09/14/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

Who Is a Jew? Standing Before God Before the Days of Awe

In the Jewish world, this time of year feels like kibbutz galuyot -- an ingathering of the exiles. As the Yamim No'ra'im, the Days of Awe, beckon, so many of us Jews become restless, uneasy, about our own Jewish selves.

If we're religiously observant, we may be uncomfortably admitting to ourselves how timely the demand is for our heshbon nefesh (accounting of the soul). If we're secular, we may be feeling a little restless, a little uneasy, about how to express our own Judaism. Stay home from work and read a good book? Go on a meditative hike in the wilderness? Just fast on Yom Kippur? Bite the bullet and go to a service? And if so, which service, and when to get there and how long to stay?

"You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God," our parashah (Torah portion) this week begins, calling to us to face what that means, that standing before God, that accounting for our being, that soul inventory, that heshbon nefesh, we may have long been putting off. And if we are not only regular shul-goers but actually even believers all year round, the words that open Parshat Nitzavim beckon to us to probe, take account of, what it signifies to us and what it demands from us, to be a Jew, to live fully as a Jew.

"Who is a Jew?" the Israeli Supreme Court all too often finds itself asking. What does it mean, truly, to be a Jew?

Though I myself have ranged from being a passionate shul-going little girl Jew in Belle Harbor, N.Y., to an adamantly secular Jews-are-a-people-not-a-religion Jew during my years in Israel, followed by an evolution over the decades to an egalitarian left-wing Conservative rabbi-Jew here in Los Angeles, it wasn't until this past August, as a member of the American Jewish World Service rabbinic delegation to Challenging Heights, in Ghana, that I experienced the most profound, resonant, answer to that question of what, in its essence, it really means to be a Jew.

Our delegation included 17 rabbis -- men and women, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and trans-denominational -- to Challenging Heights, just one of the more than 400 NGOs that AJWS supports all over the "global south," the poverty-stricken nations of Meso and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, including India, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand. CH was founded by a man named James Kofi Annan, who, along with his older five brothers and sisters, had been sold by his poverty-stricken parents into slavery -- like thousands of other young poor boys and girls in Ghana -- on the fishing boats of LakeVolta. James managed to escape after seven years; he was all of 13. Miraculously, he went on to go to school, even to university, and eventually became a manager at Barclay's Bank. A modern day Moses, James left the bank to devote his life to redeeming the children of Ghana from slavery. With the support of AJWS, he has sought to end child trafficking, rescue and rehabilitate child slaves, help the parents to find a way out of poverty, and above all educate these once enslaved children them alongside other children who are desperately poor.

Challenging Heights and the surrounding village were rich with energy and bursting with shy but robustly friendly children eager to know our names, sing with us, hang out with us, hear stories from us or just hug us. At the same time the village's poverty was omnipresent. Though, as Ruth Messinger, the Executive Director of AJWS, insisted that we recognize, other places in the world are much much worse -- much, much poorer. The poverty we saw all around us went into our gut: the single faucet of cold water for the surrounding community; the stench of the open sewers and constant eye-singeing smell of burning garbage; the rubbish-strewn fields, the untreated teeth of the villagers; the eyes of the elderly blinded by cataracts; the 16-year-old orphaned boy who explained that his scars were the result of his beatings by a child trafficker or the little girl who confessed that she never quite had enough to eat. One day we took a trip to the Cape Coast slave castle where, below the elegant rooms of the 18th and 19th centuries British governors, Africans captured by slavers had been chained together in dungeons with a tiny window allowing just a tinge of light during the day and barely enough air to breathe. We saw the chains. We saw the drawings of the slave ships. The 25,000,000 men, women and children who survived capture and imprisoment in the slave castle were eventually forced out through the infamous "Door of No Return" to board ships to the Americas, to the sugar cane fields of Jamaica, the cotton fields of the American South. Those who resisted were locked up without light or air till they died.

Every morning, after a meditative hour in Sacred Space, we rabbis got to work: We mixed cement and hauled blocks to build a concrete-block house, an outdoor space for washing, and a wall enclosing CH; we helped level a playing field for soccer. Indeed, we held a Rabbis vs. CH soccer match (and to everyone's surprise, the rabbis almost won).

And then, in the afternoons, we studied Jewish spiritual sources about the nature of our obligations to one another and the dynamics of our ethical choices, the nature of community, tzedakah and social justice. "To whom are we responsible?" the texts asked. Our young, articulate, committed group leaders guided us in learning about the nature and shortcomings of current global aid, and the nature and root causes of global poverty, and how addressing such poverty means emphasizing all aspects of human rights; the ways in which public health challenges, lack of access to eduation, environmental degradation, and gender inequality and conflict are all interrelated challenges, and in order to effective, responses require a holistic response, one that addresses the interrelationship of these factors.

We learned about the necessity for the empowerment of women and the power of micro-loans; and, quite painfully, we learned of the terrible consequences in poor countries of current American food policy regarding disaster relief. And we learned how the vagaries of American politics have devastated family planning clinics all over the global south with disastrous social and economic results.

We learned the power of advocacy. AJWS taught us, showed us, modeled for us, how each of us, all of us, one by one and together, can make a difference.

Throughout our time at Challenging Heights, the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel reverberated in our sessions: "In a free society," Heschel said, "some are guilty, all are responsible."

And we knew we were responsible.

At the same time, the call-and-response chant of the children and leaders of Challenging Heights echoed in our ears: "Challenging Heights! Challenging Heights!" the children sang out with their teachers: "To whom much is given," called the teachers. "Much is expected!" the children called back.

To whom much is given, much is expected?

We American rabbis knew that each of us had been given infinitely, infinitely more than these young former slaves, more than these children raised in poverty, could ever begin to imagine. How much, then, we thought (I think) is expected from U.S.?

We knew the only answer was: A great, great, deal....

During our time at Challenging Heights, in addition to hauling cement blocks, Ruth Messinger shared her knowledge and experience with us. She told us an anecdote from an AJWS-supported project in rural Uganda:

A farmer walked up to the college-aged AJWS volunteer and said, "I decided that I am Jewish."

The young woman looked at him in surprise. What did he mean?

And the farmer went on, "I'm Jewish," he said, "because I want to leave the world better than I found it."

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheychem....

Kulanu -- all of us -- stand before God -- hayom -- today and, indeed, every day. And each day, whether it is through advocacy, active participation, support, resistance, teaching -- and/or by refusing to buy the products of multinational corporations that pay slave wages to workers, or that destroy environments, for example -- we can honor that which, beyond all else, is most Jewish about us: We can make this a better world than it is now -- a world less mired in poverty, human rights abuses and suffering.

As the prophet Isaiah reminds us on Yom Kippur:

"Is this the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? ... No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness ... and let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke share your bread with the hungry...."

Secular? Observant? Orthodox? Reform? Go to shul? Go on a hike?

I like to think that the Ugandan farmer had it right: A Jew is a person committed to leaving the world better than he or she found it.

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah!

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