Ghana, AJWS and Tishah B'Av

By Marc Soloway

As the light fades this evening on another hot and dry Colorado summer day, the fast of Tishah B'Av will begin, with its mournful mood and its very important reminders to us.  As many of you know, I have just returned from a life-changing trip to Ghana as part of a delegation of young rabbis with AJWS (American Jewish World Service.)  What I witnessed there was a very complex array of joy and inspiration; pain and sorrow; hope and courage; hunger and desperation.  Since my return, I have been overwhelmed with the imbalance of just how much most of us here have and how entitled we are, and just how little most of the people I lived with have, in the small community of Sankor, Winneba in Southern Ghana.  Challenging Heights, the NGO and grantee of AJWS, is nestled in the heart of this desperately poor community and offers hope through education and renewed vision by rescuing and buying back children who have been trafficked as slaves from as young as four years old, mainly in the fishing industry, providing them with a safe, nurturing environment and a school.  The center's founder is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met.  James Kofi Anan was himself sold by his parents into slavery at a very young age, worked 17 hour days and was severely punished every time he made mistakes.  He never lost hope and always dreamed of getting an education.  Against impossible odds, he escaped from his masters, put himself through high school and college and began a very successful career in banking.  After making pretty considerable money, he realized that it was time to dedicate his life to saving other children from a fate similar to his own and Challenging Heights was born.  The rabbinic delegation with AJWS spent 12 days building an IT Center for these children, most of whom have never seen a computer, to learn these skills so important in our world.  It was an immense privilege to be part of this project as the final days of my sabbatical. 

While in Ghana, we also visited Cape Coast where the largest slave castle in Africa sits on a hill above a roaring sea.  Seeing the dungeons where hundreds of human beings were shackled and imprisoned like animals, lying in their own filth, waiting until the mighty slave ships arrived, was another appalling reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink in its cruelty.  The slaves would walk through the "Gate of No Return" and be transferred into the bowels of the ships like cargo, setting sail for lives as slaves in Europe and the Americas.  The pernicious grasp of colonialism can still be felt in various ways in Ghana, but now Ghanaians are masters of their own fate and there is joyful hope and courage for the future among many in the population, as well as a warmth, hospitality, love and pride that transcend all the suffering that comes with a lack of food, sanitation and clean water.

The piercing question asked at the beginning of the Book of Lamentations that we read tonight, is Eicha - how can it be?  Eicha - how can it be that so many in the world have so little and we don't even appreciate how much we have?  Eicha - how can it be that humanity still enslaves, degrades, dehumanizes others who, like them, are formed in the image of God?  Eicha - how can it be that so much of the world lies in ruins?  Eicha - how can it be that millions and millions of people do not have access to clean water?  Eicha - how can it be that the Holy City of Jerusalem is a place of brokenness and not wholeness? The deepest and most challenging question of all is how can we change, how can we act in the world to make a difference, to help repair the world, rather than continue to contribute to its destruction.  By tomorrow afternoon, as Tishah B'Av starts to draw to a close, the mood changes and we move from images of desolation to dreams of redemption, knowing that we are part of that dream.

If you feel inspired to make a donation to the amazing work that AJWS is doing to help developing communities become more sustainable, I have set up a personal fundraising page.  Here is the URL:

Thank you.

Rabbi Marc


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