Grass roots get active for Darfur

Teens 4 Peace members protest the Darfur genocide, April 22, 2005, in Washington. (Teens 4 Peace)

Teens 4 Peace members protest the Darfur genocide, April 22, 2005, in Washington. (Teens 4 Peace)

NEW YORK, July 26 (JTA) — For most college students, road trips are a time for relaxing and escaping the rigors of school. But for Talia Kahn — no relation to this writer — a 10-day car trip served a far loftier purpose: to educate people about the genocide occurring in the Darfur region of Sudan. Kahn, who is entering her junior year at McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., recently joined four friends — Melinda Koster, Betsy Marder, Daniela Urban and Candice Camargo, all college students or recent graduates — for a whirlwind tour of Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara, among other locales, where the quintet spoke at various schools and synagogues and distributed fliers and solicited petition signatures at grocery stores. The group also met with several state legislators in Sacramento, as well as staff members at the offices of Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, to encourage them to speak out on Darfur. The initiative by Kahn and her friends is one of a growing number of grass-roots efforts by Jews throughout the country who have taken it upon themselves to raise awareness about the genocide in Sudan. The violence in Darfur began in February 2003 when government-backed Arab militias launched a systematic campaign to wipe out members of three African ethnic communities. According to the United Nations, more than 400,000 people have died, and 2 million have fled their homes. Many of those involved in raising awareness of the violence say a chief motivating force in their activism is the Jewish people’s history of persecution, adding that they believe their Jewishness entails special social responsibilities. Kahn and her friends were particularly well received at Adolfo Camarillo High School in Camarillo, Calif., where the group spoke to several classes about the situation in Darfur and urged them to sign petitions and write letters to local newspapers. The visit “was really inspiring because a lot of the students were really appalled that they hadn’t heard of this,” Kahn says. Individual members of the group had been promoting activism about Darfur on their own campuses, and Urban says they wanted to bring some of that awareness to the broader Jewish community. The five first met last spring on a trip to El Salvador sponsored by the American Jewish World Service aimed at promoting social justice and global responsibility. The recent road trip, which received partial funding from the AJWS, was a follow-up project designed to apply the lessons and skills they learned on their El Salvador visit. Urban notes that the road rip to has made her realize how much one individual can achieve. “We were really touched by how much we were able to accomplish,” she says. “It really encouraged me to take on similar projects.” In California’s Marin County, grass-roots work took a somewhat different form. Gerri Miller, a retired teacher and a lay leader in the county’s Congregation Rodef Shalom and the Jewish Community Relations Council, founded a local organization called Dear Sudan, Love Marin, which seeks to raise awareness of the Sudan crisis among local synagogues, churches, schools and other community groups and collect funds for the relief effort. Miller says the initiative was inspired by a similar effort in neighboring Petaluma County — known as Dear Sudan, Love Petaluma — launched by the Church World Service. The two groups have inspired several similar initiatives across the country. The groups’ titles refer to a symbolic letter to the people of Sudan that expresses each county’s solidarity with their ordeal. “The letter basically says we refuse to turn our backs on genocide,” Miller says. “The way it was written really spoke to me as a human being.” In addition to its educational and fund-raising efforts, Dear Sudan, Love Marin is organizing a public candlelight prayer vigil slated for October. Marilyn Hirsch, an activist in Contra Costa County’s Temple Isaiah who founded Dear Sudan, Love Contra Costa, says religious groups of all denominations in her community have united in support of the Darfur issue. “It’s truly an interfaith effort,” she says. Both Hirsch and Miller say they’ve been particularly encouraged by the support they’ve received from local federations and organizations such as the AJWS. Still, though the AJWS has helped publicize their efforts and provided them with information about the crisis, the initiative was entirely their own. “It’s a grass-roots effort in the Bay Area to become a leader to raise awareness,” says Elizabeth Friedman-Branoff, the director of the AJWS’ Bay Area regional office. “People are encouraged not only to do something themselves but to spread the word back to their communities.” Grass-roots efforts haven’t been limited to college students and synagogue lay leaders. In Yardley, Pa., Rachel Koretsky, 12, raised more than $10,000 in her community for Darfur victims by sending letters to synagogue congregants, organizing raffles and selling plastic bracelets that read “Save Darfur.” Jaime Bergerson, who will be a junior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Md., this fall, recently founded Teens 4 Peace, a nonprofit organization that seeks “to empower and utilize the energy, interest and resources of teens to address issues of social injustice and to become a force in addressing their resolution,” according to the group’s mission statement. Bergerson says that while the group aims to address a wide range of social issues, Darfur is at the top of its agenda. Teens 4 Peace presently has more than 100 chapters in high schools across the country working on petitions, letter-writing and divestment campaigns, and educational programs on Sudan. Last April, Teens 4 Peace organized a rally protesting the Darfur genocide in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington. More than 500 people attended, Bergerson says. Bergerson is also working on a film documentary about the crisis, which will feature interviews with family members of people who died in Darfur. Bergerson says she was inspired to found Teens 4 Peace when her English teacher told her class to write essays about the atrocities in Sudan. “As someone who’s Jewish, I think it’s particularly important,” she says.

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