India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day Three, Part I


India Study Tour, 2012: Reflections - Day Three, Part I

Posted on February 13, 2012 by Rabbi Elyse Frishman

Repairing the Fringe on the Fringe

Before I begin, consider for a moment your sexuality. Are you male or female? Is your partner male or female? Should it matter to anyone except you and your partner?

Now recall the mission of AJWS: repairing the fringes of society’s garment so that the entire fabric will not disintegrate.

Kolkata’s daytime population is 21 million people, and its one city in a nation of 1.21 billion.

All humans are created in the image of God.

Should everyone’s voice be heard?

Meet Amitava Sarkar, a transgender (TG) young person applying community-based organizing to help other TGs escape discrimination and social persecution. Meet Paramita Banerjee, associate director of their organization, a bisexual woman advocating for the human rights of dignity, good health, employment and love.

Paramita described Amitava’s identity conflict: born visibly male, she became what she truly was, a woman. Yet her passport reads “male.” The government doesn’t recognize transgendered persons; and society can’t accept that a man would want to become a woman. So Amitava has duality and denial of identity.

Amitava spoke: “When I was a child, I thought to myself, ‘When I grow up, I should do something for people like me,’ because I realized that I was isolated – that people like me have no social space.” She joined SAATHI to support and advocate for women with HIV because “I realized that even though HIV isn’t my issue, dealing with HIV includes us all. The marginalized are really the mainstream.”

The marginalized are really the mainstream. Or as our tradition teaches: when one is affected, all are affected. From the midrash in Song of Songs Rabbah 6:17: “Why is Israel compared to a nut? Just as with a nut, when you remove one from the heap, the rest tumble down and fall one after the other, so it is with Israel. When one is affected, all feel it.”

When one is affected, all feel it. The pain of stigmatizing and abuse tear at the fabric of our lives – sooner or later. But we have to see, to witness in order to care and respond.

It happens that in this Hindu society, people worship the god/dess Shiva, who is both male and female. Shiva has a third eye and sees what others cannot.

Have you been with us a on a Shabbat morning when we look into each other’s eyes? We sense more than the superficial. Today, we looked deeply into Amitava’s and Paramita’s eyes and saw into their struggle – and its impact on us. How we respond defines us. We, too, may have a duality of identity if we speak of God’s image and compassion, but close our eyes to the marginalized. When we begin to empathize with one group, our hearts are opened even further.

The HIV work of SAATHI became a gateway for many Indian voices to be heard. Lives are changing.