Slow Dancing with Roxanna
Amichai’s Reflections from the Dominican Republic
and four more postcards from a week with AJWS Global Justice Fellows
On Sunday night, January 15 2017, I returned to NYC from spending a week in the Dominican Republic with the Global Justice Fellows -14 other Jewish clergy leaders from across the US, led by Ruth Messinger and her fantastic team from AJWS – the American Jewish World Service. Our group bonded beautifully and by the end of the week each hug was deeper and the connections made stronger. We will all need each other in the years ahead, come what may.
This sense of solidarity in its deepest and most urgent sense is at the core of what this journey was about for me.
“With global economy comes global responsibility” said one of the rabbis as we started the journey. The challenge of being attuned to both local and global needs, as aware human beings and as spiritual leaders, feels now more pertinent than ever.
This was a journey, not a trip, and we were there as witnesses, not tourists, focused on exploring the challenges for human rights and civil justice on this beautiful Caribbean island, as a way to learn more about the local needs as well as the greater global reality facing us all. The journey was profound and inspiring, agitating our minds and hearts to know more, do more, rise to the challenge of widening the scope of our moral imagination and stepping up the much needed moral courage in our own lives, communities and country – rippling out towards better lives for others – everywhere.
Throughout the week we met with impressively persistent people who are being stepped on by their peers and leaders for their race, gender, sexual identity or way of life. They shared with us their stories of self and struggle, organized resistance and resolve, as they keep on rising up with courage to fight for their rights.
Some of the stories brought up haunting echoes from the painful past of our Jewish histories, including the recent horrors of the Holocaust. The unfolding reality in the United States, yet unknown but deeply foreboding, was present at each of these encounters, reminding us that we were not just here to learn about these local justice battles but also to take on tools and strategies with which we may just need to fight for our own existence back home.
With all that going on – why bother with another foreign crisis?
How can one handle all that’s needed in the world – including Israel and Palestine so close to home and now that we are have got to focus on our own backyard?
This journey, planned months before this last election, reinforced the deep values of responsibility in its most expansive sense, as humans, as Jews, and as spiritual and communal leaders.
Counter intuitive to the instinct to just focus on the needs most local and most pressing to whatever ‘me’ and ‘my’ may mean for every one of us, this was a week long lesson in the truer meaning and value of the current global truth of ‘we’. The digital has nixed the sense of distance, both for better and for worse. We can click and donate, love and hate long distance, but can our empathy and solidarity stretch as far as our wifi does without minimizing the responsible love we focus on at home? For me it’s now not about the why but about the how.
‘Our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outwards from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society and the world..’ Wrote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The Talmud teaches that when it comes to helping others ‘The people of your town come first.’ It makes sense and that’s what will always end up happening, but what’s ‘our town’ in this global reality? What are the borders of responsibility? How do we prioritize and have others on our mind and heart not only when the Tsunami hits or the earthquakes but on an ongoing basis?
Here lies the radical challenge, now, for many of us in the US, perhaps a must: expand our empathy, our activism, our reach and impact towards the greater good for the greater us.
We can’t do it all but we can do more than just take care of our most local us. And starting with real activism on the local level is perhaps the best place to start.
One of my takeaways is to know more and get engaged more with my local goverment – get to know the people elected, their priorities, needs, how I as clergy can be more of help towards root causes and ongoing challenges. The vacuum left by so many of us who can’t be bothered with the business of politics and government leaves a dangerous opening that ends up falling into the hands of people motivated by agendas that don’t always further the values so cherished by so many of us, the values that brought me to the US in the first place.
And I also want to try and find time to start learning Spanish… But more on that some other time.
It’s Impossible to capture a full week of so much depth and so many stories and so I’ve focused on four reflections/postcards from the journey. I hope that these reflect some of the experiences and inspire others to be more, do more, lean in and learn more about what and how each of us can be a bigger and more helpful piece of the puzzling puzzle of the greater we and greater good. I’m deeply grateful to the tireless Ruth Messinger and the extraordinary team of AJWS in the US and abroad for this ongoing labor of justice and love.
1. Electric Chair on Main Street
When we checked into the hotel the night before, on Catholic Isabella Street, named for the Spanish queen that sent Columbus on his way to claim this island, around the same time she exiled all the Jews from her land. The modern hotel in the middle of the Colonial Zone had some curious old features and I joked that it has been the old Inquisition Headquarters.
Now it wasn’t funny anymore. What the hell was this chair, this room? One of our guides explained later that this is the old site of the Museum of Dignity – recalling the brutal regime years of the most recent dictatorships spanning most of the 20th century, and honoring the resistance and how it was handled. Now the museum was closed and while the tourist industry was bustling in the colonial area, in Santo Domingo and the beaches beyond, here was this quiet memory, hiding behind a door on a main street, an ominous echo of terrible days and horrible truths, never too forgotten or too far.
In the days ahead, as we learned more about the histories of this island, its rulers and rules, aspirations and oppressions, the memory of that accidental peek into the many ways a city does or doesn’t want to tell its secrets would resurface in my mind.
2. Jenny’s Hair is a Problem
When Jenny, a Dominican citizen, went to get her Government ID reissued recently she was told to brush her ‘kinky’ hair to look more European and ladylike – or she will not get her ID. This, she told us, was just one, and almost comical, aspect of the hostile racist tone that is increasingly responsible for so many of the discriminatory policies that make the lives of Dominicans of Haitian Descent (AKA – black or bi-racial) so difficult and troubling.
We met Jenny on our first day, along with her colleagues from MUDHA, THE WOMEN DOMINICO-HAITIANS MOVEMENT, founded in 1983 by a group of Dominican women of Haitian descent living in the bateyes (marginalized poor communities) in the country, committed to improve the living conditions of these vulnerable communities, especially for women and children, while implementing human development programs including health programs, legal assistance, and human rights.”
We drove through the beautiful beach town on our way to Palmarejo Batey, the former sugar mill/plantation now still populated with thousands of Dominicans and Dominicans of Haitian descent – in varying degrees of poverty. We sat in a school that is privately funded – supported by MUDHA and AJWS to meet the students, hear about their dreams, count our blessings, commit in some way to help towards theirs.
500 years of colonial attitudes have turned this luscious island into a tourism destination for some and a literal prison for so many others.
Since 2010 the Dominican Government has issued a series of laws based in a new constitution that strips those of Haitian descent of the right to citizenship. This is a democracy. For tens of thousands living here, perhaps more, some documented, some not – it simply means that they don’t know if they are still citizens. Without the ID there can be no school, work, health care, bank account or even cellphone purchase.
In some ways this IS slavery – continued. The government gets to have very cheap labor from Haiti, deport the workers, get new ones, and not have to provide them with the citizenship and its benefits. While this country thrives and more hotels are built for more wealthy tourists – the Haitians and some of those who immigrated here generations ago are living way way below poverty line and are at constant risk of depression. Last year 40,000 were deported and 60,000 fled.
This can happen anywhere.
What gives you hope – I asked our interpreter, R, with bright blue hair and a big smile. ‘Hate Watch’ she said.
I must have looked puzzled so she explained: I sit down to watch one of the TV shows that I know I will love to hate, and I bring popcorn and a friend. House Hunters is a favorite – watching rich people fight over millions of dollars worth homes because the kitchen is too small.. So I hate for a night, and then I let it out of my system and focus on happy. Also, I dance.”
Later that day we enter a Jesuit community center, Pope Francis smiling on posters everywhere, where we met with activists from Reconoci.do – a local NGO created by young Dominicans of Haitian Descent who are fighting for their basic civic rights.
‘They don’t want us here’ a woman in her 50’s, determined to finish her college education and become an attorney, was telling us. “And it’s only because of our skin. The policy is arbitrary, confusing, every clerk will tell you something else, this is now way to live or raise a family.”
It’s a more complex situation, with the government offering other official reasons for these recent regulations but from what we could tell and from what several experts shared with us – this situation is affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands, ignored by most in the society, and used by the government to scapegoat the weaker, exploit them and benefit from greater profit for the few in charge.
As a fairly new American citizen I sat listening to these stories, fully aware of my present privilege of safety and how I may not taken this security for granted. Statelessness and legalized citizenship removal as an early sign of greater harm is a memory I carry from the stories of my father and family members who did and did not survive World War 2. It’s not identical but a similar reality to what’s happening right now in Palestine and Israel. I remembered that time I was abroad and lost my passport and my wallet. What a nightmare. Imagine living like this all one’s life.
3. The US Embassy, Tears and Off the Record
What of any of this can now happen in the US?
Though we came to learn of what the challenges are in this country, the lessons learned could not have been more troubling – with each conversation we compared the notes with what we hoped would not become reality back home. Each encounter with the courage and creativity of those resisting offered us more tools and narratives with which we too may one day, maybe soon, will need to act.
We headed to the American Embassy, a glossy new fortress like compound, for an informal session with one of the political officers, to learn more of the US policy on matters related to human rights in the DR.
President Obama’s smile welcomed us from the reception hall wall of the US Embassy. How soon before it is replaced, we asked each other as our passports were processed and exchanged for visitor tags.
I recalled the email sent to me a week ago from a friend who works in the State Department: ‘we are are in the middle of the most earth shattering transition ever in US political history.’
(Later that same evening we watched the president’s last official speech in our hotel room, unable to stop ourselves from concerned notes of comparisons about regimes and transitions, justice and its pursuit, and the long arc of history that sometimes, elusive, makes life so harsh for some or all of us.)
Ambassador Brewster, we were told, would not be meeting with us, mostly because he and his husband are hurriedly packing. The incoming Trump administration demanded, with no prior precedent, that all politically nominated state department staff leave their posts by the inauguration on January 20th.
Brewster and his team are acknowledged and regarded here as responsible for some impressive progress on human rights issues. But it is not assumed, I was told by that same friend who emailed me last week, that the incoming Secretary of State would make human rights a priority – domestic or foreign.
The meeting was cordial and informative. Our group of clergy went around introducing ourselves and where we come from. Leaders of the local NGO’s dealing with the human rights issues stated facts, updates and concerns. The officer who met with us, familiar with the facts was kind and attentive to the stories and concerns.
After the meeting, standing in the hallway where Obama was still smiling, I thanked the officer, for the compassion and clarity, sharing that the meeting reminded me of my late father, who was also a civil servant and served Israel as a diplomat and Consul General. He was also a Holocaust Survivor, and his legacy to me and my family and to all those whom he loyally served, was to not give up on humanity, no matter what. In the weeks and months ahead, I wished the officer, I hope you find the courage to keep on doing what you are doing for all who require hope and help, and that you, like so many other brave officials who found ways to rise for freedom step up with risk but not harmed in body or spirit or employment.
We both teared and hugged.
On our way out we checked out the portrait gallery of ambassadors, including, who knew, Frederick Douglas, the second of a long line of US diplomats to serve in this island. We waved to him and to Obama, and drove away, so grateful to get back our passports from the guards. In later days we would learn more about the complicated and implicated roles that the US has played in shaping the reality in this Island – both in the DR and in Haiti. Some of what we heard is chilling. None of know what’s ahead but history is showing us, as Heschel famously said, that we may not all be guilty, but we are all, in many ways, responsible.
There are a few of us rabbis on this mission who are children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. After the embassy visit we walked around the Colonial Zone, sharing some of the stories of survival, horrible ordeals and courageous/lucky tales of those we love. For all of us one theme resonated: ‘Never Again’ was and us not just about Jews. We, proud of our heritage, take seriously the call to rise up with moral courage to the injustice and the plight of people. Period.
We sat for drinks in a beautiful plaza overlooking the harbor, grateful for the privilege, counting our blessings, hoping for the best – for them, for us.
More about the stateless crisis HERE
4. Slow Dancing with Roxanna
ASA, a local NGO that is in effect the LGBT center in Santo Domingo, stands across the street from the presidential compound where most of the government offices, largely hostile to the queer agenda, proudly raise their flags. A single rainbow flag now waves at them across the street.
The Dominican flag features a cross and the bible in its center – the only flag in the world, by the way, to feature the Good Book, and this strong Catholic influence is one of the reasons why in this as in so many other countries, anything but straight is frowned upon and worse – as opposing church, society and God.
ASA is the acronym for Friends for Friends in Spanish and is the main LGBT organization in this country, fighting for legal rights, acceptance and building community for the marginalized, proud and increasingly loud. We met with some fierce activists and learned of how they started, one by one, in recent decades, to claim their rights and take on the hostile attitude so much the product of a Macho society where ‘men are men’ and deviation is a crime. I grew up in a similar reality, as so many of us did, and it was important and inspiring to see how here too, brave men and women and others on the spectrum rise up, with humor, flare and courage to defend their lives and be who they, we, are.
Just last year the annual film festival that ASA and a few other LGBT groups created, with funding support from AJWS, was held at the local national theater, filled to the max. “Just seeing couples walking in the door, unashamed, men with men, women with women, is a sight worth all the humiliation and hate” we were told by Deivis Ventura, a local activist and one of the founders of ASA, another key LGBT NGO, charismatic and intense, recently the first openly gay man to run for office. He didn’t win but won great attention and is not deterred from continued fight for political power and cleaning up the ‘webs of discrimination’.
The next day we met with the leader of Cotravetd – Transgender activists, fighting for the rights, their dignity and working towards changes in constitutional rights that will allow them to be who they are – beyond binary norms. Their way of survival in this society, as is the case in many other contexts, is through sex work.
This impressive group of fighters, for the most part born males and now identify as females, shared with us horrendous stories of abuse and incredible examples of courage and resolve. Taking care of one another, of the younger ones now coming out and reaching out to them for security and solidarity, they founded an organization that challenges Dominican society with demands for acceptance, dignity and love just as they are.
We sat around a table having lunch of fish and plantains, rice and beans- rabbis and transgender sex workers, not a typical scenario, sharing, though our wonderful interpreters, our dreams and hopes and what we share in common – yearning for more diversity, acceptance, tolerance and less violence, hostility and fear of what is challenging the systems that defined society for so many generations and now are slowly shifting, maybe slower than a lot of us would like. And now, with added ferocious anti progress vigor. They blessed us to continue doing what we are doing under Trump and to not lose hope. We sang, together, the grace after the meal.
Later that night, a few of us rabbis headed out to a local gay bar, meeting up with a few of the Transgender leaders we met earlier. They spoke no English and but for one of us, we sadly spoke no Spanish, but one round of drinks later, there we were dancing, smiling, simply together, people present for each other just as is. Roxanna, one of the local leaders with whom I sat at lunch and who shared her moving story, grabbed my hand and led me to a dance. I”m not a great dancer and I think she was making some Salsa moves and I’ll admit I wasn’t sure who is supposed to lead, nor how.. I let it go, I let her lead, and looked directly into her eyes. hand to hand, eye to eye, face to face, panim el panim, we danced, we smiled, human beings in a meeting that will likely not occur again, that had no words but had, has, all the makings of an intimate, sacred encounter, a holy of holies of human dignity in its most precious, messy, sacred sense.
we hugged goodbye, kissed on cheeks. I promised her, with just my eyes, to not forget her and her plight and project, to share her story, to pray for her, to keep supporting, to find ways to fight together all the systems that continue to demand our silence and our fright.
5. Sister to Sister
Almost all our conversations with the local activists and groups relied on the translation between Spanish and English, expertly delivered by three savvy smart women who interpreted for us and later shared with us more information about what was said – and what was not.
We quickly realized that in Spanish AJWS was truncated to AJ – and it sounded like the Hebrew word ‘AHOTA’ – sister. On our last day together Rabbi Ayelet pointed out that this random link makes so much sense to our growing sense of sisterhood – especially with all the remarkable women leaders we have met on the journey and the ones, like Ayelet, who were part of our group.
On our way to Shabbat in the mountains, several hours from the capital we arrived at a community center dedicated to the memory of Mama Tingo – a local heroine who died defending her land against local land barons. The center, founded in 1982 in one of the women’s backyards, takes on one of this country’s worse problems – femicide.
It was January 14 and already 7 women had been killed in 2017 in the DR by husbands or partners.
Domestic violence, consistent rape of girls and young women, religious resistance to contraception and anti abortion laws are just part of a much larger systemic problem that the women we met here shared with us.
As we sat there, hosted generously with music, singing, fruits and fish, they told us that the Senate was meeting to consider revisions for the new abortion laws – possibly considering that in cases of rape, incest and the baby’s danger – those may be permitted. They didn’t think this has a high chance but still worth fighting for and update the 19th century law. Current penalty for those assisting an abortion could be 10 years and up. For the woman herself, 3 years and up. Fully enforced. A doctor who sat with us confirmed that death rate among teen girls who try it themselves is alarming.
Marta, beaming and regal, one of the local leaders of this local center focused on improving the lives of women, girls and the rest of their society, welcomed us with song. Later she said – ‘even though we sing and dance and sing some more – it’s very very hard. With every win we also lose a little. But we have to fight for the future of our girls. The next 10 years will see some progress. There is no other way.’
The Book of Exodus, one of those included in the Bible that looms so central in the Dominican flag and life describes the precious work of co-creating sanctuary. The Mishkan, a moving tent for worship and the presence of divinity was a product of community – materials donated, labor distributed by all members of the tribe. The walls were fabric, connected to each other ‘as one woman to her sister’ Exodus 26. The Hebrew word is AHOTA – her sister and this startling image invokes the deep sense of sisterhood, of solidarity, of art and celebration of the sacred – then, and now.
What I witnessed during one week in the DR was a lot of sanctuary building, many sisters and brothers coming together, hand in hand, to rise up to what was wrong and what they know, we know, is right.
We sang together, danced together, wept and hoped and sat in silence – together. We with privilege and passports, each with our own memories and fears and stories and scars. Many of the folks we met with dreams identical to ours, merely separated by the circumstances of their birth, challenged, like our ancestors, like so many on this planet at this moment, to rise above.
Why worry when you can sing, pray, act, organize, hope, dance or hug?
We sang this song, with variations, over and over this past week, taught to our group by Rabbi Annie Lewis, as we began our journey, an anthem linking us like tabernacle walls to each other in harmony, many voices linked as one.
Now what? Like Marta said, we keep on singing. Keep on marching, not lose sight of bigger global picture, bear witness, enlarge our sense of human responsibility and moral courage, one song, story, journey at a time.
We flew back into NYC on MLK Day. One of the inspiring sources we were looking at during the week was the speech delivered in Washington DC by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a German refugee and one of the Jewish leaders of the Civil Rights Movements. He spoke that day just before Dr King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
“Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept” Prinz said to the multitudes gathered in the mall. “It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”
Gracias Dominican Republic, good days and nights ahead to all. Adios. For now.
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie
All other photos by Amichai Lau-Lavie