06/06/2014 06:38 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Shavuot in Congo: In Pursuit of Justice

One of only three girls who crossed the gender line to join the carpentry program at Laissez l'Afrique Vivre, funded by JWW with thanks to the Gary Saltz Foundation.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW's work is currently focused on the crises in Sudan and Congo.  Janice and five other delegates traveled to Congo's eastern provinces to work with survivors of the country’s decades-long conflict, which has claimed nearly six millions lives. They will meet with JWW's partners on the ground, with whom JWW works to create innovative programs and projects that change lives and transform communities. To learn more, please visit:


Today we met a Congolese lawyer who strives to convince survivors of sexual violence to testify against their rapists. This would not be such an extraordinary task, but there is a justice system in Congo which does not reliably convict and incarcerate criminals. These women risk not only their position in their community when they admit being raped, but possible reprisals from the original perpetrators. Hence, impunity prevails.

We also met with a group of former child soldiers and orphaned or otherwise vulnerable children who profusely thanked us for covering the cost of their school tuition. While we appreciated their gratitude, we told them that they should not have to thank anyone for paying their tuition; none should be needed, as school is constitutionally mandated in Congo.  Despite this Constitutional mandate, there is no public school in Congo; only those who can afford tuition are able to access this "right to education." Hence, illiteracy prevails.

And, this morning, we visited the pediatric HIV ward at Heal Africa hospital where some 650 orphaned children with HIV (many of their now deceased mothers contracted HIV as a result of rape) have received anti-retroviral drugs and HIV-related education for many years. The program was part of the Clinton Foundation, which has recently withdrawn funding. Without another NGO stepping in, the program will stop, despite a variety of "constitutional guarantees." Sadly, the government is unwilling to provide this very basic service to its most vulnerable populations, even when the spread of this deadly virus is at stake. Hence, disease prevails.

These are the glaring violations of fundamental rights that we observed just this morning in Goma; multiply these examples many times over to get an idea of what we have experienced over the past week. This is a country where lawlessness and impunity are ubiquitous. The resulting chaos leaves tragedy in its wake.

How ironic to be in utterly lawless Congo on the eve of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday which celebrates the giving of The Law (i.e. the Torah) to the Jewish people more than 3,000 years ago. By agreeing to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, the ancient Hebrews acknowledged the importance of the rule of law to create a civilized society. We can imagine the preceding chaos and tribalism which led those beleaguered wanderers to the grateful adoption of a legal system that enforced consequences for injustice. While Moses and his followers were likely progressive visionaries in their day, one would think that more than three millennia after Moses, the rule of law would prevail as a matter of course for all of humanity. Sadly, this is not the case.

Receiving the Torah was, is, and always will be the pivotal, defining event in the creation and evolution of the Jewish people. Judaism, at its essence, includes the celebration and elevation of the just and respectful society defined by the Commandments. I believe that this dedication to a moral legal code (i.e. the Ten Commandments) and the conscience it reflects is the core contribution that the Jewish people have made to the development of civilization.

Never have I been more aware of the wisdom of our core commitment to the rule of law than today, as we usher in Shavuot in this lawless place where we have seen such brutality and suffering. I find it particularly compelling that amongst the Torah passages we read on Shavuot are the laws of Tzedakah, of tithing and of the proper way to treat other human beings. I cannot be in synagogue this year, but I celebrate our Torah and the wisdom of the ancient Hebrews, as my fellow travelers and I do what we can, on behalf of Jewish World Watch, to support the pursuit of Tzedek, justice, in a place where it has yet to become evident.