got involved—rather than leaving it to the healers, seamstresses or structural engineers—because of the nature of the illness. Some commentators, including Rabbeinu Bachya, have surmised that the disease was caused by the unwillingness of the person to share, to give, to be open to the needs of others. Others, including the Kli Yakar, noted that it wasn’t so much a punishment as a way to break down the barriers that afflicted people had erected between themselves and the world around them. It gave them the opportunity to feel the pain of homelessness or being a refugee, feel being exposed down to your skin, and know what it is like to have your very body betray your faults.
What does this have to do with the Walk? As Jews, we know what it means to be targeted, and indeed, it is pretty hard to forget, given the long reach of antisemitism so present in our world. We said, “Never again,” and that has been an empty promise. But we are blessed to have Jewish organizations such as Jewish World Watch and American Jewish World Service, who work to live up to the promise. Each person who walks helps us live up to the promise and each person who contributes to the walk helps too. As human beings, global neighbors, we pause to note the genocides that followed ours, and preceded it, as today, April 24, 2015, is 100 years since the opening salvo in the Armenian genocide, a word even our President is still unwilling to attach to the death of so many Armenians at Turkish hands
I know there are so many causes that need our attention and ways to help make the world a better place—so many in this time we live. Each choice we make tilts the universe one way or the other, helps the arc of universe bend toward or away from justice. I’ll be walking with my friends and family on Sunday, keeping up our family tradition, and we’d love to see you there. But know that whatever you do to help, it’s for the good.
Thanks to Rabbi David Kasher and Daniel Bloom for their look into tza’arat this week.