Seeking Connection in Cambodia

An interview with Mandy Patinkin by Ruth Messinger, Global Ambassador, and Robert Bank, President of American Jewish World Service

Mandy speaks with a young Cambodian. Image courtesy of American Jewish World Service.

It was nearly 100 degrees on a February afternoon in the heart of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and we were walking down a busy street with actor Mandy Patinkin. In khakis and a bandana and without his trademark beard, Mandy was nearly unrecognizable as his Homeland character, Saul Berenson. He blended seamlessly with his fellow travelers, a group of supporters on an American Jewish World Service “Study Tour” to witness the power of AJWS’s human rights work in action.

The previous day we paid our respects at the Killing Fields of the Cambodian genocide, and then met with youth who are determined to put their country’s painful past behind them and forge a new, democratic, future. That morning, we visited garment workers who are making progress in their fight for a better wage and safer conditions in the factories.

With our emotions running high, the three of us reflected on the trip, Jewish values and the power of listening.

Ruth Messinger: Mandy, I’ve always told you that someday I’d like to travel with you, and from my point of view, it was worth the wait.

Mandy Patinkin: The trip is deeply affecting me. I’m overwhelmingly moved.

Ruth: Me too.

Mandy: This experience has a way of cleansing your perspective, washing your soul — so that you have a sense of what’s important in your own life, in your own few days that you have on this planet. It has helped me see the world through different eyes. Thank you for that.

Ruth: It’s knowing what’s really happening in the world. Mandy, you know several worlds well. I know several worlds well. We share a world that we know well. But then you get to the rest of the world, and you realize — OK, wait a minute. I’ve been allowing these walls to build up. I’ve been not really seeing and now I can see.

Mandy: For 30 years, AJWS has been right under my nose, but I didn’t see it. There are lots of organizations, but AJWS really hits the nerve of my soul.

Robert Bank: What has struck that nerve most?

Mandy: The juxtaposition between the deepest injustice and the most transcendent hope. On our very first day here we went to the killing fields to witness the horror of what happened during the genocide. And then at Tuol Sleng — the school that became a prison, a torture center, a murder compound right in the middle of the city — we saw thousands of faces of young people, in room after room after room after room, who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

And then, later that same day, we went to meet these extraordinary young people AJWS is supporting and their faces looked so similar to me. For a moment I couldn’t breathe, thinking of the faces of the dead and the faces of the next generation that survived. But then I saw their optimism, their hope. There was no defeat within them.

Robert: Their optimism is extraordinary, isn’t it? They face such huge odds, and then they say, “I am moving forward regardless. I am undeterred.”

Mandy: They’re the definition of courage. They have a spirit and a fight for justice. They’re fighting for their right to have food, to have education, to have opportunity, to have medical care, to have a home to live in, to not be beaten for voting or raising their voices for the opposition.

Listening to these young people trying to negotiate with their government and transcend this kind of poverty and this system of inequality that they live in has been an unexpected, overwhelming education for me. They made it clear to me that I’m not here teaching them; they’re here teaching me. Their lesson is simple: have courage. Amp up your hope and optimism 100,000 percent.

Ruth: People often ask me where I get all my energy from, and I always respond, “You should meet the activists AJWS supports in the developing world!” Their spirit is simply indomitable. Every single day, I think of the incredible people in their communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America the Caribbean doing the work of building more just societies — two steps forward, one step back. Thinking of them and their powerful commitment gives me hope and propels me forward.

Mandy: It certainly ignites one to do something, that’s for sure.

These Cambodian kids are taking so much pain, trauma… and turning it into something radically positive. I have these two sets of faces in my mind — the kids who were killed in the genocide in Cambodia and the kids who are here, right now, in front of us, living and standing up for themselves. It clarifies that the world is at once a terrible place and also a place where anything is possible.

Robert: That’s chilling and, yet, so beautiful. It reminds me of a quote by Elie Wiesel: “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, it is my duty not to despair.” These youth are using the collective memory of the genocide to carve out a better future.

Mandy: Yes. And then it blew me away when these remarkable youth thanked AJWS — for the support to study, to learn to maneuver the political system and defend their rights. But then I realized that AJWS isn’t here to educate them. AJWS is here to help them find the way that they’d want to educate themselves. I understood, in that moment, that my job here isn’t to think, “How do I fix it?” My job is to just sit and listen and learn from them.

Robert: Exactly. You’ve just encapsulated our approach. AJWS is based on the belief that if given the opportunity and the financial resources, people find within themselves the power to make change in their own lives.

Ruth: We provide the funding and the support. But the learning, the strategizing, the will to take action — our grantees do that themselves. We see our role as being really good listeners and then responding to the needs we hear articulated.

Mandy: Everything about this trip has emphasized the importance of really listening. To stop talking and truly listen. Yes, it’s important to write a check; but if you can also get to that place where you can meet people who are fighting for their own rights and listen to them and sit with them in their villages, in their homes, in their schools — your life will change.

Ruth: Mandy, you have such a high degree of empathy and it’s always on your face — which is why you’re a great actor and performer. Watching you this week in Cambodia, I saw you listening, and then reaching out and touching others. We want to move and reach lots of people, but we also need to move and reach people like you, who will reach other people.

Mandy: I’ll do my best, I promise. It’s so important for me to connect. When we met with the garment workers, we built a moment of connection, of the possibility of connection, the reality of connection — with us each experiencing lives and challenges so different from our own. I have always known that there are poor conditions in garment factories and that someone is working hard for very little pay to make the clothes we wear. But it was abstract until I saw it with my own eyes. Connecting with another human being who is sitting at a sewing machine working for just $5 per day… that made this issue real for me and made me want to do something about it.

Ruth: That’s beautiful. This whole notion of listening and connection… I see you doing it. Really hearing other people and affirming them. These acts of solidarity stay with us and generate a deep commitment to going outside ourselves and living lives that are dedicated to helping others. It’s easy to connect to the people in our families, in our own communities. But making a personal connection to someone outside those spheres, someone we probably already have an economic connection to, is a reminder that, in reality, we’re citizens of a bigger world, and we are responsible for what happens to people in that world.

Mandy: You know, as actors, some of us think too much about ourselves. I’ve learned that the greatest antidote to being too focused on my own navel is to get out there and listen to someone else. When you listen to the stories of people who have struggled so profoundly in our privileged world, it teaches you how to talk to your children, how to talk to your coworkers; or, if you’re a performer, how to sing the song you want to sing, how to play the parts we play. It teaches us everything. But if you miss it — if you’re one of those supposedly privileged, lucky people that got born in the right place at the right time and you don’t take the time to hear and visit and listen to people who are struggling for equality and justice — you’re missing more than probably 99.9 percent of this planet.

Robert: Where does your empathy for others come from?

Mandy: I think it comes, first and foremost, from lessons I learned from my wife, Kathryn Grody. When Kathryn met me, she asked, “Well, what were your parents? Were they Democrats or Republicans?” And I said, “Well, we went to shul. They were Sisterhood and Men’s Club.” I honestly had no idea how they voted or what they thought beyond the Jewish sphere. They were concerned about Jewish things, period. And then Kathryn came into my life, and she made it clear to me that being Jewish meant standing up for others. That that was the core of Judaism for her.

Robert: I believe that as Jewish people, we must — must, must, must — see human beings as being in a larger family; and that we, as Jews, are part of that family. And it’s not enough that we view it that way; we must act.

Mandy: That is certainly what both of you and AJWS teach every day. To me, that’s the Torah. What you guys talk about and what you do, to me, is really Torah.

Robert: That means so much to us.

Mandy: The work you are teaching us to do feeds my soul and helps define my life. When I travel with an organization like AJWS, when I get to work with refugees seeking a home, when I hear the stories of garment workers fighting for a living wage, when I meet people who are suffering from man’s inhumanity to man… these experiences are our temples. They are our temples to revisit and heal and repair. To me, this is the definition of a Jewish life, and I hope I can put these thoughts and feelings into action — that’s my prayer.

Robert: What you’re saying reminds me of Leonard Fein, of blessed memory — the activist, writer and teacher who always said, “Judaism is a serious vocation, and it’s not only the services that we attend that are important; in fact, it’s the services we perform.” I’ve always loved that because I believe, like you, that this is my temple. I’ve always thought that this work is holy work. It’s sacred work.

Mandy: I always wondered what does it mean to be a Jew, and I think if I had to nail it down to one thing, it would be rakhmones — which means compassion for another human being. Being a Jew means to dedicate my time to learn about what is going on with other people’s lives in the world, to feel compassion and empathy for others who are struggling so profoundly for a better life, and then to commit to trying to help them do something about it.

Ruth: I believe that AJWS is a powerful vehicle for American Jews to do just that. To allow our values to move us to open up to what’s happening in the world. And to enable what we hear and witness to move us to action. One of my favorite sayings is “We can’t retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.” We must look the world’s problems in the face and dig our heels in and say that we will be part of the solution — whether through philanthropy that supports some of the poorest people in the world to achieve change in their own communities; or through advocacy and political action here in the U.S. that influences our own policymakers to do something about the poverty and injustice in the world.

Mandy: This trip to Cambodia… well, I wish everyone could go. It awakens the soul. If you’re able, go meet the people AJWS is helping. Sit together in a room. Listen to them, listen to a language you don’t understand. Be respectful, be uncomfortable and be patient. You will have a kind of information about humanity that I cannot explain. You will feel a common human heart who wants to connect and succeed.

Robert: That’s the bottom line. It’s this recognition that we are all the same. We spend so much time as a society thinking about our differences. But one of the things that I feel is so powerful about American Jewish World Service is that we say to the people we are helping: “As Jews, we are part of you.” I think this is totally profound because we live in a world where distance, language, culture could all be barriers; but instead, we have to remember, that person is exactly like me.

Mandy: Yes. They’re our family. They’re our ancestors. They’re our teachers. We just have to open our eyes to see that commonality.

Robert: When I’ve watched you and Kathryn looking at the faces of the people we’re meeting, I get a sense that you feel that bond. You are citizens of the globe. You happened to be born in America, I happened to be born in South Africa, we’ve had so much privilege… but really we are citizens of the world. And when something particularly bad is happening in the world, you and Kathryn are both there and you care about it. You have an intrinsically deep commitment to tikkun olam, to repairing the world. And that’s a gift.

Ruth: When I hear you talk, Mandy, I hear your values. And your values are about gratitude, embracing others. They’re about dignity. About equality — which, of course, is part of an essential Jewish idea of b’tzelem Elohim — that all people are equal and infinitely valuable. That’s what we’re constantly striving for.

Mandy: That reminds me of something we heard yesterday. One of the Cambodian activists called the head of his group the “conductor,” instead of the director, and I thought — what a wonderful analogy. This was the conductor of their music, which is the human rights movement in Cambodia. And you, Ruth, have been the conductor for 30 years of a generation of young people, of middle-aged people, of older people of all denominations that are looking for a way to make their lives meaningful.

Ruth: Wow, thank you. The beauty of an orchestra is that every single musician, every note, is essential. The conductor sets the pace, but without the musicians, she would be alone in a silent room. We’re in this together.

Mandy: That’s it: Connect!