Clearing the killing fields

Clearing the killing fields

Barnert contingent visits Cambodia, raises funds to build school there

Rabbi Joel Soffin has led outreach projects all over the world — in El Salvador, Argentina, Ukraine, and Ethiopia. But last year, after reading an article by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on human trafficking in Cambodia, he knew that country would be his next destination.

In January, Soffin, social action rabbinical scholar-in-residence at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, went on a fact-finding mission to Cambodia. With him were Sara Losch, Barnert’s director of lifelong learning, and temple member Suzanne Levy. Also on the tour were congregants from Soffin’s previous congregation, Temple Shalom of Succasunna.

Children gather at a school outside Phnom Penh.

Describing his job at Barnert as "coordinating and inspiring social action," Soffin — who served the congregation as sabbatical rabbi from October ‘006 to April ‘007 — spoke to The Jewish Standard from Maine, where he is serving as sabbatical rabbi at Bet Ha’am synagogue in South Portland.

In "Fighting Brothels with Books," published in December ‘006, Kristof states that while "building schools doesn’t solve the immediate problem of girls currently enslaved inside brothels … [l]iterate girls not only are in less danger of being trafficked, but later they have fewer children, care for their children better, and are much better able to earn a living."

Inspired by the article, Soffin — then sitting shiva for his brother, a teacher in Buffalo — realized that not only would building a school in Cambodia help the trafficking problem, but it would also be a fitting memorial for his brother, who worked with Buffalo City Honors, established for "kids who would otherwise be left behind," said Soffin. "I was thinking of him and his legacy."

Rabbi Joel Soffin, back row center, led a fact-finding mission to Cambodia in January. From left, standing outside a school are group participants Phylis Sapherstein of Temple Shalom, Sara Losch of Barnert Temple, Suzanne Feldman Levy of Barnert Temple, Susan Zuckerman from Temple Shalom, and Aaron Soffin.

Still, he noted, "While my initial motivation came from the Kristof article, once we were there, we went to the killing fields and the genocide museum. There was a building with ‘0 floors of human skulls. Does that sound familiar? Their souls were calling out ‘never again,’ but it happened again."

He said he also learned during the trip that "the people there want to learn how to take care of themselves, they don’t want handouts. They want to create their own future.

"Someone told me that they want their children ‘to use pens, not guns,’ a very Jewish vision. That solidified it for us."

Calling the trip both "exhausting and life-changing," Losch said that "the current reality is that children who do not go to school frequently wind up being trafficked into prostitution. We needed to understand why. Though I knew all about Pol Pot and the killing fields … the horrors of Cambodia were something I learned, watched on TV, but didn’t connect with. So, not to be tourists but to help us understand why we should build a school there, we needed to really understand what had happened."

Soffin, who created the Adult Mitzvah Corps of the Reform movement, said that the first step he took in planning the venture in Cambodia was to meet with former journalist Bernie Krisher, now head of the aid group American Assistance for Cambodia. According to Soffin, Krisher’s group facilitates the creation of schools in Cambodia with the assistance of private donors, the Cambodian government, and the Asian Development Bank. The organization has overseen construction of some 403 schools since it was created in the late 1990s, he said.

"They’re trying to offset some of the losses that resulted from Pol Pot’s policy of genocide in the 1970s," said Soffin. Pol Pot killed some ‘ million Khmer people between 1975 and 1979. He noted that Cambodia is trying rebuild without the aid of the educators, artists, and entertainers who were killed during those blood-soaked years. Last year, only one out of every two Cambodian children completed primary school.

"One hundred percent of the schools were closed," said Losch, "relegating the country’s children to work in rice paddies and fields. The brutality was inconceivable. As Jews, we certainly are no strangers to such evil, yet even for us, the [sight] of skulls stacked shelves high, or walking on human bones, was devastating. We said Kaddish while standing with our tour guide, for a brother he never saw again."

Before embarking on the school project, Soffin’s group set out to learn whether building a school would, in fact, be the best way to help. The six participants — including his son Aaron — visited schools and spoke with experts on the issue of human trafficking.

"We wanted to find out if education is the way, or if there is something else that would be more effective," said Soffin. "It was uniformly agreed that education is the answer," he said, noting that what they learned only reinforced the feelings aroused by Kristof’s articles.

From Krisher, Soffin learned that if a certain amount of money could be raised, the Cambodian government would add additional monies, as would the Asian Development Bank. The rabbi is now appealing for funds from within and outside the Barnert community.

His goal is to raise $60,000, which will pay for the education of 500 children. Soffin noted that the money would fund five classes, each serving 50 children, in two shifts. It would also allow for "extras." He explained that while a school can be built for $13,000, with the government ready to step in and provide teachers and a curriculum, private donors can also select things off a "wish list."

Items on that list include some of the features he saw while visiting several schools during his January trip.

"In the schools we visited, the kids were thriving, happy, and learning. There was a well, water filter, vegetable garden, nurse, solar panel, library, and English teacher," he said. His plan is to provide some of those features, funding a generator rather than a solar panel so that a school will be able to support the use of 1′ computers. In addition, he said, without ongoing funding, a school cannot continue to operate.

Soffin hopes to finish his fund-raising efforts in June. Besides reaching out to the community, he will make a contribution to this effort from his own foundation, Helping Hands. As part of this effort, he said, his son is uploading a movie of their Cambodia experience on his Website,

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