Why should Jewish Congregations care about Guatemala?
This post is part of a series highlighting the amazing work of our 2013 Irving J. Fain Awardwinners. Continue to check back to learn about the inspirational projects at Reform congregations across North America.
During the April Consultation on Conscience in Washington, D.C. there was a sea of Guatemalan kippot adorning the heads of many participants. What did this have to do with Judaism? Social Justice? Tikkun Olam? Actually, everything. Individual Mayan women from the little village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes in Guatemala wove each kippah. The organization, Nueva Generación, coordinates a women’s co-op that provides the women with a sustainable wage to help support their families. The RAC graciously allowed the kippot to be sold and over $1,000 was raised – money that goes directly to the Nueva Generación preschool that educates the youngest residents in the village.
Nueva Generación was recognized as a 2013 recipient of the Irvin J. Fain Social Action Award. It is a project coordinated with the Raleigh congregation, Temple Beth Or. What started as an initial attempt to place some of the most needy children in schools has grown to a 501(c)(3) organization that provides over 125 scholarships, a preschool, a co-op and congregational service trips.
With the age of Internet and ease of travel, Guatemala is closer than you might think. It is home to over 6 million indigenous Maya where there are 23 different Mayan languages still spoken today. Guatemala experienced a 36-year war between the military and resistance. The war saw hundreds of Mayan villages razed, innumerable human rights violations, displacement of a million people and over 200,000 lives lost. The United Nations has classified the conflict as genocide. Guatemala exhibits one of the most extreme combinations of systemic poverty and inequality in the hemisphere. The indigenous populations suffer from malnutrition (rates of which rank among the worst in the world), poor health outcomes, racism, high rates of illiteracy and low levels of educational attainment. Together, these factors virtually guarantee that the next generation will be no better off than the last.
During a presentation at the Consultation, Rabbi Sidney Schwartz explained that as Jews we can no longer look at our immediate clan or environment as our neighbors. In this age, the world is our neighborhood. And as Jews, we have a responsibility to move outside ourselves and reach out to the entire global community. This is what TBO and Nueva Generación are doing. They are reaching out to a small community and trying to improve people’s lives and help facilitate a more productive future. Seeing education as a human right, scholarships are provided to children who otherwise would not be able to attend schools. $150 covers one year of elementary education. It is a small price to provide the foundation for a new generation of learners and community contributors. If every Reform congregation (all 900!) committed to one student, every child in the village would receive an education. Yes, there are more villages and many more children in many more countries. But we as Jews would have a huge impact in one place. Just like the quote by Edward Hale, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”
So the opportunity is there for the Reform Jews in the North America to make a difference in another part of the world. Money will provide scholarships, service trips provide hands-on assistance and can be easily organized, and kippot can be purchased and worn as a symbol of social justice. Temple Beth Or has their next trip planned for December 20-30, 2013. A service trip for your congregation can be organized for a group of 12-20 members. Activities such as building houses, constructing chicken coops, volunteering in the preschool, and offering medical clinics, all can be arranged. One week of service can change lives forever for the recipients and the participants. My hope is that every congregation will make this commitment, help our neighbors, and fulfill the obligation of tikkun olam. For more information, please email Cindy Schneider at or visit www.nuevagen.org.
Cindy Schneider is the Social Action Chair at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, NC.