What Social Justice Activists in the Dominican Republic Can Teach Us about Moving Forward in Difficult Times

Shabbat sermon at SAJ, January 28, 2017

AJWS rabbinic fellows meet with local leaders in the Dominican Republic.

In April, I sat at my desk in the very late hours of the evening. I was feverishly completing essay questions before the deadline for the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Global Justice Fellowship, a program for clergy to learn about and advocate on issues in the developing world.

I applied to this program for a few reasons. First, because as many in this room know, it’s hard to say no to the inimitable Ruth Messinger.

Beyond that, I sought to broaden my social justice commitment to include issues and places beyond my normal field of activism and to grow more connected to an organization whose mission I have long supported. I hit the “send” button with my completed application with excitement and anticipation.

Six months later, I am riding the subway to the Global Justice Fellowship orientation, and instead of being excited, I was full of trepidation. Instead of looking forward, I was dreading that I had gotten myself into this commitment in the first place. As I rode the subway uptown, I thought to myself: “Why had I signed myself up this? How could I possibly care about issues going on around the world, at this moment?

Our orientation was scheduled for the Monday after our country elected Donald Trump as its President. I was still in mourning, in shock. And I also was becoming aware of how much this moment would demand of me, as a person and as a Jewish leader. The burden felt heavy.

Being in a room with 14 other clergy has its advantages — and it was only a matter of moments before everyone was sharing their feelings, which were all variations on this same struggle- how can I be there, at AJWS when I want to be on the streets? How can I care about the Dominican Republic or any number of places when we are in a crisis moment of hate and fear and potential threat at home?

We did what good Jews and rabbis do- we struggled with this question over the next two days. And among the words of Torah that was offered by Ruth and AJWS staff was this: When we go to the Dominican Republic, we have the chance not just to learn about the work of the activists there, rather to learn from their human rights and resistance work and that these leaders, who organize against great odds, can become our teachers, who give us wisdom, inspiration and tools for the work that is ahead.

After an emotional, intense, and uplifting week in the Dominican Republic, I can affirm: emet v’yatziv — this torah is true and enduring.

I gained so much that I think has universal application — for anyone who is fighting for justice and freedom, especially those on a path that appears long and daunting. Today, in particular I want to highlight three lessons learned, and in doing so highlight individual stories of those I met and the justice work of their organizations, while also connecting these lessons to our larger Jewish liberation narrative.

Please note that this talk is less about facts and figures than about broader lessons. I look forward to future conversations where we can delve into the issues on the ground and consider what we can do to respond.

Lesson 1: Resilience & The Long Haul- (Reconci.do)

On our second day in the D.R., our group visited the headquarters of Reonci.do, which means “Recognize (as) Dominican,” a grassroots organization that works to enfranchise and empower Dominicans of Haitian Descent.

A piece of important background: In 2010, the Dominican Republic halted the policy of recognizing birthright citizenship, so that it was no longer automatic for a person born on Dominican soil to be recognized as a citizen. In 2013, the Dominican government retroactively stripped citizenship from anyone born in the country, from 1929 until the present, to non-citizen parents, unless you could prove your citizenship through a burdensome number of documents. Dominicans of Haitian descent, whose parents or grandparents or even great-grandparents came from Haiti, are disproportionately affected by this crisis, leaving 200,000 people stateless, which has profound ramifications for their lives.

We were at Reconci.do to hear the stories of affected individuals and to learn about their advocacy work. I was particularly struck by the story of Phillipe, a 17 year old. Phillipe has 5 brothers and sisters; three of which were documented in the civil registry at birth and three of which were not. This inconsistency was not particularly uncommon or problematic until the legal status change. Phillipe explained that his three registered siblings are fine — they have jobs, go to school. But he and the remaining two cannot complete their education or get a job or have access to health care. Others in his position cannot vote or get married. Young children in this situation cannot enroll in kindergarten.

Philippe described going to the central agency to prove his citizenship not once, not twice, but over and over and over again. He took from his wallet the documentation that he has received with the help of the organization — but there is one problem. The document lists his nationality as Haitian, not Dominican. He is now considered a foreigner in the only country he has ever known. He is considered “Haitian” and not Dominican, even though he has never been to Haiti and he doesn’t speak the language.

He spoke of his continued resolve to keep going back to the agency to try to right this wrong. Further, he spoke about his commitment to speaking out, organizing and attending rallies, organizing his peers through Reconci.do. He will do this work until he and his friends reclaim their place in the Dominican society.

When I think about Phillipe, and his friends at Reconci.do, I think about the incredible lesson of resiliency and determination. It’s hard to imagine being among the most oppressed in one’s society — thrown away and disregarded, left to fend for yourselves and without the support of the public, and being committed day in and day out to fight for yourselves and your community.

In our liberation story, Moses doesn’t go to the Pharaoh once. He doesn’t go to the Pharaoh twice. He goes to the Pharaoh over and over again demanding: let me people go. Our traditional sources often frame these repeated actions as beneficial for the Egyptians, who learn how powerful God is. But we can draw another lesson: it’s not always clear when Pharaoh is going to let down the guard and give that opening for change and we have to be prepared to keep knocking on the door and demanding change. We don’t do this when the end is in sight; we have to be prepared for a long-haul fight and we must never give up.

Lesson 2: Empowerment — (COTRAVETD)

On our fourth day, we met with leaders of AJWS partner organization COTRAVETD, a group for female transgender sex workers that educate their community about health and safety and advocate for the trans community.

As we know in America, challenging gender norms and ideas is incredibly difficult and trans people (esp. transwomen of color) are subject to violence and the potential for death because of who they are. Now, imagine wanting to openly identify as a gender not assigned to you at birth in a culture that is built on a machismo unlike the U.S. and in a country where religion (the Catholic Church in this case) and state are enmeshed. As we learned, It is common for those who come out as trans to kicked out by their parents and considered shameful by their communities. There are virtually no employment opportunities for these women. One of the leaders said that, because 90% of the population is in the sex trade, they are literally and figuratively in the shadows of society.

What struck me and has stayed with me from meeting them is that the realities they described stood in direct contrast to the feeling one had from being around them. They didn’t seem downtrodden — they were alive, on fire with energy and enthusiasm. They had big plans, to pass a law that would enable people to change their gender marker on official documentation and to create a shelter for transgender people living on the streets.

They didn’t seem weak or vulnerable — they came across as strong and powerful women, who you did not want to mess with! They may have had no legal rights whatsoever as a population, but they were fully empowered.

This reminds me of a mystical teaching on Exodus. The mystics imagined liberation not just as a physical exodus but a spiritual one. In Egypt, the Israelites had mochin d’katnut- small-mindedness. The exodus represents moving from that small-mindedness to mochin d’gadult- expanded consciousness. Freedom is the experiences of seeing oneself as powerful actors and seeing the big picture of the world.

One of the COTRAVETD members admitted that she doesn’t always feel empowered. She looked at her friend across the table and said: “When I feel this way, I look to Cassandra- and she tells me ‘Don’t you ever let anyone tell you are don’t mean anything — because you do.’”

Where does power lie? We often default to: the government, the president, the representatives, the council, etc. If you spend 10 minutes with the women of COTRAVETD, you will remember this essential principle: power lies in me and you and in us together, no matter what the external circumstances. We decide where power lies. And when we believe in our own power, anything is possible.

Lesson 3: Remember Joy — (La Junta Mujeres de Mama Tingo)

On our last full day, we boarded the bus to drive one hour to Haina, which is the second most polluted city in the world, to visit La Junta Mujeres de Mama Tingó. The organization’s title means “The united women of Mama Tingo;” the namesake of the organization was a land rights activist assassinated in 1974.

On the bus, we had the opportunity to learn from AJWS staff person, Amarilys, about the tremendous challenges facing girls and women in the D.R., especially those in more rural area, including lack of access to birth control, abortion, full educational opportunities. Right before the car was parked, we learned that femicide- the murder of girls and women because of their gender, and most often by their spouses or partners, kills one woman every two days in the D.R.

I felt the shock and heaviness of that number as I walked into the group’s community room. Yet, when we walked in, no words were spoken, only a drumbeat and music and then a joyous and beautiful dance by young women and girls in bright flowered costumes. Pretty soon, everyone was clapping their hands and nigguning alongside them, shaking our bodies for the first time of the week. In that moment, we were all raised up in joy.

After introductions and heart-wrenching storytelling in small groups, we came back together for more singing and celebrating — the young girls shared more dances, we shared a Halleluyah chant and we ended the day with everyone on their feet. It felt like prayer.

At our communal lunch, a colleague asked one of the organizers, “How do you have so much joy, in the midst of so many challenges?” She replied, “Joy is part of our faith, but it’s not easy. We work on it. We insist on it.”

The rabbis reflected back that this idea was an idea shared in our faith tradition. After just crossing the sea- only a fraction of the way towards the promised land- Miriam leads the women in song and Moses follows suit. Even if they had just witnessed a miracle, we can imagine that many of the group were so frightened and scared that they just wanted to keep pushing along without pause. Instead, they stop and dance. And here are these women who are fighting for their lives and the lives of these young girls and they say: we pause and we dance and we sing. We do this as an expression of our faith in God and in recognition that we need joy to sustain us in our work. And just like them and just like our ancestors, we are exhorted to never forget joy. We need it to get to the promised land.

***

In the last 8 days since the inauguration, we have seen an shunning of the media, of facts; a casting off of immigrants, a proposal to build a wall, a rejection of our planet and responsibility for the effects of climate change, a cutting off of funding for organizations that provide information on abortion. And on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the President imposed a temporary ban on refugees from Muslim countries. All those images we saw from this summer and last year from Syria- all those innocent people- turned away at the greatest hour of need.

I am not going to sugar coat it. This is very, very bad. And, sadly, I think it’s going to get a lot worse. I think we need to be ready for that reality.

But if those I met in the D.R. can organize for their rights, empower themselves and others, maintain joy under very inhospitable climates when the goals are not always winnable, then I know we can too. If they can stand up to the forces that seem impenetrable, so we can too. I hope and pray that their resilience and determination, their empowerment, and their joy will shed a light for us as we move forward in difficult times.