Why do good people stay on the sidelines even when some horrific situation grabs their attention?
It's a question many people asked during and after the Holocaust. Then in 1964 in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York, a woman named Kitty Genovese was attacked repeatedly and murdered while 38 neighbors did nothing.
During the next few decades, many psychologists (who said they were moved by the Holocaust and the Kitty Genovese murder) created research studies to understand why good people stand idly by. They discovered that most good people tend to stay on the sidelines if:
--they thought someone else was going to take care of the situation for them.
--they felt powerless to do anything that might make a difference.
--they refused to let themselves feel distressed enough to truly care and take action.
A JEWISH CALL TO ACTION
Like most American Jews, I've read newspaper reports during the past 20 years about genocides and "ethnic cleansing" in various parts of the world. Because I am the child of a Holocaust survivor, I want to believe that the passionate words "Never Again" apply not just to Jewish survival but to preventing or stopping genocides for any group that is being targeted by a vicious attacker.
But I will be honest. Besides writing a few small checks and attending a few cerebral conferences, I didn't do very much about these horrific atrocities. I assumed that someone else was probably in a better position to take care of these situations than I was. In addition, I felt somewhat powerless and skeptical about doing anything effective that might make an impact.
Then a few years ago I picked up my son Steven from Sunday School and saw that on this particular Sunday there were a few volunteers from a group called Jewish World Watch who had taught my son and many other kids how to do a very practical thing:
--to make decorated pot-holders and back-packs that were going to be sent to the Darfur region of Sudan to be used with free solar cookers so that women in the war-torn region could take care of their families without having to walk several miles for firewood and most likely get raped by marauding groups of government-backed militias.
I found out from one of the Jewish World Watch volunteers that these women in Darfur had a horrible choice to make--a lot like Sophie's Choice. If they sent their husband or brother to leave their camps to get firewood for cooking, the men would be killed by the violent militias who were targeting their ethnic group for extinction. If the women decided not to risk the life of their husband or brother, but chose to go on their own or with a sister or daughter to get firewood, then they would likely be raped and possibly murdered by the militias who were trying to intimidate and destroy their people. If they did nothing, they would starve.
I began to wonder, "Who are these individuals at Jewish World Watch? How do they decide which genocide situations in the world can be stopped? How did they get so creative that they came up with a very do-able way to save the lives and prevent the rape of tens of thousands of African women? Besides providing tens of thousands of solar cookers, what other leverage are they able to exert? Could a Jewish organization located in Southern California truly be effective in saving hundreds of thousands of lives in a land not far from Israel?"
THE ADVANTAGE OF BEING SMALL, NIMBLE, AND FLEXIBLE
On Saturday morning, November 21st at Ahavat Torah Congregation (located between Westwood and Brentwood near Montana Avenue and the 405 Freeway), Naama Haviv of Jewish World Watch will be describing the next action steps her organization has come up with to respond effectively and creatively to the most horrific genocides currently taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in other heart-wrenching areas of the world.
I interviewed Naama recently at her small office in Encino (which is the size of a middle-class living room and has a staff of five professionals who can hear each other's phone conversations constantly) to find out how Jewish World Watch is able to mobilize tens of thousands of Jews (mostly from Southern California) to take effective steps for using leverage and creative approaches for stopping genocides, rapes, mass murders, and ethnic intimidation tactics. Frankly, I have never before experienced an organization that does so much good without a lot of overhead or wasteful spending.
According to Naama, who is the mother a four month old child and is a brilliant scholar/activist trained at the Genocide and Holocaust Studies Program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, "When Rabbi Harold Schulweis started Jewish World Watch in 2004, he wanted to make sure that our experience and values as Jews could be utilized to save lives in a major way. Our director Janice Kamenir-Reznick has a law, business, and hands-on activism background which helps her to frequently come up with practical ideas like the solar cooker project in Sudan to get immediate and crucial help to people who are in desperate situations. Since our organization has such a small, nimble, and flexible staff of five people, but we also have the ability to mobilize huge numbers of passionate volunteers, fundraisers, and team-builders at more than 60 local congregations, we are able to try out new ideas and innovative approaches that larger organizations with big national offices can't do."
One of the reasons Jewish World Watch has been so effective in such a short amount of time to save lives and influence legislation and media attention is because they know how to work with already existing temples, social action committees, activist groups, and numerous allies. Naama explains, "We didn't try to build a big organization, but instead we found ways to mobilize and empower numerous congregations who felt the urgency of what we are addressing but they became far more effective when they combined their talents and passion through carefully-designed projects that can help save lives and influence public opinion immediately. For instance, even though Ahavat Torah Congregation is not a large temple, it has been extremely active and helpful far beyond what anyone could have anticipated. As a result of the many people who contribute to our programs and show up for our activism events, we have been able to influence important legislation, develop three medical clinics and maternity wards in Darfur, purchase and build numerous wells to provide life-saving drinking water to hundreds of thousands of refugees, and significantly reduce the number of rapes and murders in war-torn areas."
"IT'S A VERY PERSONAL DECISION"
Vivian Gold is a psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and an Associate Clinical Professor at the UCLA Medical School. Active on the social action committee of Ahavat Torah Congregation, Vivian became interested in doing more for Jewish World Watch because, "When I heard that 5 1/2 million people have been killed in recent years in the Congo, that number was so close to the 6 million that we all remember so strongly. It was like a bell went off in my head that said, 'Wake up. This is happening right now and we need to do a lot more to stop it.'"
Vivian adds, "Then when I learned how frequently rape is being used as a weapon to terrorize women and humiliate men in these countries, I knew as a woman that this is a very personal issue. We are probably the first generation in history to stand up for the fact that rape is no longer permissible as 'the spoils of war' or 'business as usual during war-time.' And then when I heard that the genocide in the Congo is related to militias trying to displace people from mineral-rich lands so that these war-lords can make millions of dollars selling the raw minerals that are used in cell phones and computers sold in affluent countries, I knew I couldn't just stay uninvolved."
THE CELL PHONE CONNECTION
At the November 21st presentation and discussion, Naama Haviv will explore recent discoveries about the horrible violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the efforts of Jewish World Watch to get cell phone manufacturers and distributors to start tracing what mines were tapped for their cell phone materials, especially the tin, tungsten, and tantalum that are sold illegally to some of the major companies that make many of our cell phones and electronics components.
According to Naama, "Jewish World Watch is taking a leadership position right now to get the United States Congress to pass legislation requiring cell phone makers to trace and identify whether their phones are profiting the vicious militias in the Congo who are raping women in large numbers and chopping up bodies to intimidate people to vacate certain areas where the minerals are being mined illegally."
She explains, "Just like blood diamonds are no longer permissible and there is a careful certification process in place for any diamond ring you buy today, so will we be able soon to trace the exact mine origins of the minerals in each cell phone we buy. But for now we need to work quickly with our congressional representatives and our cell phone executives to correct a horrific situation where many of us are financially aiding some of the most awful atrocities in the Congo that we've ever witnessed in human history."
WHO SHOULD ATTEND?
If you are someone who owns a cell phone, or if you are a Jewish man or woman who is tired of feeling powerless and sidelined about situations in the world that are much too similar to the Holocaust, or if you are simply someone with a compassionate heart, you will probably feel inspired and empowered by meeting and hearing Naama Haviv on November 21st. Born in Israel, she grew up in Illinois, Massachusetts, and California before devoting her studies and her career to the prevention and halting of genocides.
The schedule for that Saturday morning will include:
--Mussar class at 9 a.m. with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell (on how to bring Jewish teachings about living with integrity to everyday situations).
--Lively Shabbat Services from 10 a.m. until 12:20 p.m.
--A friendly and welcoming pot-luck dairy lunch from 12:20 p.m. until 1 p.m.
--Naama Haviv discussing new visions and action steps from Jewish World Watch from 1 p.m. until 2:15 p.m.
Ahavat Torah Congregation meets at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, 1 block north of Montana Avenue and 6 blocks south of Sunset Blvd., 1 block west of Sepulveda and the 405 Freeway. For more information call 310 362-1111 or log onto http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/. Everyone is welcome to be a part of this important event.