Prayer Weekend for Sudan Victims Marked in Congress and Synagogues

The hustle and bustle in one of the larger Capitol Hill hearing rooms drew to a brief standstill recently as congressional representatives, clergy, activists and journalists paused for a moment of prayer on behalf of the people of Sudan. The July 19 commemoration occurred in the course of a congressional event launching a National Weekend of Prayer and Reflection for the situation in Sudan, observed Friday through Sunday by thousands of religious congregations around the country.

The post-Holocaust mantra “never again” echoed throughout the chamber as more than a dozen members of Congress rose to address the crowd.

In welcoming the participants, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who organized the event, said humanity has a moral obligation to ensure that the “darkest moments in history” are not repeated and that the weekend serves as an opportunity to speak out against the situation in Sudan.

“America was founded on the fundamental principles of justice, freedom and sanctity of life,” he said. “Humanity cannot afford to sit back as genocide unfolds once again before our eyes. We must raise our voices in hope and prayer for the people of Darfur before it is too late.”

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) called on the audience to “lift up” the people of Sudan in peace and prayer.

“Please, this weekend, pray,” he said forcefully. “Pray like you’ve never prayed before.”

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) spoke of the significance of the phrase “never again.”

“Never again is a phrase we have all heard before,” she said. “We have all said it before. Never again will we let 6 million Jews perish under the noses of the civilized world. Never again will we let Rwandans be rounded up and indiscriminately killed because of their tribal affiliation. Never again will we allow ethnic cleaning in the Balkans.”

“My colleagues,” Lowey said, “there is a problem with the phrase ‘never again.’ It is usually said after the violence is over — as a rallying cry against history repeating itself. We have seen, time and time again, that history does repeat itself, and it is simply not enough to say we will prevent it next time. We must end the genocide in Darfur now.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) recalled saying “never again” in the Capitol rotunda in commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day, and said she looks at the situation in Sudan both as a Jew and as a grandmother.

“I don’t want to have to look into the eyes of my grandchildren and have them ask me, Grandma, you were there, you were in Congress when all those innocent lives were taken; what did you do?’ ” she said.

Millions of Americans participated in the prayer weekend as houses of worship held awareness events and religious leaders dedicated their sermons to the Darfur crisis.

Hundreds of synagogues took part, with some providing congregants with information on how to contact their elected officials and others encouraging the recitation of prayers chosen for the occasion.

At the Orthodox Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Md., Bar Mitzvah boy Gavi Brown led the congregation in reciting a prayer he had written on behalf of the people of Sudan.

Rabbi Marcus Burstein of the Reform Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., spoke to congregants about the importance of action.

“What have you done?” he asked congregants.

Drawing on a statement from the American Jewish World Service, Burstein reflected on the opportunity for self-reflection provided by the week’s Torah portion, Balak. He noted Abraham Joshua Heschel’s assertion that “in a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

“We may not be guilty,” he told the congregation, “but we are all responsible.”

The temple also provided congregants with a suggested script for appeals to elected officials as well as information from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Burstein said.

Burstein said his congregation has held numerous activities to raise awareness about the situation in Sudan over the past year, including a Darfur Shabbat with a speaker from the region and fund-raising activities that have brought in several thousand dollars for the victims.

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