When you want to help the victims of injustice, it is not enough to hear about their suffering secondhand and then decide what they need, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck said.
Instead, it’s more effective to speak directly with people who already are addressing these problems on the ground, and to find out what they are doing and what they need.
“It’s important that the action always roots back to the partnership with the persons being affected by injustice,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster, the deputy director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She’s been with the group since 2007, and recently returned from a trip to Guatemala. T’ruah includes 2,000 rabbis and cantors “using their moral voices to speak out against human rights abuses in the U.S. and Canada, Israel and the West Bank,” she added.
Rabbi Kahn-Troster was part of a rabbinic delegation that visited Guatemala in January as part of the Global Justice Fellowship run by the American Jewish World Service. AJWS — which works to fight poverty and promote human rights in the developing world — brought 15 rabbis to Guatemala to meet with leaders of nonprofit groups working to advance human rights there. Guatemala is one of the Central American countries that residents are fleeing, looking for work or asylum in the United States.
Rabbi Kahn-Troster has been interested in the work of AJWS for a long time. She believes that what she learned from her first trip with the group in 2004 — a visit to El Salvador for rabbinical students — “really had an impact on what I did as a rabbi.” She applied for the Global Fellowship after hearing “great things about the program as an opportunity to see AJWS’s work on the ground. I wanted to see what they do.” She now is in the middle of the fellowship program, which runs from October to March.
In Guatemala, the rabbinic fellows met with advocates fighting for legal protections for human rights activists whose work puts them at risk of violence, midwives who provide maternal health support for indigenous women, and members of an independent journalism collective led by young Guatemalans who work to expose human rights abuses. The rabbis, who were joined on the trip by AJWS Global Ambassador Ruth Messinger, also met with top leadership at the U.S. embassy.
“I learned a tremendous amount,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. It was particularly helpful not just to hear about their efforts, “but to meet the people making the change. AWJS grantees in Guatemala are extremely inspiring,” she said, noting that protests were going on throughout their visit in response to the government’s expelling a United Nations-approved team of corruption investigators.
She also appreciated the diversity of her colleagues. “There were only two from the New York City area,” she said. “It was a nice cross-section, a good geographic spread.”
The trip, she noted, “wasn’t just about civil or political rights. We met with midwives who are holding on to their cultural rights to work with women. This is human rights on a different level — advocating for the health of women. We also met with younger women working to fight patriarchy in their traditional societies, for example, by getting elected. Change happens on a lot of levels. This was a really comprehensive way to see how AJWS is working to protect human rights.”
In March, the rabbinic fellows will go to Washington, D.C., to talk to members of Congress and other government officials about international human rights issues. According to an AJWS statement, “these fellows will play a key role in educating the public and elected officials about the importance of U.S. leadership on the global stage in standing up for human rights and ending poverty.”
Rabbi Kahn-Troster said that if one thing surprised her, “It was the way in which people had hope. There’s a museum in Guatemala City about the history of resistance. I’m coming to understand that pain is a part of healing. There’s so much pain among people whose communities are being displaced. But there’s a sentiment that change is possible.
“Sometimes insisting on your right to life is a form of resistance,” she continued. “It should remind us to keep the long view of the struggle ahead even when the immediate future seems bleak. After all, our ancestors didn’t cross the Sea of Reeds and immediately end up in the Promised Land. They ended up in the desert, with sand and more struggle.”
She also was struck by the fact that “as a human rights advocate, I don’t face the same kind of danger” as the Guatemalan activists do, but she fears “the criminalization of activists” even in our own country. For example, she cited the accusation during the hearing for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh that protestors against his confirmation were paid for their dissent. “The targeting of activists doesn’t start with violence,” she said. “It’s making people suspicious of those who make changes.”
Emotions ran high throughout the Guatemala trip, “hearing so many stories and seeing so many people,” she said. “One lawyer we met with talked about not just taking people’s cases but being partners in the work. There’s a dedication to bringing forward the voices of the people most affected. There was a painful moment when one indigenous man talked about his people being displaced. He cried, and then he apologized.”
Rabbi Kahn-Troster said she is not sure what will happen to the refugees who are turned away from the United States. “If we want to think about solutions, we must understand the factors causing them to flee,” she said. “No one leaves home because they want to.” She recalled seeing a statue on the way to Quetzaltenango. “The statue is dedicated to an emigrant, someone who is leaving. It’s of a man waving goodbye. It’s heartbreaking.”
She is looking forward to the Washington visit in March. “We’ll help elected officials understand the fight against corruption,” she said. “It’s more powerful to have met with the people — not just visiting but hearing from the people most affected.” She also is eager to strengthen the partnership between T’ruah and AJWS, stressing the “importance of fighting for democracy at home and abroad.
“Democracy is under attack here and in other places,” she said. “We have to speak out against laws that criminalize activism, and we have to support freedom of the press.”
Rabbi Kahn-Troster and her husband, Paul Pelavin, have two daughters, Leora, 11, and Aliza, 9.