At Compassion’s Edge

This particular trip also brought with it an additional layer of anxiety. My mind had been so full of ideas repairing broken systems and under-served population in the Jewish world and the American world, that I worried I simply wouldn’t have room to contain the suffering of others. I knew that by going and connecting with other human beings on a deep level, I would have to find somewhere to contain it. And I was anxious that I might not be able to.

Recently, I heard an idea that seemed to explain why I had chosen to block out famines and wars on the other side of the globe. On an episode of my favorite radio show that I heard recently, On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Roshi Joan Halifax about what Halifax calls “compassion’s edge states.” Halifax calls them edge states because they call us to our edge, but they can also push us over the edge. They can take us from a place of compassion to a place of sorrow, from a place of being productive to a place being non-productive. One needs tools to be resilient through these states and to take action. One of the tools that can help bring us back to a productive place in the edge state is storytelling. A very familiar practice in Jewish tradition, a story can help connect, bring out common themes, and ground an issue in reality. In fact, the Talmud uses stories extensively to demonstrate the practical applications and human concerns that more tangibly and immediately illustrate a seemingly obscure law.

This trip, these stories, could be the turning point in my edge state. As someone who finds the stories of others to be the glue that holds myself and all of my work and life mission together, how would I integrate these new, incoming, further-away stories without their pushing me over the edge, back to a place of incapacitation?  

Once we were in the air, I was in it. There was no going back. 20 hours or so later, we were on the other side of the world, and my friend reminded me that the same sun that was setting in Thailand was springing right back up again in New York City. My reality froze for two weeks while I was on that trip, and my edge state was transformed. 

Our agenda included many different site visits with AJWS grantees working on the Thai-Burma border (Thailand is a common place of refuge for many Burmese refugees who are living in Burma as oppressed minority groups). One of our first visits was with the Kachin (an ethnic state in Burma) Women’s Association on January 9, 2014. The organization, which seeks to works with refugee women on the Thai-Burmese border to preserve Kachin patterns and styles while empowering them to take control of their lives, was not located in an office building–it was in a home-like structure. The sixteen of us walked in, dispensing our shoes at the door and walking into the dining area-meeting space hybrid. We sat down in chairs and sofas in the perimeter around the room and our bare feet swept the cool floor.

I whispered “Hello” to the woman sitting next to me and asked her where she was from. “Kachin State,” she responded. I told her I was from New York. We smiled gently at one another, until we were interrupted by a group of other women who walked in carrying an eclectic collection of mugs, some with Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture on them, other’s with poignant quotes about feminism. Each mug was filled with steaming Burmese tea and given to us with a smile. A picture of Hillary Clinton rested in a corner shrine with other framed photos of the organization’s logo, its members, and its successes.

I turned back to my new friend. Her English was accented but excellent, and I soon learned a tremendous amount about her, the work she does, and her family. She told me about the Kachin people and their right to self-determination, and about the difficult task of documenting violent human rights abuses, particularly against women. A lot of the work they do begins in churches, she said, and much of the information and action really originates in the spiritual, communal space.  

My colleague then mentioned that I was at Yeshivat Maharat,the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as Halachic and spiritual leaders.

She turned to me, and I turned to her, and the energy changed. We entered into our own moment, and our own conversation. She told me that she has also wanted desperately to see women revered as spiritual leaders, and that she felt honored to be in my presence. There had been a point where she imagined herself as a spiritual leader, but there simply wasn’t that type of movement in her community yet. We spent the next few minutes, enclosed tightly together in a conversation about how to bring our unique qualities to the spiritual conversation, she in Kachin State in Burma, and me in the United States. We talked about the International Violence Against Women Act, which the AJWS fellows would be advocating for upon our return.

I was in love. In love with the world-changing chemistry we had together. I was in love with the fact that her story was a part of mine. Our missions were connected in a deep way. Her story had moved me in my “edge state” from incapacitated to completely motivated.

Images of the work I was doing to battle sexual violence and other forms of violence against women in the United States came crashing into my conscience. The issues suddenly didn’t seem so far away at all, in fact, the broken parts of the world had never seemed so close. I looked at her and realized that if I connected my work with her work, our work towards justice would be a joint effort, regardless of where we were or how we were doing it.

In anticipation of the holiday of Purim, where we exchange baskets of food with one another, I’m including global justice cards again in mine, like I did in high school, but this time they read the following:

Happy Purim! This Purim, in your honor, I am working with the American Jewish World Service on their We Believe Campaign to end violence against women around the world. Help by advocating for the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) and by sharing the stories of women affected by this violence.

If you get one of these baskets from me, give me a call. We’ve got work to do.

Note: A recent piece highlights the amazing work of the Kachin Women’s Association. Also, find more information about the We Believe Campaign of AJWS. 

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