Rabbi Elie spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, was selected by the American Jewish World Service as one of fourteen rabbis and cantors from across the United States as the 2017 class of Global Justice Fellows. This program educates and trains American Jewish leaders to advocate effectively as Jews in support of international polices that advance human rights. The 2017 Fellowship began with an educational trip to the Dominican Republic.
The Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti to the west. It’s known for its beaches, resorts and golfing. Its terrain comprises rainforest, savannah and highlands. But, there is another side to the glitz of those resorts and the folks who inhabit them. In the past, Haitians were welcome to the other side of this island and were the primary workers on the sugar cane plantations.
However, when the plantations no longer needed manual labor, those workers and their families were left destitute.
“Recently, the Dominican Republic changed its constitution to deny the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of people born in the Dominican Republic—an unprecedented act that created the largest stateless population in the Western Hemisphere. As a result, thousands of people, including those who are Dominican-born, are at risk for deportation from the Dominican Republic, which would whisk them away from their homes, livelihoods and families and send them to neighboring Haiti, a country that many of them do not relate to as their own,” states the AJWS.
To prove that they are “citizens” they are required to get a birth certificate – a process that is fraught with obstacles, especially for those who were born at home. “To get a birth certificate, one has to jump through a myriad of hoops, seemingly designed to make it as difficult as possible to attain that document,” commented Spitz. Without a birth certificate, a child cannot go to school.
“I was struck by seeing people ostensibly stuck because of poverty and political challenges,” said Spitz. “But it opened my eyes how Jews can make a difference in honoring indigent people and helping them organize to further human rights.”
Among other things, the AJWS is committed to supporting the work of marginalized communities in the Dominican Republic to advocate for human rights by using the courts and media advocacy to defend equal rights for Dominicans of Haitian descent; educating marginalized communities about their human rights and helping them gain access to education, medical care, employment benefits and other critical services and organizing communities to confront gender-based violence and discrimination.
“We, as Americans, should know that we have an embassy with tremendous influence,” added Spitz, and the AJWS can open doors to help make those changes.”
“I was honored to have been selected as one of the fellows, and impressed as to how the AJWS selects its grantees,” said Spitz. Grantees include: fifteen women who educate against violence, schools for children without birth certificates and a transsexual worker who is organizing a film festival to give gay men a sense of dignity.
“We went as rabbis (and cantors) as witnesses to the needs of the people and emissaries who can introduce them to Judaism’s focus on justice,” said Spitz. “It is the Torah which gives us all a collective command to see the world through the G-d’s eyes who is the parent of all of creation.”
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.