Rabbinical Students Return from Ghana


Rabbinical Students Return from Ghana

February 5, 2008

Twenty-five rabbinical students have just returned from Ghana as part of the AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation (RSD). In the village of Gbi Atabu in Ghana's Volta region, participants helped to build a community center by mixing concrete, making bricks and laying the floor of the building. Having worked hand-in-hand with a local Ghanaian community, the volunteers are now bringing back a new vision of global justice to the North American Jewish community.

RSD is a unique program, bringing together rabbinical students from the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform and transdenominational movements of Judaism for ten days of service. It offers an innovative and pluralistic approach to global social justice, where participants live and work alongside AJWS grantees in a developing country.

"This trip was all about relationships. With Ghanaians and with American Jews – the trip was a reminder about the fundamental humanity that I share with all people," said Alexander Kaye, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

"I related to Africans not as poor people who needed my help but as friends who I could connect with and work with in partnership. And I related to rabbinical students from other schools and denominations as fellow Jews with a shared mission of improving the world."

In addition to building the community center, the volunteers met with local AJWS grantees, including Pro-Link, and visited a Liberian refugee camp, engaging in conversations around the Jewish response to poverty and suffering in the developing word. They also interacted with the families of their host community, participated in African drumming circles and learned a little Ewe, the local language.

"The range of activity in a single day was amazing," said Ilana Foss, a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. "I went from carrying cement on my head to sitting with a group of women and talking about raising children to a conversation with my colleagues about what sort of changes we wanted to create within our movements and within our communities."

Foss added, "The trip was the ultimate multi-sensory, multi-experiential program in which I renewed and reenergized my commitment to building strong communities and a more just world."

The difficulties confronted in the developing world, in tandem with the challenges of a multi-denominational delegation, were the topic of rich discussions among the RSD participants. These exchanges were illuminated by the 2008 RSD Scholar-in-Residence, Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in New York City.

"We live our lives so detached from the production of that which we use," said Jessica Shimberg, a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. "Skyscrapers pop up around us, and packaged food lines supermarket shelves. One of the men in the village discussed this with me as we were making bricks. He told me that here, when they see a building completed, they know that their hands and hearts made it. It will take years of these different clans coming to carry sand, rocks, water, cement, and the community will be built through the process of building."

"Imagine how different the life of our JCCs [Jewish community centers] would be if we each had spent some sweaty days making them possible," Shimberg added.

Participants collaborated to design a pluralistic Shabbat, where different committees led Kabbalat Shabbat, Torah study and prayer. In addition, the group prayed together each morning, with each seminary leading the prayers once during the delegation.

The AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation now has 125 alumni who are integrating global justice into their rabbinates across the country and the world. "The program has a profound effect on its participants," observed Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

"There is no question in my mind that … these experiences positively shape the way participants think about their future rabbinic careers. The participants learn how to cooperate with people across denominations and they establish a network of rabbinical students interested in social justice."

"The trip was both humbling and empowering," said Ana Bonnheim, a student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. "Humbling because the world is so big, and I have seen so little of it. Humbling because there is so much to be done, and the problems are so complex, interconnected and dire. But empowering because we are all just people, and it is our responsibility as humans, Jews and future rabbis to ensure that voices are heard and that our communities act. Empowering because we can all bend down, start mixing cement and start making a difference."

Click here to learn more about AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation.