When Night Ends and Dawn Arrives: Reflections on Ghana

Rabbi Zoe Klein recently traveled with AJWS on a Young Rabbis’ Delegation (YRD) to Ghana. Below is a sermon she delivered last Shabbat, August 12, 2011, at Temple Isaiah of Los Angeles, where she is the senior rabbi.

This week’s Torah portion [Parshat Va’etchanan] includes the words Shema Yisrael,
And in the Torah, as many know,
The last letter of the first word,
The ayin of shema,
And the last letter of the last word,
The dalet of echad,
Are written large,
Larger than the other letters.
Together those two letters,
Ayin-dalet spell the Hebrew word Eid,
Which means witness.
The essence of our call to faith,
Not only to hear oh Israel,
Hear that God is One,
But bear witness to it,
Bear witness to oneness,
To the potential for oneness
When God’s image is shattered, or trashed.

You cannot truly witness through a book.
You cannot truly witness through a screen.
Witness means being there,
Eyes ears heart open,
Tasting the air,
its metallic tinge.

It is deceptive at times to bear witness.

The first night of our stay in Ghana,
In a concrete house, 16 rabbis sharing three rooms,
On a school compound in the impoverished village
Of Sankor, Winneba,
In the twilight we’d see small creatures moving,
Waddling, rummaging through trash…
We thought they were dogs.
I walked to the bathroom,
The one toilet that all of us shared,
It was dark, the ground uneven,
A creature lifted its head out of a basket
And I was startled, it wasn’t a dog, but a little
Pregnant goat
Whose labor cries we listened to in the wee hours
From 3 am to 5.

Our eyes play tricks on us.

The rabbis say that one should only pray in a room with windows.
Windows prevent us from being too cloistered
In our own heads,
They puncture the wall,
They tend toward oneness.
They help us to witness.

At the end of our first week,
We went to a slave castle.
Of the estimated 24 million Africans
Who were torn from their homes,
Shipped across seas like cargo,
Of the 24 million, 12 million
Came through the ports of Ghana.
The castle, built in the 1600s,
Sat on the rocks above the roaring sea,
Rimmed with rusted canons.
We stood in the cells where hundreds of men
And women were chained at a time, waiting,
Living in filth, until the massive ships would arrive,
And they’d pass through what was called
The door of no return,
A third stolen for the Americas,
A third for the Caribbean Islands,
And a third for Brazil.
In the cells there were three thin slats high in the ceiling,
Windows angled so that if it rained, the rain would come in
And wash the sewage down the slanted floor.
The castle museum was sparse.
There was one branding iron.
One shackle.
Few pictures.
Unlike Holocaust Museums
With their voluminous texts and artifacts.
But the castle was haunted,
Deeply haunted.
And we felt haunted.
Our world was built upon slavery.
It still is.

Last year our temple board signed a covenant,
Promising that as a temple we would only purchase
Conflict free technology.
Metals essential to cell phones,
Video game systems,
Are extracted from the Congo
By armed groups actively engaged in a genocide
That has already killed 5 million people.
Where over 6 million women have been raped.
Still we promote technology as something good
And positive in the world.
Last year our temple board signed a covenant,
Promising that as a temple we would only purchase
Conflict free technology.
Problem is, it doesn’t exist.
We promised we would purchase conflict free technology
When, if it becomes available.

We stood, 16 rabbis,
Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox,
In the cell — quiet, haunted.
The tour guide took us upstairs,
To the first Anglican Church on the African Continent,
Which was now a children’s book library.
As you entered the church,
There was a trapdoor
In the floor,
Which when opened,
Allowed people to see into the men’s cell,
To see the men chained and degraded.

A conservative rabbi turned to me.
He said, “The rabbis say that one should only pray in a room with windows.
What a perversion.
Can you imagine seeing this
Before entering a room to pray?”

Our trip was organized by AJWS,
The American Jewish World Service.
During the days we worked alongside Ghanaians
to build an IT Center for children of Challenging Heights School.
Challenging Heights, the NGO and grantee of AJWS,
Is a school which rescues and rehabilitates children
who have been trafficked as slaves from as young as four years old,
mainly in the fishing industry.
The center’s founder, James Kofi Anan,
was sold by his parents into slavery as a child,
working 17 hour days,
forced to dive two stories into the deep lake to untangle nets,
severely beaten nearly daily.
He told us of the many children who don’t survive the ordeal,
children who easily became tangled in the nets and drowned.
After many years, James escaped.
He has dedicated his life to saving other children
from a fate similar to his own.

We saw the fishing boats.
They were long, giant canoes,
Like pea pods,
Colorfully painted,
They were beautiful,
We took many pictures.
There were children
Working the nets,
Fetching water,
Running between the boats.
It is deceptive at times to bear witness.

There were hundreds of children at Challenging Heights school,
And for the first couple of days
We couldn’t get over how happy they all seemed,
How beautiful they all were,
With their shorn hair
And their giant eyes,
We loved how affectionate they were,
Climbing all over us.
You could hardly move from one part of the yard to another
Without children clinging to each of your limbs,
Asking you your name,
Your age,
If you liked Obama, or Rhianna.

But it is deceptive at times to bear witness.
After a couple of days,
We didn’t find them quite as cute.
Quite as happy.
Quite as affectionate.
We realized that they saw us as giant talking playground equipment.
We saw that they were often sick.
We saw that they were often neglected.
We saw one three year old who every day waddled around crying
Until one of us picked her up and she feel asleep on us,
Not a teacher in sight.
We saw that they were often hungry.
We saw them fighting with each other.
We saw that every day they were tasked with picking up trash
In the play yard,
And they’d take the trash to the corner
And light a fire,
A bon fire,
Of plastic and used toilet paper,
Little girls and boys in blue and yellow checkered uniforms,
Lighting matches, breathing fumes.
We noticed that the three story staircase had no rail.
That the play yard was filled with razors,
That in fact we were on an open construction site
Through which the children ran
While we lifted seventy pound bricks and
Wheelbarrows of mortar and concrete.

It took a few days for the romanticism to wear off,
And for us to really see. To bear witness.

AJWS’s policy is that you do not leave anything behind.
We are not there to bring gifts,
Or to teach dependency of foreigners.
We are there to learn what their dreams are
And to work beside them to help them fulfill them,
Not to impose our ideas upon them.

Ruth Messinger,
Who is the leader of AJWS joined us for part of the time.
She spoke of organizations
That impose their good will on communities
And the effect.

After the Indonesia tsunami,
Every rotary club in the world bought
Fishing-boats to restore the industry that was destroyed.
Soon these communities had more fishing-boats
Than they’d ever had before.
They had so many fishermen that the delicate mangroves
Were destroyed, which caused the fish to leave.
The fish used to eat the mangroves,
Good intentions further decimated a delicate ecosystem.

The organization Nothing But Nets
Strives to give Mosquito nets to thousands
Who live in malarial zones.
The nets are treated with insecticide.
Problem is, people at that level of poverty
See these nets and think,
Not “this will protect me and my children from mosquitoes,”
They think “I can feed my family.”
They think, “Fish.”
They use the nets to catch fish,
They eat the poisoned fish,
And they get sick and sometimes die.

America gives tons and tons of used toys to Africa.
Problem is, there is no garbage disposal,
No garbage trucks
Rumbling over the potholes to pick up trash.
Trash is burned.
Plastic toys break,
As they always do,
And there is no way to repair them,
No way to dispose of them,
And so there are great piles of broken American toys.

America gives tons and tons of used clothing to Africa.
It’s destroyed their textile industry.
Most African languages have a special word
For this clothing that nearly everyone wears.
It translates as “Dead White Man Clothes.”
They can’t imagine why someone would give up this clothing
Unless they had died.
Psychologically, it has its effect.

AJWS doesn’t drown fragile organizations
And ecosystems with good will,
Rather they emphasize solidarity.
Of the 6 million dollars they raised
For Haiti after the earthquake,
They gave away 1.5 of it so far,
Giving it slowly, strategically, over years,
To help Haiti build sustainably,
Instead of drowning them in resources
They have no means to handle.

The policy to not gift,
As much as we understood it on a macro-level,
Was difficult in the micro.
We weren’t allowed to leave out mosquito nets,
We weren’t allowed to give a house gift
To the people who hosted us,
We weren’t allowed to give our leftover food to the hungry child,
We weren’t allowed to bring snacks to the end of the visit party
They threw for us.
The gift, it was explained to us,
Was the fact that we were working alongside them.
The gift was that we helped build an IT center.

At one point I asked the group leader
If I might be able to take some of the plastic trash,
Bundle it up with duct tape,
String it to that pole and teach some kids tetherball.
They only seemed to have two games,
A hopscotch like jumping game
And soccer.
The group leader said contemplatively,
“Hmmm, that’s really a gray area in our policy.
Perhaps if you take the tetherball with you
After each lesson so you don’t leave it behind.
I am going to leave it up to you,
But really consider the consequences before you do it.”
My mind started reeling with the consequences.
Maybe a kid would break his nose on the tetherball.
Maybe the soccer kids would fight with the tetherball kids
For use of the pole,
It was one of the goal posts,
And it would lead to a Ghanean civil war.
I didn’t do it.

But I did play the rebel in one area.
I taught a few kids how to make sock puppets.
I didn’t ask permission,
But I didn’t leave my socks.

It was complex for us,
Many rabbis became agitated, frustrated.
Here we were hauling cement,
Mixing charoset,
None of us experts in manual labor,
When right there was a school
Teeming with children,
And all of us were skilled in storytelling, song-leading.

In our discussions we talked about it.
They said that next week,
They guaranteed that those 80 students would be asking,
“Where are the singing rabbis?”
They would experience loss.
That even though we might be good at teaching songs,
In fact for these students seeing us sweating and laboring
Alongside their neighbors to build this center
Day after day for two weeks
Would leave a deeper more positive lasting impression
Than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
They talked about the dynamic based on hundreds of years of colonization,
That a Ghanean would never walk into an America school
And burst into a classroom and teach a song.

Later in the week,
One of the construction workers, Daniel,
Taught us a song
In their language, Fanti.
Every Ghanean knows at least three languages,
Because there are so many tribes in the country.

We learned the song…
Then Daniel said, “Now I’d like for you…”

We all thought he was going to say
That he wanted us to teach them a song.
We were getting ready.
Rabbis were turning to each other saying,
“Let’s do Hallelu, yeah, that’s a good song, Hallelu.”
But instead, Daniel said, “Now, I’d like for you…
To sing my song back to me.”

It was a revelation.
Of course, why did we assume he wanted to know our songs?
He has a rich heritage.
He wants to be sure we remember his song…
And because he made us sing it to him over and over,
I come back home not with the egocentric pride
Of having brought him one of my songs,
But with the words, “Senua, senua de-denday”
Resonating in my pulse.

We lived meagerly.
We did not have enough food.
All of us were sick at one point or another.
One rabbi went to the hospital.
We were sleep deprived and uncomfortable
And anxious.
And then we came home,
And we left that which most people in the world never leave.
The morning after I came home
I asked my four year old what she wanted for breakfast.
She said, “Scrambled eggs, avocado, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich
And vegetarian bacon.”
And a few minutes later she had it.

I come back from this trip ashamed.
Questioning my own goodness.
It is said that while you can always wake a person who is sleeping,
you can never wake a person who is pretending to sleep.
The question is, once you stop pretending,
once your eyes are opened and you bear witness, what do you do about it?
How do you move forward? Since returning from Ghana,
I am deeply struggling with this.

Rabbi Frimmer participated in a similar trip with AJWS to Senegal.
Lisa, our Youth Director, participated in a similar trip with AJWS to Nicaragua.
I hope that together we can wrestle with these questions.

We don’t have a window in our sanctuary that opens
To a cell of suffering people.
We don’t see them,
We don’t hear them.
But we’d be lying to ourselves
If we pretended that everything we have,
Everything we love,
Is untouched by human atrocities and degradation
Beyond our wildest imagining.
Just like we lie to ourselves every time we buy cage-free eggs
Thinking that it’s humane, knowing that the regulation for cage-free
Is absolutely cruel and that every male chick
Ever born in a factory is crushed and killed
Because in America we have no need of roosters.

For two weeks I woke up every day to roosters,
Roosters crowing all over the village,
Just before dawn,
Announcing that soon,
The night would be over.

At this week’s Board meeting,
Rabbi Nickerson presented a d’var torah.
He shared that the beginning of the Talmud
Asks the question,
“Until what time can you say the evening Shema?
Can you say it even until dawn?
And if so, how do we even know what time that is?
How do we know when the night is over and the day has arrived?

Rabbi Joel shared a story
That is retold by Rabbi Ed Feinstein
In which students try to answer this question for the rabbi.
One says:
Rebbe, night is over and day arrives, when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.

Another student responded: Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.

Yet another student offered: Night is over and day has arrived when you can a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.

No, no, no thundered the Rebbe. Why must you see only in separations, only in distinctions, in disjunctions. No. Night is over and day arrives when you look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that he is your brother, she is your sister. That you belong to each other. That you are one. Then, and only then, will you know that night has ended and day has arrived.

May we together search out the way
Toward dawn,
Toward bearing witness without deception,
Toward oneness, and purity,
Toward a Sabbath of true rest
And true peace,
Not for a small percentage of the planet,
But for all,
For us
And the bottom billions.