LOS ANGELES (JTA) – The simplest innovations sometimes lead to the greatest rewards, as Rachel Andres learned this week when she was named the 2008 recipient of the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize.
The annual prize is awarded to a person or team of people younger than 50 whose Jewish values spark humanitarian efforts that help improve the world.
Andres in her work provides succor to some of the most helpless and brutalized people in the world – 10,000 refugee families, mostly fatherless, who have escaped the massacres in Darfur
The genocide in the Sudanese province, now in its fifth year, has claimed an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 civilians. Some 2.5 million refugees, predominantly women and children, have been displaced.
For the past two years Andres, 45, has directed the Solar Cooker Project of Jewish World Watch, which has expanded from a small Los Angeles base to synagogues, churches, schools, Girl Scout troops, civic organizations and individual contributors across the United States, as well as parts of Canada and Australia.
The solar cooker concept is an elegantly simple response to a terrifying fact of life facing the women and young girls in the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps on the Sudan-Chad border.
While foraging for scarce firewood outside the camps for basic cooking and water purification, the women and girls were in constant danger of gang rapes by roving bands of Arab militiamen.
If the women could somehow find an alternative source of heating within the camps, they could largely eliminate the assaults, reasoned Andres and her colleagues.
Her answer was a sun-powered cooker, made of cardboard and aluminum foil, at a cost of $15 each.
Andres discovered a small Dutch company to furnish the material, which is shipped to the refugee camps. Doubling the mitzvah, the cookers are assembled in small camp plants by the women and girls older than 14, who get paid for the work and become income earners for their families.
Some 15,000 cookers have been distributed, which have also proven an environmental boon, slowing the deforestation of the region and cutting down the time women have to spend over open brick fireplaces.
Since each family needs two of the $15 cookers, Jewish World Watch has pitched its donation appeal at $30. More than $1 million has been received to date from some 20,000 contributors, mainly in $30 donations, though there have been larger gifts.
In the Los Angeles area, nearly 60 synagogues, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox, have joined up with Jewish World Watch.
As Andres was talking to a reporter Monday, she interrupted herself to announce jubilantly, “I just got an e-mail from the United Methodist Church in Seattle and its members are sending us $3,200.”
Andres, born and raised in Dallas, has been an activist since graduating from UCLA with a degree in political science. She credits her paternal grandmother for her sense of Jewish responsibility toward others, regardless of race or religion.
“Bubbe left Suwalki in northern Poland in 1919 and came to Texas,” she said. “Most of her family stayed behind and 22 relatives perished in the Holocaust.”
Andres said her grandmother had three sons, worked in her husband’s grocery store, wrote four books of Yiddish poetry, met new immigrants at the airport and helped settle them, and was involved in the Arbeter Ring, the Workmen’s Circle.
“Her legacy to me was her sense of social justice,” Andres said. “She was larger than life.”
In following that inspiration, Andres worked for 10 years at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as the director of its Commission on Cults and Missionaries, and subsequently as a volunteer for AIDS Project Los Angeles and in various other projects, including the the Museum for the History of Polish Jews.
Andres and her husband, Ben Tysch, the chief administrator for the regional Planned Parenthood, live in Los Angeles with their two children, Ezra, 10, and Rebecca, 6. Andres serves on the board of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation.
Asked how she manages her many responsibilities, Andres laughs.
“I really don’t know, I’ll have to think about that,” she says, adding after a pause, “It’s a bit of a juggling job, but I’m focused on whatever I’m doing. I try to give it my all.”
Andres says she will use the $100,000 prize money “to expand the solar cooker project to more camps and to publicize the desperate needs of the refugees.”
She and her colleagues are asked sometimes why they spend their energies on the suffering in Darfur rather than focusing on specifically Jewish and Israeli concerns.
Andres agrees with the answer provided by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the Jewish World Watch co-founder with Janice Kamenir-Resnick.
“Some people say about the Darfur genocide that it’s an internal matter, that reports have been exaggerated,” said Schulweis, the spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. “These are the same excuses we heard during the Holocaust.
“There is always an alternative to passive complicity. If we now turn aside, that would be our deepest humiliation.”
The Charles Bronfman Prize was established by the children of the Canadian philanthropist in honor of his 70th birthday.
Andres is the fourth person and the first woman to receive the prize, which will be formally awarded May 6 in New York.
One member of the prize selection committee, Israel’s former minister of justice, Dan Meridor, summed up the basis for this year’s choice.
“The thread woven through Rachel’s life and professional career is that of uplifting others, especially the neediest, so that all individuals may live to their fullest,” Meridor said. “Caring for others is among the highest Jewish ideals, and Rachel’s work fully embodies that ideal.”