Six Jewish activists traveled from Boston to Washington, D.C., on May 11 as part of American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) three-day 2015 Policy Summit to add their voices to those lobbying their Congressional representatives to enact laws that combat violence against women and girls and to advance LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights globally.
The Boston activists joined nearly 170 others in advocating for congressional passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) that would, for the first time, codify a comprehensive U.S. approach toward fighting violence against women and girls internationally.
“Lobbying on the Hill felt really significant,” said Salem Pearce, a third year rabbinical student at Hebrew College Rabbinical School. “It restored my faith in democracy.”
Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, AJWS is the leading Jewish human rights and development organization working to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world. Headquartered in New York, the group provides financial support to more than 500 local grassroots and global human rights organizations working in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. AJWS also mobilizes American Jews and others in the U.S. to advocate for policies that will benefit people in the developing world.
Meredith Grabek, who graduates this year from the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University with an M.B.A. and a Masters Degree in Jewish Professional Leadership, stressed how important it is to her that AJWS supports local community groups that already exist. “We are not trying to change society in the developing world. We are working to support organizations that are in place that serve to protect and help women, girls and LGBT people. I believe we can make a difference,” she said.
The other Boston delegates were: Alyssa Bogdanow, a second year Hornstein Program at Brandeis student; Hebrew College Rabbinical School students Elie Lehmann and Laura Bellows; and Vanessa Lubiner, who spent a year in the Baltimore area with “Repair the World,” a Jewish volunteer organization.
To rabbinical student Pearce, working as an organized Jewish community to advocate for issues informed by Jewish values was important. “Judaism teaches us in many places that the suffering of everyone is our problem. When other people face oppression and discrimination, even if it’s not affecting us directly, it behooves us to work against that,” she said.
At the opening plenary session, participants heard how global partnerships can alleviate suffering and strengthen vulnerable communities by responding to disasters effectively. AJWS President Ruth Messinger told those gathered that in Haiti, after the earthquakes, women and girls in displaced persons camps were sexually assaulted on their way to the latrines. Many started wearing several pairs of jeans so they might stand a chance yelling for and receiving help before an attacker could actually rape them. “What a horrible way to live,” said Grabek.
The schedule of events included workshops with Jewish content, including “Righteous Rage — Hineini (Here I Am),” which brought ancient teachings to bear on the question of how to engage people to recognize an immoral situation and do something about it. Each day started with a half hour “Sacred Space” aimed at connecting participants to their Judaism and their advocacy through meditation, song and spiritual exploration.
At Monday and Tuesday’s sessions, the conference combined learning sessions with hands-on lobbying training, including role-playing and feedback. “We were well trained to deliver the message,” said Pearce. “We learned how to have a meeting, what to say, how to act and how to dress. The Massachusetts delegation met and split the talking points, deciding who would say what. Then we practiced with each other.”
On Wednesday, the group split up into local delegations and lobbied their elected officials, utilizing their newly acquired skills. “I visited my representative’s office (Rep. Mike Capuano) in addition to Senators Markey and Warren. It feels good to walk around the nation’s capitol with a purpose — and to be heard,” said Grabek.
Advocacy will not end with the AJWS summit’s closing. “Violence against women, girls and LGBT people is a human rights crisis in some places,” said Grabek, who said she is inspired by the conference to apply to join the Rabbinic/Graduate Student Global Justice Fellowship cohort. She plans to continue working to pass IVAWA through social media and by organizing others to lobby their government officials. “I am dedicated to helping others gain the equality they seek. One by one, I feel we can get there,” she said.