I saw many powerful things that underscore the progress and possibilities happening in Rwanda, but three insights stay with me forever. All three drive me to think about the unique role Jews can play in addressing social justice on a global scale, and the impact Israel has already had as a partner committed to helping Rwanda transform its future.
1. As Jews, it is impossible to ignore the legacy of genocide that binds us to this land. The echoes of the Rwandan genocide are both recent and concrete – in memorials, in visits to the Rweru Reconciliation Village, and in the testimony of everyday Rwandans. We feel echoes of the Holocaust in this place where hatred and racial supremacy drove a campaign of mass murder over the course of 100 days in 1994. The genocide was planned and executed by extremist elements of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population. They demonized the minority Tutsis as “cockroaches,” and brainwashed the Hutu to despise them. With nowhere to run, Tutsis were literally slaughtered in place. Every Rwandan family has been touched by the conflict and yet, reconciliation between the tribes has happened. Twenty-five years later, there is healing and prosperity in this land which now has the highest GDP in Africa. Rwanda teaches us transformation is possible through the redemptive power of forgiveness and good leadership.
2. Just as Israel transformed itself from a developing nation to a world leader in innovation, Rwanda is truly on its way to becoming a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy by educating its people, adopting new agricultural technologies and creating renewable energy.
Rwandans have literally taken what we Jews know, from the Israeli kibbutz and Jewish camping, to the rehabilitation and resettlement of exiles and orphans in Israel. I saw it at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), a place modeled on Israel’s Yemin Orde, that houses orphaned and vulnerable youth and help them reach their potential. Five post-college Jewish Fellows currently volunteer for a year at ASYV through the Global Jewish Service Corps. I was incredibly inspired by their commitment to immersive global service.
One young volunteer told me how her experience in Rwanda now defines her. “I love that the Jewish community is investing in my Jewish identity, but now I know with certainty that working in the developing world will be my life’s work. This expresses who I am as a Jew.”
It was no surprise to me to learn that ASYV was created by a South African Jewish woman, Anne Heyman, z”l, who moved to the US at age 15 and became active in Young Judaea, a Zionist youth movement. Anne spent a year in Israel with Young Judaea and it was foundational to her identity. After college, and many years practicing law, Anne set out to improve the world on several fronts. ASYV is just one part of her legacy as a social entrepreneur. It is a remarkable place of healing and hope.
3. I deeply believe that immersive Jewish global experiences, such as those I saw in Rwanda, are more than identity building, they are antidotes to antisemitism. I was thrilled to be on the trip with the heads of Moishe House, Repair the World, Birthright Israel, Amplifier.org, (which grows impact through giving inspired by Jewish values), plus journalists, and policy makers from around the world. Being together led to rich conversations and new ideas for collaboration. Just as young Israelis do this kind of service work after completing army service, I had the idea that our organizations could partner to bring young Jews from across the Diaspora together in service to the world. These conversations were like pieces of a puzzle that we’ll continue to work on at home.
The result, I hope, will be a new way for Jewish world service that expresses our highest values and brings our people together in service to humanity.