On the overcast afternoon of November 7, Tarbut v’Torah hosted its Social Action Sunday Program sponsored by Jewish World Watch (JWW) and the Bureau of Jewish Education. The program, termed by its organizers as an “activist boot camp,” the program consisted of four separate stations designed to involve, engage, and get students thinking about the conflict in the Congo. Four groups of students spent about half an hour at each station before moving on to the next one.
As staff members put it, the conflict in the Congo revolves in great part around deposits of certain minerals found throughout the Congo jungle; mainly tin, tantalum (also called “coltan”), and tungsten. Such elements are used in our everyday electronics, from cell phones to laptops to iPods. As one staffer put it, “We may well be unwittingly helping to continue genocide. JWW has signed onto a coalition letter to the electronics industry, which may very well be supporting these militias by purchasing the minerals fueling the conflict. Some people have asked why Jewish organizations have become involved in the Congolese conflict.”
Mina Rush, JWW’s synagogue resource director, has an answer that hits home to many Jewish families. “JWW was founded in 2004 after the genocide in Darfur. It’s modeled after the ‘never again’ idea the Jewish community has developed about the Holocaust,” Rush explained. “The violence in the Congo can’t be ignored; 5.4 million people have been murdered, and 75 percent of the world’s reported rape occurs in the Congo. These women are purposely destroyed in front of their own families.”
In order to educate students about the conflict and move them to action, the first station at the activist boot camp took place in the school’s computer lab and library. In the computer lab, students learned how to create advocacy e-mails meant to inform their community and local businesses about the controversial minerals fueling the conflict. In addition, students also wrote e-mails to US senators and President Obama to bring their much-needed attention to the matter. Students in the library collaborated with staffers to help create a DVD to send to electronic businesses telling them not to use the minerals at the center of the Congolese conflict.
The second station, led by Congressman Ed Royce’s representative Ryan Hougardy, took place in the school’s theater. Hougardy informed students on how to set up meetings with elected officials, how much teen advocacy can influence US politics, and the power of effective lobbying.
“It’s important to refer to legislation by its number and not its name,” Hougardy stated in an example to students of how to communicate with their elected officials. “Otherwise we won’t know what you’re talking about… And always be sure to follow up with the official about two weeks after your meeting. It keeps our mind on the issue and shows us how much it matters to the people.”
The multipurpose room housed the third station, where staffers explained to students examples of aid stations and programs the JWW has set up on the ground in the Congo funded purely by philanthropies. Staffers presented information on the Healing Arts Center, which provides a sewing collective for raped Congolese women, and the Bukava Burn Clinic, which brings Congolese doctors to Israel in order to train, and then sends them back to the Congo to help burn victims. Also presented was the Safe Motherhood Project, which helps raped women regain the skills necessary to care for their families, and the Gender and Justice Program, which trains Congolese attorneys to inform the locals about their rights and helps rape victims bring their assaulters to trial. Afterwards, each student was given $100 and told to decide where, of the four presented philanthropies, to donate their funds. By the end of t he program, it was the Gender and Justice Program that won the majority of the students’ funding.
The fourth station was held in the art room. There, students made signs and banners in order to bring their communities’ attention to the Congo genocide and engage them. The signs were also being made for the JWW’s 3rd annual Walk to End Genocide, scheduled for April 3, 2011.
“In 2004, we asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing for Darfur besides talking?’” Rush said. “So we began to develop in relief and development as well as political advocacy. Our mission is divided into three categories: to educate, to advocate, and to provide relief and development. We want to bring people’s attention to the matter. We want to make them understand that our lawmakers work for us. When he was asked what his biggest regret was, (Former President) Bill Clinton said he wished he had gotten involved with Rwanda while in office. This is just more proof that if it’s important to the people, it will become important to the President. And the people on the ground don’t just need aid – it helps them out immensely, but they also need a future, hope, and peace. We need to keep them alive after we help them.”
In an age where children can find distraction and self-fulfillment as close as leveling their knight to level 80 on World of Warcraft, the JWW’s advocacy boot camp goes a long way in keeping kids involved and informed about the world around them. As teens grow and develop, it can be easy for them to become absorbed in the social difficulties of high school and growing up, so much so that by the time they reach college they may have failed to develop a direction they’d wish to pursue in life. Programs focusing on real world issues, such as the JWW’s on the Congolese conflict, are an excellent way to keep teens grounded in reality just enough to help them foster an idea of what they’d like to do in life.