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At Compassion’s Edge

vawaThe snow that doesn’t quite seem to stop falling this winter was also falling consistently throughout the winter of my tenth grade year of high school. As a teen, as gunmen shot in the suburbs of DC near my home and wars raged around the world, I was very bothered by the “state of things”, and I just wanted to do something about it. So, the night before Chanukah, I decided to prepare gifts for my friends at the day school I attended. I printed little cards that read:

Happy Chanukah! A Donation has been made to American Jewish World Service in your honor.

I taped a candy to each one (poorly, I recall. many of them fell off) and handed them out in school to my friends, feeling like I had done my part to fix the world that seemed so broken to me, and that didn’t seem to respect the values I grew up holding: that each person was made in the image of God, and deserves to live a life free of violence and oppression.

Early on in my college experience, though doing Jewish social change work is what continued to make my heart beat faster, I decided to begin to largely shut out issues of global justice from my consciousness. I had become simply overwhelmed by the volume of things that needed fixing around the world, and I was reminded of my high school classmates, as they had rattled off skeptical reactions to my idealistic donation-making approach that Chanukah. I would never get anything done, they had said. 

I struggled with this overwhelming feeling, because I so deeply cared about justice for everyone. But eventually, I decided that, while I wouldn’t be totally silent on global issues, I would stop seeking to be on committees that worked to solve issues thousands of miles away. There were too many stories close to me that I wanted to be a part of transforming.

Furthermore, I wasn’t able to compartmentalize all of the oppression and suffering I saw in the world, but I knew deeply and sincerely that I wanted to be a part of the team that was making the world a better place. So, in my first efforts, I was working on shifting injustices within a twenty-mile radius. I knew I could be strategic and effective on a local level, and that others felt the same way about their potential impact in jetsetting and changing the world on a much larger scale. We would each have our spheres and we would support one another in forging social change.

This year, this calculus shifted unexpectedly for me. I became a part of the American Jewish World Service inaugural Global Justice Fellowship cohort, and we were headed to the Thai/Burma border in early January. I haven’t traveled much; it’s always made me a little tense. There is something about how airplanes are precariously floating in the air, how once you get where you’re going, the food hits your tongue a little differently, and the smells and sounds recall memories that aren’t quite your own. It all feels a little uneasy and unsafe.