Last week, Rabbi David Saperstein – director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism – engaged in a three-day fast to raise awareness of the situation in Darfur, inviting rabbis from the four major streams of Judaism to join him.

Among those who heeded his call was Rabbi Debra Hachen, religious leader of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter.

In all, 80 rabbis from five countries joined Saperstein in his fast.

“Fasting is a traditional part of Judaism, usually accompanying the memory of a great tragedy or deep repentance,” Saperstein said. “But here we must do a fast as a protest and as an emblem of solidarity with the individuals in the camps, sharing the plight of too many in Darfur – water but too little food.”

On the day of her fast, Hachen told The Jewish Standard that she was “working a regular day” but would be speaking on the subject that evening at a board meeting, as well as at Shabbat services.

Explaining why she decided to participate, the rabbi said, “I chose to join to overcome some of the ‘fatigue’ around this issue, to motivate myself and my congregation to continue to be advocates.”

She also joined “in order to create some new publicity… that would focus on the problems humanitarian aid organizations have faced [in Darfur] and the ongoing disease, malnutrition, and violence that we should all be working to end.”

Hachen added that “fasting is a good way to dramatize the situation because it focuses intention for the one fasting, and because it is a symbol of solidarity with those who are truly suffering.

“I applaud Rabbi Saperstein – and others [such as actress] Mia Farrow, the American Jewish World Service, and Savedarfur.org – for encouraging the rest of us to get involved and raise our voices this way.”

While some activists have been disgruntled in recent weeks by the Obama administration’s Darfur policy, Saperstein and AJWS president Ruth Messinger believe the White House is moving in the right direction. Both say the administration has the correct goals in its sights, even if there appears to be some disagreement on how exactly to reach them.

Messinger released a statement last week criticizing the administration’s “contradictory signals” on Darfur after the Obama administration’s Sudan envoy, Scott Gration, told reporters that the Sudanese government was no longer engaged in a “coordinated” campaign of genocide and saying that “what we see is the remnants of genocide.”

Two days earlier the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, had said that Sudan was committing genocide.

The State Department has since reaffirmed that it believes that genocide is still taking place. But Messinger says the mixed signals concern her because they draw attention from the humanitarian situation in the region.

“It was not helpful,” she said, and the kind of thing that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir “loves” because “he can say the Americans don’t even agree. From our point of view, that’s not where we want to keep the focus.”

Messinger says Darfur activists want to see the administration “more focused on speaking with one voice. We don’t want them to downplay the urgency.”

Bashir expelled 13 international aid groups in March, and activists say that has left more than 1 million people without access to food aid and 1.5 million without medical care.

Amid reports that Gration has suggested relaxing sanctions as a carrot to win Sudanese government cooperation, some Darfur activists have worried recently that the administration has not moved quickly enough to put a clear policy in place.

Messinger says she would like to see exactly what the United States might offer to Sudan before judging the plan, but says she is encouraged that the administration is focusing not just on the humanitarian situation but on ensuring that the comprehensive peace agreement achieved earlier this decade between the north and south regions of the country remains intact.

The agreement, signed in 2005, ended a more than two-decade civil war but set up an interim period, due to expire in 18 months, that culminates in a vote on secession by the southern region. Key territorial issues and other disputes that would factor into any secession have not been addressed.

Saperstein echoes Messinger, noting that while there does appear to be a disagreement within the administration on “tactics,” he is reassured that everyone is on the same page on objectives – particularly stressing the importance of the north-south agreement.

He says that even if, as Gration said, there has been a decline in killing, “we’ve been down this road before.”

Jewish Standard/JTA