Barnert launches Africa Initiative

Barnert launches Africa Initiative

Barnert member Debby Zlotowitz visits the congregation’s sister school in Uganda.

When Ruth Messinger – president of American Jewish World Service and recent appointee to the White House Task Force on Global Poverty and Development – spoke last week to 175 people at Barnert Temple, she was addressing a group that is already heeding her humanitarian message.

According to Rabbi Elyse Frishman, religious leader of the Franklin Lakes congregation, the shul has ongoing relief programs in Africa and is poised to launch three new initiatives in Darfur, Rwanda, and Uganda.

The congregation’s Africa Initiative, launched at the Oct. 18 meeting with Messinger, will include a youth program to raise relief funds and awareness for victims in Darfur as well as projects linking Barnert with schools in Uganda and helping nascent women’s cooperatives expand their effectiveness in Rwanda.

“We’ve told the members of the congregation that if anyone has a particular nation they want [to help] or a project they want to do, we will help them do it,” Frishman said.

The rabbi noted that students Amanda Kroll and Amanda Lomega, both sophomores at Glen Rock High School, are coordinating a January concert, “Peace through Music,” with proceeds to go toward relief efforts in Darfur.

“They’re looking for high-quality performers,” said Frishman. “They’ve already begun screening.”

A second project, under the rubric of Positive Planet – founded in 2003 to create and support partnerships between school communities in the United States and in rural Uganda – will link the congregation to a “sister school” in Uganda.

“We’ll raise money to help them build a well,” said Frishman, explaining that young girls responsible for going to streams to draw water do not have time to go to school. Monies from this project may also be used to renovate a school, build a classroom, or send books, she said, noting that congregant Debbie Zlotowitz has been actively engaged in the project and recently returned from a trip to Uganda.

The shul’s third project is centered in Rwanda, where Aaron Soffin – son of Rabbi Joel Soffin, the congregation’s social action scholar-in-residence – is filming a documentary cataloguing stories of survivors of the Rwandan genocide. In the course of this work, she said, Soffin “has come into contact with women looking for support through micro-loan projects,” a venture the synagogue will now support.

Frishman said she was delighted that Messinger, who heard about the congregation’s work in Africa, “cleared her calendar to be with us. She spoke for about 40 minutes about the American Jewish World Service and its 400 grassroots projects, 36 in Africa.”

The rabbi explained her congregation’s focus on Africa, noting that factors such as colonialism have worsened the situation there, “a part of the world so rich in heritage and wisdom, yet so challenged by poverty and lack of opportunity.”

“We see our [Jewish] mandate to help as universal,” she said. “We bring all the gifts that have been granted us to bear upon the condition of others.”

She noted that Jordan Namerow, a 2001 graduate of Ridgewood High School and now a senior communications associate at AJWS, had served as an intern for AJWS in Uganda, prompting her decision to pursue a career in social action.

Frishman said about 30 percent of Barnert’s members are involved in projects of social action. The first step in enlisting their support, she said, is “awareness.”

“There are many ways for people to help,” she said. Members can become involved in the congregation’s social action board and, if they choose to become part of the Africa Initiative team, “they can work with religious school students on the solar cooking project, help with the concert, or petition the government on Darfur.” The solar cooking project, previously described in this newspaper, is an effort to help the families of Darfur refugees in camps by relieving women of the need to scavenge for wood, which makes them vulnerable to attack.

Members of the public can join the group’s efforts as well, said Frishman.

For more information, visit the synagogue’s Website,, and follow the link to the social action committee.

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