As Barack Obama was sworn in earlier this week, many in the country felt a moment of hope that things would soon improve in America and the world. UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey is addressing some of these issues, beginning this weekend with a Holocaust commemoration to bring attention to the genocide in Darfur and next month with an Economic Crisis Resource Fair.
UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades are co-sponsoring Sunday’s event at the JCC, which will feature a talk by Sudanese refugee Simon Deng. The event, billed as a commemoration of U.N. Holocaust Remembrance Day, was intentionally scheduled to coincide with the remembrance, said Ruth Siev, JCRC’s project coordinator. The official U.N. commemoration day is Thursday.
“This is also a holocaust,” Siev said. “At that time [the American Jewish community] didn’t know what to do. We were powerless. Now, we are much more aware and have to raise awareness and consciousness in the whole community so that these kinds of atrocities are stopped from taking place.”
Deng was raised a Christian in the Sudanese village of Tonga. When he was 8 years old, he watched the Sudanese army sweep into his village. A friend was shot in the leg trying to escape, while two of the village’s blind elders were burned alive in their homes, according to his biographical statement. When he was 9, Deng was kidnapped and then given to a slavemaster in the country’s north. His new masters urged him to convert to Islam, but Deng refused. Eventually he escaped and became a messenger for the Sudanese parliament before moving to America.
In March, 2006, Mr. Deng launched the Sudan Freedom Walk, trekking 300 miles from United Nations headquarters in New York City to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to call for an end to slavery and genocide in Sudan. The walk culminated in a meeting at the White House with President Bush. After departing from the U.N., the group of about 14 made its first stop at Gesher Shalom in Fort Lee, where Martha Cohen first met Deng.
“He is the perfect representative of what is going on in the Sudan,” said Cohen, chair of the JCRC’s Israel and World Affairs committee. “Unfortunately, we’re still back thousands of years ago with slavery and genocide still going on in the world. The rest of the world doesn’t want to address it, they just want to shove it under the rug.”
Holocaust Remembrance Day is an appropriate time to remind people of the genocide in Darfur, said Rabbi Steve Golden, the JCC’s Judaic director. Advocacy for Darfur began in the Jewish community, spearheaded by American Jewish World Service, and the Holocaust provides a reminder to the Jewish community not to stand by in the face of other genocides, he said.
“The only meaningful response, aside from recording the testimony of survivors and prosecuting Nazi criminals, is understanding that this is the genocide that’s happening in our generation,” Golden said, “and if we remain silent then ‘Never again’ is meaningless.”
In February, the JCRC, through its Jewish Leadership Forum, will bring together 14 social agencies for an Economic Crisis Resource Fair at the federation’s Paramus headquarters. Organizers hope those looking for help will find it and also that those looking to help will become volunteers for organizations that now face increasing demand but diminishing resources.
“At this difficult time when everybody’s campaign is suffering, we can at least be a network for people to find help,” said Gale S. Bindelglass, chair of the Jewish Leadership Forum. “We care very deeply and we want the community to understand in a tangible way how much we care.”
Volunteers at the fair will collect toiletries, diapers, paper towels, and similar items for the needy, which, Bindelglass said, are not covered by food stamps.
Agencies expected to participate include both Jewish Family Service organizations, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, the YJCC of Bergen County, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey, National Council of Jewish Women, and the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. Many of the participating organizations are “anxious” to offer their services, said Alice Blass, UJA-NNJ’s Get Connected & Mitzvah Day coordinator.
“They’re very anxious to offer their services and be of assistance in any way they are capable of being of assistance,” she said. “And if they are not [able to assist] then they can steer people.”
For information on the Economic Crisis Resource Fair, call Blass at (201) 820-3948. For more information on Sunday’s event, call Siev at (201) 820-3949.