The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

February 27, 2014 by

At Compassion’s Edge

vawaThe snow that doesn’t quite seem to stop falling this winter was also falling consistently throughout the winter of my tenth grade year of high school. As a teen, as gunmen shot in the suburbs of DC near my home and wars raged around the world, I was very bothered by the “state of things”, and I just wanted to do something about it. So, the night before Chanukah, I decided to prepare gifts for my friends at the day school I attended. I printed little cards that read:

Happy Chanukah! A Donation has been made to American Jewish World Service in your honor.

I taped a candy to each one (poorly, I recall. many of them fell off) and handed them out in school to my friends, feeling like I had done my part to fix the world that seemed so broken to me, and that didn’t seem to respect the values I grew up holding: that each person was made in the image of God, and deserves to live a life free of violence and oppression.

Early on in my college experience, though doing Jewish social change work is what continued to make my heart beat faster, I decided to begin to largely shut out issues of global justice from my consciousness. I had become simply overwhelmed by the volume of things that needed fixing around the world, and I was reminded of my high school classmates, as they had rattled off skeptical reactions to my idealistic donation-making approach that Chanukah. I would never get anything done, they had said. 

I struggled with this overwhelming feeling, because I so deeply cared about justice for everyone. But eventually, I decided that, while I wouldn’t be totally silent on global issues, I would stop seeking to be on committees that worked to solve issues thousands of miles away. There were too many stories close to me that I wanted to be a part of transforming.

Furthermore, I wasn’t able to compartmentalize all of the oppression and suffering I saw in the world, but I knew deeply and sincerely that I wanted to be a part of the team that was making the world a better place. So, in my first efforts, I was working on shifting injustices within a twenty-mile radius. I knew I could be strategic and effective on a local level, and that others felt the same way about their potential impact in jetsetting and changing the world on a much larger scale. We would each have our spheres and we would support one another in forging social change.

This year, this calculus shifted unexpectedly for me. I became a part of the American Jewish World Service inaugural Global Justice Fellowship cohort, and we were headed to the Thai/Burma border in early January. I haven’t traveled much; it’s always made me a little tense. There is something about how airplanes are precariously floating in the air, how once you get where you’re going, the food hits your tongue a little differently, and the smells and sounds recall memories that aren’t quite your own. It all feels a little uneasy and unsafe.

This particular trip also brought with it an additional layer of anxiety. My mind had been so full of ideas repairing broken systems and under-served population in the Jewish world and the American world, that I worried I simply wouldn’t have room to contain the suffering of others. I knew that by going and connecting with other human beings on a deep level, I would have to find somewhere to contain it. And I was anxious that I might not be able to.

Recently, I heard an idea that seemed to explain why I had chosen to block out famines and wars on the other side of the globe. On an episode of my favorite radio show that I heard recently, On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Roshi Joan Halifax about what Halifax calls “compassion’s edge states.” Halifax calls them edge states because they call us to our edge, but they can also push us over the edge. They can take us from a place of compassion to a place of sorrow, from a place of being productive to a place being non-productive. One needs tools to be resilient through these states and to take action. One of the tools that can help bring us back to a productive place in the edge state is storytelling. A very familiar practice in Jewish tradition, a story can help connect, bring out common themes, and ground an issue in reality. In fact, the Talmud uses stories extensively to demonstrate the practical applications and human concerns that more tangibly and immediately illustrate a seemingly obscure law.

This trip, these stories, could be the turning point in my edge state. As someone who finds the stories of others to be the glue that holds myself and all of my work and life mission together, how would I integrate these new, incoming, further-away stories without their pushing me over the edge, back to a place of incapacitation?  

Once we were in the air, I was in it. There was no going back. 20 hours or so later, we were on the other side of the world, and my friend reminded me that the same sun that was setting in Thailand was springing right back up again in New York City. My reality froze for two weeks while I was on that trip, and my edge state was transformed. 

Our agenda included many different site visits with AJWS grantees working on the Thai-Burma border (Thailand is a common place of refuge for many Burmese refugees who are living in Burma as oppressed minority groups). One of our first visits was with the Kachin (an ethnic state in Burma) Women’s Association on January 9, 2014. The organization, which seeks to works with refugee women on the Thai-Burmese border to preserve Kachin patterns and styles while empowering them to take control of their lives, was not located in an office building–it was in a home-like structure. The sixteen of us walked in, dispensing our shoes at the door and walking into the dining area-meeting space hybrid. We sat down in chairs and sofas in the perimeter around the room and our bare feet swept the cool floor.

I whispered “Hello” to the woman sitting next to me and asked her where she was from. “Kachin State,” she responded. I told her I was from New York. We smiled gently at one another, until we were interrupted by a group of other women who walked in carrying an eclectic collection of mugs, some with Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture on them, other’s with poignant quotes about feminism. Each mug was filled with steaming Burmese tea and given to us with a smile. A picture of Hillary Clinton rested in a corner shrine with other framed photos of the organization’s logo, its members, and its successes.

I turned back to my new friend. Her English was accented but excellent, and I soon learned a tremendous amount about her, the work she does, and her family. She told me about the Kachin people and their right to self-determination, and about the difficult task of documenting violent human rights abuses, particularly against women. A lot of the work they do begins in churches, she said, and much of the information and action really originates in the spiritual, communal space.  

My colleague then mentioned that I was at Yeshivat Maharat,the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as Halachic and spiritual leaders.

She turned to me, and I turned to her, and the energy changed. We entered into our own moment, and our own conversation. She told me that she has also wanted desperately to see women revered as spiritual leaders, and that she felt honored to be in my presence. There had been a point where she imagined herself as a spiritual leader, but there simply wasn’t that type of movement in her community yet. We spent the next few minutes, enclosed tightly together in a conversation about how to bring our unique qualities to the spiritual conversation, she in Kachin State in Burma, and me in the United States. We talked about the International Violence Against Women Act, which the AJWS fellows would be advocating for upon our return.

I was in love. In love with the world-changing chemistry we had together. I was in love with the fact that her story was a part of mine. Our missions were connected in a deep way. Her story had moved me in my “edge state” from incapacitated to completely motivated.

Images of the work I was doing to battle sexual violence and other forms of violence against women in the United States came crashing into my conscience. The issues suddenly didn’t seem so far away at all, in fact, the broken parts of the world had never seemed so close. I looked at her and realized that if I connected my work with her work, our work towards justice would be a joint effort, regardless of where we were or how we were doing it.

In anticipation of the holiday of Purim, where we exchange baskets of food with one another, I’m including global justice cards again in mine, like I did in high school, but this time they read the following:

Happy Purim! This Purim, in your honor, I am working with the American Jewish World Service on their We Believe Campaign to end violence against women around the world. Help by advocating for the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) and by sharing the stories of women affected by this violence.

If you get one of these baskets from me, give me a call. We’ve got work to do.

Note: A recent piece highlights the amazing work of the Kachin Women’s Association. Also, find more information about the We Believe Campaign of AJWS.