Laurence Simon founded AJWS in 1985 with co-founder Larry Phillips. Below, Laurence shares his reflections and memories of AJWS founding board member Elie Wiesel.
I was becoming discouraged in 1984 talking with leaders of American Jewish organizations about my dream to found an American Jewish organization that would make a professional and visibly Jewish contribution to the end of poverty in developing nations. They were not unsympathetic, but “we have other problems” was the phrase I heard over and over. Congregational and Hillel rabbis were more supportive and eventually encouraged me to talk with Elie Wiesel—“He will understand.”
I thought it improbable that I could ever get a visit with him, he was so out of my league. But a week later, I was sitting on a couch in his apartment—walls filled with books—having a quiet talk.
I told Elie that during my travels into the remotest and poorest communities on Earth, I often encountered Jews. Given how small our numbers are in the world, it was at first a surprise to see our presence almost everywhere. We were doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières, we were Oxfam field workers, we were journalists, human rights monitors, anti-apartheid activists, witnesses for peace. We were present, but we were silent as Jews. Some were observant—but most were drawn by the values of Judaism, like those powerfully transmitted to me from my own secular father, which brought us, almost against our will, into a direct relationship with the most afflicted people of our day. Elie understood.
He went on to tell me a story that he would later repeat at the founding ceremony of AJWS at the New York Hilton. He told of his sojourn to a Khmer refugee camp in Thailand. In a few days, it would be the Yahrzeit of one of his parents. Where, among refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, would he find his minyan? How would he recite the Kaddish? Slowly, word spread that nine other Jewish men were needed at the refugee camp. I am sure that this must have seemed an odd request, indeed, but they slowly came forward from the international aid organizations and the international press. In the hills of Thailand, Elie had his minyan and the sanctity of a community of Jews.
Elie knew the promise of AJWS and immediately agreed to be a founding member of AJWS’s board of directors. He was not in attendance at regular board meetings, but he was always available to help.
Once, I took Dr. Shlomo Navarro, Israel’s top food storage scientist, to meet Elie to show him our work on reducing post-harvest losses. Elie seemed delighted that we were making concrete, incremental contributions to building sustainable farming communities. Thinking back all these years, I am quite sure that Elie was the personification of everything I hoped AJWS would become: deeply soulful and inspired by the mysteries of Jewish empathy for all who suffer from neglect and injustice.
In the end, Elie had lived a long life, a surprise even to himself. I am blessed for having met him, and I mourn his passing.
Laurence Simon was the founding President of AJWS and is a professor of international development at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.