Often when a group of American rabbis visit a foreign country, they spend most of their time with the local Jewish community.
But the 13 Jewish leaders — including two from New Jersey — who were selected as Global Justice Fellows by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) didn’t even step near a synagogue during their Jan. 14-21 trip to Guatemala.
Instead, they met with indigenous tribal peoples, conferred with collectives of midwives and women’s entrepreneurial groups, spoke with a victim of genocide, talked with activists and reporters fighting repression, and met the country’s U.S. ambassador — all in the name of protesting Guatemalan abuse of human rights. The fellowship trains American-Jewish leaders to advocate in support of international policies that advance human rights and the well-being of the world’s poorest and most oppressed communities, according to the AJWS.
“There have been decades, maybe centuries, of real oppression in Guatemala and a lack of access to the most fundamental of human rights,” said Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair. “It is extraordinarily profound and inspirational to see the kind of courage people are taking to restore those human rights and basic services.”
Among the most egregious ways the Guatemalan government abuses its own people are police corruption, kidnappings, illegal detentions, inhumane prison conditions, and drug and human trafficking, according to a U.S. State Department report updated in April.
“We went to Guatemala to see its pain,” said Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Tenafly resident who founded Sha’ar Communities in 2005. It is a congregation without walls that is comprised of groups of congregants, each concerned with an aspect of Jewish life such as rituals, education, travel, and social action. They meet in a number of settings, including synagogues, churches, and private homes.
Lewittes, the first Canadian woman to become a Conservative rabbi, told NJJN that during her fellowship “we met with human rights activists and saw the risks they take every single day.”
To her, connecting with the plight of oppressed peoples is a vital part of their responsibility as Jews.
“On an elemental level, the stories of the Guatemalan people are also our stories. As Jews, we are taught our humanity requires us to love our neighbors,” she said.
Tepperman said that, for him, one of the most profound moments of the trip was hearing a story from an AJWS staff attorney in Guatemala named Edwin, who witnessed the military murder his family when he was a 6-year-old in the 1990s. The killers were never brought to justice.
“It was really hard to hear that story and not hear a resonance in stories about the Holocaust,” said the Montclair rabbi, who lauded Edwin’s efforts to document the murders. “He also understood the need to hold people who are alive accountable for those atrocities.”
To Tepperman, there is a strong connection between immigration issues in the U.S. and conditions on the ground in countries such as Guatemala.
“If America is concerned with slowing down that flow [of immigrants], the work of the State Department in Guatemala is to protect human rights and improve the quality of life there,” he said.
His point was underscored at a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Todd D. Robinson, a career diplomat and N.J. native, appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2014. Tepperman said the ambassador was sympathetic to their concerns, and that he and his staff are dedicated to working on human rights issues. “He told us the most effective thing we could do was continue to advocate and lobby for our government’s anti-corruption efforts within the Guatemalan government.”
Lewittes said she was disturbed by what she learned from leaders of indigenous communities.
“Their rights are continually violated by corporate interests — often for their land or water or mining or alternative energy without honoring or compensating them,” she said. “The indigenous communities are not opposed to using their resources, but they want to be properly compensated and not be left further impoverished and vulnerable and, in many cases, physically and violently abused.”
She said she was touched by her interactions with human rights advocates, journalists, and attorneys who shared their stories and the risks they assume.
“Human rights defenders are routinely thrown in jail on trumped-up charges of criminal behavior. Some of them have been murdered,” said Lewittes. “One journalist has a warrant for his arrest because of his documenting these violations.”
AJWS leaders and the 13 rabbis, of all denominations, who visited Guatemala plan to visit Capitol Hill next month to bring the plight of the Guatemalan people to the attention of members of Congress.
There are four synagogues and an estimated 500 Jews in Guatemala, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. Despite the countries appalling record on human rights, over the decades the country has had friendly relations with Israel and it supported President Donald Trump’s intention to transfer the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Neither Lewittes nor Tepperman would comment on whether Guatemalan Jewish support of their government’s pro-Israel stance suggests a lack of concern over the country’s human rights violations.
But Tepperman told NJJN he was anxious “that we not lose sight of our Jewish community responsibility in the human rights realm,” he said. “We must not for a moment take our Jewish eyes and our Jewish hearts from the terrible and inexcusable violations of human rights and civil rights that the Guatemalan government is responsible for.”