ELYRIA — Social justice always has been an important cause for Rabbi Lauren Werber of the Temple B’Nai Abraham in Elyria, but after spending 10 days volunteering in the village of Sankor in Ghana this summer, the spiritual leader is coming to terms with what it means.
“A quote of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came to mind,” Werber said. “It’s a quote that came up quite a bit on the trip and is simply, ‘In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.’ That sums up how I felt coming home and what I am struggling with now.’ ”
Werber’s trip was made possible through the American Jewish World Service, which gives grants to more than 400 grassroots organizations throughout the world. For more than 25 years, the organization has united Jewish communities to seek enduring solutions to poverty, hunger and disease, and to work toward a more just world, according to the AJWS website. The organization does this through advocacy in the United States, grant writing, education abroad, and volunteer service and travel.
Werber was one of 17 rabbis to travel to Sankor in August. The religious leaders were there for physical labor, as well as to study the local grassroots effort, and incorporate Jewish text study and dialogue on why everyone is responsible for global issues.
Werber spent her time at a school called Challenging Heights. Established by a former child slave, the school has 700 students — half of whom are former slaves. The other half have the potential to be enslaved, Werber said.
Sankor is also known as “the source community” because it is where the slaves come from, she said. The children, usually sold into slavery around the age of 5 or 6, are used for labor in the fishing industry on a lake about eight hours away by car. Sometimes their parents sell them into slavery for about $40. Many are told their children will be an apprentice and learn the trade of fishing, while going to school.
Obviously, that is not the case. The child-slaves are treated horribly by the slave masters and are never brought back to their families in most cases. While some parents know they are selling their child into slavery, many do not.
That’s why one of the efforts of Challenging Heights has been to educate the public about child slavery. Since the school began doing this, trafficking has been cut in half, Werber said.
The mother of three can’t begin to imagine the horror endured by the children or their families, even though she has seen the aftermath.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to see Africa and do social justice work in Africa,” Werber said.
When she told her husband, Brian Kelly, and her parents, about her plan, she thought they would be against it, but they were very supportive.
“They all said, ‘Oh, you’ve always wanted to do that. Of course,’ ” Werber recalled.
Her children, Rachel, 11; Sam, 9; and Sarah, 6; also understood, especially when she shared stories and pictures upon her return. Rachel would like to see Challenging Heights for herself. She even has a 12-year-old pen pal there named Juliette, whom Werber befriended on her trip.
But the reality of the situation also has been unsettling for her eldest, her mother said.
While there, the rabbis were busy from morning until night, starting the day was a 15 to 20 minute prayer, reflective, or meditative period and then going right in to four hours of manual labor — pouring concrete floors, mixing concrete, making walls, leveling dirt for a soccer field. They did it all.
“I thought they would go easier on us with the physical labor,” Werber said.
After working throughout the day, the rabbis would gather in the afternoon to meet with local leaders and officials and then study their curriculum on social justice.
The 12-day trip, which actually worked out to 10 days with travel, was non-stop.
“From morning to bed, we never stopped,” Werber said. “It was great. That’s what you want from something like this. I could have stayed six months or even a year more.”
The trip caused Werber to reflect on her own life and inspired her to live in a way that harms the fewest people and helps the most.
One of the easiest ways to do this, she said, is to assess consumer habits. Most people have heard of “blood diamonds,” particularly after the Hollywood movie of the same name was released several years ago, but consumers can also shop more consciously when it comes to electronics.
Simply by going online and doing a minimal amount of research, consumers can find out if the camera or computer they want to buy was made with “conflict minerals,” which are being used to help support a civil war in the Congo.
“It’s so easy to do,” Werber said. “And it doesn’t cost more money.”
Additionally, Americans can contact their congressmen about the American Farm Bill reform. The food that the U.S. ships to developing countries can actually have a negative impact on growers there.
“We are all in this world together,” Werber said. “How can we make it as just as we can?”
Werber has incorporated some of what she learned into both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services and hopes to hold a series of classes using the curriculum from the AJWS.
“It was hard to take in everything we have when I came back,” Werber said. “You start to see life a little differently.”
Contact Christina Jolliffe at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.