What are we doing here?

Members of our group plan to take turns blogging, so I won’t be sharing every detail of our trip every day. That being said, each day is so full of experiences, questions, and reflections that I want to share with you.

So today, let’s explore how a nice Jewish girl finds herself in Kenya in the first place.

When I was asked to be involved with this trip, I couldn’t say no. Let me admit up front that I love to travel, and I have always wanted to go to Africa. But it’s not just the location of this trip which drew me in; it’s the vision.

Here’s the idea behind this journey, as I understand it:

The Israeli government and Jewish community often encourages Jews to travel to Israel. Makes sense, right? But lots of Jews, and especially younger Jews, don’t necessarily connect to Israel on a gut level. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is painful, complicated, and seemingly interminable. On top of this, for progressive Jews, the struggle for religious pluralism and equal rights in Israel also has taken a toll on our connection. In all of this, we sometimes lose sight of the extraordinary ideals on which the country was founded, and the many remarkable aspects of Israel’s modern reality.

This trip is a pilot project (a group also came to Kenya from LA earlier this year) to show a different side of things – and in particular, to raise awareness of something most of us don’t know about. I, for one, had no idea that Israel does development work in Africa, much less that it’s been doing so for sixty years. This trip gives us a chance to see what’s happening on the ground. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to engage with questions that are at the heart of Judaism. Namely, what is our responsibility to the world around us? How do we make a positive difference, in the transformative work of tikkun olam? What is our role, as Jews and as citizens of the world?

We are struggling with those questions even just at the end of our second day. Here in Kenya, we are confronted with extreme poverty affecting the most vulnerable members of society, even as we see a country with a vibrant culture, co-existence, and a growing middle class. We see the difference one individual can make, even as we witness an overwhelming amount of need. We are extremely aware that the money spent on our airfare and accommodation could put food in hungry bellies and books on empty shelves.

So what are we doing here? We are trying to come with humility; to listen; to connect. We are trying to ask questions which I think all of us, in this global village, should try to ask. And we are learning.

I’ll close with two examples from today.

First, we started at another school adjacent to a slum. 580 kids, 25 teachers. The school has a partnership with a school on a kibbutz in Israel; the kids are pen pals, and they speak by Skype. Through this connection, the head of school studied in Israel for a month, on a program intended to support educational leadership in the developing world. Most recently, the Israeli embassy here in Nairobi paid to dedicate a room in the school as a library. We got to celebrate its inauguration today.

Israel’s deputy ambassador, Michael Baror, spoke movingly to the students. He told them to hold onto their dreams whatever obstacles they faced. He said: “Israel is small, and it has problems. People often tell us that we can’t do things, but we succeed and we prevail, just like you will succeed and prevail… hold onto your dreams and do the hard work, and you’ll get anywhere you want to.” In a country which is working so hard to extend opportunities to the poorest of the poor, the message resonated – even as it challenged us.

In the afternoon, we met with ACTIL, the Africa Centre for Transformative and Inclusive Leadership. This organization, based at Kenyatta University, is in partnership with the Israeli development agency, Mashav, as well as with UN Women. It works to develop leaders – especially women – who have the potential to transform African society in the areas of politics, business, agriculture, and more. The director, Josephine Odera, spoke about the importance of having “an unlocked mind,” namely, the ability to see possibility beyond an inherited system of belief, and thus to question the status quo.  This seems to me to be highly relevant in Canada as much as in Kenya. Here too, we were both challenged and inspired.

Thanks for following us on our journey this far. We have an extraordinary group assembled for this trip, and I know we will all be looking forward to continuing these conversations when we get home.