Out of Africa
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Out of Africa

Hoboken's Rabbi Robert Scheinberg travels to Ghana

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg learned many things from his recent trip to Ghana with the American Jewish World Service.

Most important, “The AJWS Young Rabbis Delegation made us confront directly the fact of global wealth imbalance in a way we often don’t,” said Scheinberg, religious leader of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. “I had known about it intellectually, but had not really experienced it with my heart and my eyes.”

The trip-which took place July 24-Aug. 5-brought 16 rabbis to Ghana to learn about global poverty while studying Jewish texts and engaging in a hands-on service project.

“I think one of AJWS’s goals in organizing this trip was to help the American Jewish community [understand] what it means to be a global citizen in Jewish terms, and to get issues of global citizenship on the Jewish agenda,” said Scheinberg. “I feel like those kinds of issues are now irreversibly on my own agenda.”

The Hudson County rabbi said he was impressed by the AJWS approach, “which is to be careful not to impose solutions from the outside, but to find and fund visionary leaders and help them have the resources they need to achieve their vision.”

Ruth Messinger, AJWS president, said grantees tackle problems from child slavery and human trafficking to environmental sustainability and food self-sufficiency. Mission participants work hand in hand with AJWS-supported organizations.

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Rabbi Robert Scheinberg helped build a computer center for abused children in Ghana. Courtesy Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

In Ghana, volunteers worked with members of Challenging Heights (ChallengingHeights.org), which helps educate children who have been sold into slavery or forced into dangerous employment. Founded by James Kofi Annan, a survivor of child trafficking, the group is premised on the belief that education can transform the lives of abused and vulnerable children.

According to its website, the organization also supports at-risk and poor families “to ensure that children are protected from slavery and the worst forms of child labor through education.” It is estimated that 1.3 million children in Ghana are affected, “many of whom are engaged in the worst forms of child labor.”

Scheinberg’s group-consisting mostly of rabbis in their mid-30s to mid-40s-helped build a computer center.

“We stayed in a fishing village outside of Winneba, two hours from Accra,” said the rabbi. “In the morning, we worked on the construction site and interacted with the kids in school. While everyone is multi-lingual, English is Ghana’s only official language. Not everyone’s was good, but we were able to communicate.”

“It was wonderful for us to create bonds with people in the community-kids, teachers, construction workers,” he said. “It helped us realize that we need to build up those kinds of relationships. We didn’t just present a check, but rolled up our sleeves.”

Scheinberg noted that the primary problem in the village he visited is child slavery. “Families are desperate enough to sell their sons, justifying it to themselves by saying they’re apprenticing them to fishermen,” he said. “It starts at age 6.”

The current rate for a child laborer is $40 for a two-year contract. Fishermen seek small children as workers because they can fit more of them on their boats and because they need the children’s small fingers to untangle nets.

“It’s horribly dangerous work,” said Scheinberg. “There are many kids who drown.”

“The children are treated as property,” he said, pointing out that even children who survive or escape don’t have many options. Without Annan’s school, some would still be vulnerable.

Messinger said the rabbis’ mission included religious leaders from across the denominational spectrum. Following their daily work sessions, rabbis spent afternoons and evenings learning about social justice and global responsibility from Jewish texts and traditions.

Scheinberg said that one question the rabbis confronted during their study sessions was, “What are our circles of concern, and how do we balance our responsibility to ourselves, our families, our extended families, our community, the Jewish people, and the world as a whole?”

Even given participating rabbis’ differences in theology and approach to Jewish tradition, “We didn’t feel there was a difference among us in terms of the answer,” said Scheinberg, noting that all agreed outreach must extend beyond the borders of one’s own community.

Messinger said that AJWS provides the rabbis with follow-up materials for domestic programming when they return.

“Many have given sermons and divrei Torah about their experiences, written essays, and made donations to AJWS from their discretionary funds,” she said. “They tell us that the program has deepened their passion for global justice and that they are eager to share this passion with their communities.”

Scheinberg has already spoken to synagogue members about his trip, “and I know that this has just begun,” he said.

It is unlikely, however, that he will participate in such a trip again. “I think I can be most helpful being here and telling the story,” he said. “Any of the construction work done by the rabbis could have been done more easily by the Ghanaian workers. The real purpose of our being there was to have the experience and come back and tell the story-about Ghana and about how 80 percent of the world is living.”

“When people ask, I say it was terribly troubling to see it, but extremely inspiring to see how some of the problems that seem to be intractable can actually be addressed by visionary people and organizations,” said Scheinberg. “Slavery is such an important theme in the Jewish story. If there’s anyone Jews should feel a kinship with, it’s with people who have endured slavery and been liberated.”

Missions such as these enhance the image of Jews abroad, said Messinger. “It means we get to be seen as a people committed to social justice [while] respecting local people’s capacity to plan for themselves. Particularly when we take rabbis, we’re building a cadre of people who are leaders in the Jewish community and who will use their various pulpits, classrooms, etc., to engage Jews in global efforts.”

For more information about the American Jewish World Service, visit ajws.org.

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