We started another incredible day in Guatemala by leaving early from Guatemala City to head to west and slightly north to the second largest city in the country, Quetzaltenango (the national bird of Guatemala is the quetzel, I forget what tenango means). Though not very far as the crow flies, the drive was over 4 hours mostly up and down a kind of switchback highway that often seemed carved out of the sides of mountains. It is beautiful country – and the higher mountains and volcanos that seem so close by tower over the land in a most impressive way. Our NGO that we met with today was Codecote – a network of midwives who have changed the landscape for many women preparing to give birth and giving birth under the watchful eye of a trained professional midwife, instead of an often uncaring and inattentive (and thus dangerous) state-run medical system that is often lacking in effectiveness, not to mention compassion (from what we heard today).
An exceptional point was made to frame the visit, and because of the “J” in AJWS it was a particularly Jewish idea as well. There is a difference between “chesed” and “tzedek”. Chesed is an act of kindness – a midwife arriving to deliver a baby regardless of whether a family is able to pay (they often are not in this poverty-stricken region) is an act of chesed, and these acts cannot be underestimated for their positive impact. But tzedek is a righteousness, a manifestation of the way things are supposed to work, what we might call a ‘systemic shift’ toward guaranteeing the right to, say, a caring and trained professional at a woman’s side for a baby’s birth. Chesed is important, and tzedek is the goal. AJWS tries not only to fund organizations that are doing tremendous acts of chesed, but they provide (non-profit buzzword alert!) “capacity building” – helping organizations to build ‘tzedek’ in addition to ‘chesed’, trying to change expectations of what is possible and maximize the impact that can be made by people who care enough to identify a problem and to put time and effort into trying to help.
We concluded the day with a great “Ask Ruth Messinger Anything” session after dinner, and then talked about how to best tell the stories that we have heard and the experiences we are having to our communities back home, as well as how to incorporate some of the “tzedek/justice work” that we are learning about into our own lives and communities at home. Travelling with 11 other rabbis and between 3 and 5 excellent professionals depending on the day, we are creating a network for idea sharing and cooperation nation-wide which is also exciting. Something else exciting: eating lunch at a hotel in Quetzaltenango, Ruth walked over to where I was eating and said well it’s confirmed – I’m coming to B’nai Torah this winter! The back story is that our Women’s League President, Shelly Gross, graciously accepted my offer to make a connection with Ruth’s office. Shelly extended the invitation and the date of Women’s League Shabbat happened to be open for her. Much more on Ruth’s visit another time – but I thought letting you know that from Guatemala was a nice thing to be able to do. You would do it anyway but mark your calendars for the Shabbat of January 29-30, and thank you to Shelly and Women’s League for making what will be a memorable visit by a great Jewish leader possible.
Another early start tomorrow! Laila tov/boker tov from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.