Rabbi Harold Schulweis rallies help for the oppressed abroad
He has inspired thousands to take action against inhumanity in the 3-1/2 years since founding Jewish World Watch.
Encino, Calif. — In eastern Chad, 14,000 children in the Oure Cassoni refugee camp this month will receive backpacks filled with shoes, school supplies, soap, and mosquito nets.
Hundreds of miles south, in the Iridimi camp that is home to Sudanese refugees, 15,000 solar cookers help prevent the incidence of rape among women who venture out to collect wood for cooking.
And three small radio stations in rural Chadian villages air "She Speaks, She Listens," a weekly broadcast discussing problems of gender-based violence.
As of this month, the group has sent $3 million in aid to the nearly 230,000 refugees fleeing violence at the hands of the janjaweed militias in Darfur. The organization Schulweis founded almost four years ago now boasts 250,000 members (belonging to 56 Jewish synagogues in southern California that have joined JWW) – and is supported coast to coast by churches; university groups; and civic, professional, and grass-roots organizations.
Schulweis, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino, Calif., was already one of the best-known pulpit rabbis in America and the author of many books when, in 2004, he challenged his own congregation to stop merely observing acts of global inhumanity – Darfur, Rwanda, Srebrenica – and instead to rise up, speak out, and deliver immediate, practical care.
Motivated by the Holocaust
The seeds of activism were planted early, while Schulweis was growing up in the Bronx with immigrant parents who'd fled Nazi Germany. As episodes of genocide and ethnic cleansing have repeated themselves over the decades, Schulweis decided to make his formal stand.
"Don't I remember what Jews preached and taught and heard: 'Where are the nations of the world?' " he says, sitting in his library at his hilltop Encino home.
"Where are the churches of the world? Where are the priests, pastors, the bishops, and the pope?" he asks. "And will my children and grandchildren ask of me, 'Where was the synagogue, where were the rabbis, and where were you during Rwanda when genocide took place in 1994?' "
By all accounts, those ideas – which he crystallized in his founding speech for JWW – galvanized his local congregation, spreading to other synagogues and then to Christian churches until in a matter of months a broad structure was in place that has continued to grow.
Schulweis remains the guiding hand. That means making sure his grass-roots foreign-aid programs are not temporary or patchwork. He has seen to it that they are sustained by speakers bureaus peopled with volunteers aged 13 to 83. The speakers have reached 30,000 young people in public, private, and parochial schools about the plights of Darfur and other global trouble spots: political detainees in Thailand, refugees in Somalia, border violence in Nepal/Bhutan and Pakistan/India.
"I had no idea where Darfur was in the world; it was just some far-off disconnected place," says Sheri Holt, a 17-year-old who, inspired by Schulweis's 2004 speech, became a founding member of JWW's speakers bureau. She now speaks in homes, churches, and schools to raise money. "Rabbi Schulweis's ideas connected me to a bigger picture of the world."
JWW's advocacy arm mobilizes students and other community activists. A demonstration held Feb. 12 at the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles was intended to pressure the Chinese to lean on its key trading partner of Sudan to allow United Nations peacekeepers inside its borders.
JWW also holds educational and fundraising campaigns regularly on campuses from Los Angeles to Cambridge, Mass. The efforts – which include dances, potlucks, and jewelry sales – raise money to buy as many $30 solar cookers and $36 backpacks as possible.
Schulweis's outreach to churches and his relentless push to stir his own and other religious groups to lift their sights beyond parochial concerns have brought accolades from civic and religious leaders.
"Rabbi Schulweis's unparalleled commitment to the values of social justice, charity, and human rights serve as an example for every political and religious leader in our city and across the nation," says Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in a statement in response to a Monitor inquiry. "He has been the spokesperson for our greatest moral causes, and he has never ceased to remind us that silence in the face of genocide is inexcusable and rhetoric without action is unacceptable."
Among Schulweis's other work is the establishment of outreach programs for the developmentally disabled and of professional counseling centers.
He has also been applauded by fellow Jewish leaders for working to unite movements within Judaism (Orthodox, Reconstructionism, Reform, Conservative) and by Roman Catholic, Armenian, and other leaders for creating ecumenical bridges where none had before existed.
A bridge-builder to other faiths
For example, in a historymaking gesture last April orchestrated by Schulweis, Jews formally acknowledged for the first time the forcible deportation and massacre of between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.
"His outreach to Armenians has had a deep impact on us coast to coast," says Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America. "There were always individual relationships between high Armenian and Jewish clergy. But his message is that this relationship has to be translated into the lives of the congregants.... That is what his outreach has meant to us. His leadership says, 'None of us can remain an island and prosper.' "
Archbishop Derderian on May 15 is set to reciprocate the good will, hosting an evening of fellowship to explore further exchange between the two groups.
"Rabbi Harold Schulweis stands vigorously for the idea that if each of us only thinks of ourselves as members of a single denomination, we are missing the boat as fellow human beings," says the Right Rev. Alexei Smith, ecumenical and interreligious officer for the archdiocese of Los Angeles. "He is driven by every opportunity to show the world that men and women of differing religious traditions can live together for the better good."