One year ago, a group of Jewish leaders, opinion-shapers, thinkers and doers from the US, Israel, and UK traveled to Rwanda as part of the InterACT Global study trip. The trip was held as the pandemic was making its way around an unsuspecting world, and those five days in Rwanda shaped our perspective throughout the entire year that has passed. A very unusual year later, several of the participants reflect on this eye-opening experience.
One year ago, we travelled to Rwanda with OLAM, as part of the InterACT Global study trip. The purpose of the trip was to see first-hand some of the Jewish and Israeli organizations working to address the most pressing challenges in Rwanda, and return both inspired to act ourselves as well as engage Jewish communities in the shared responsibility towards vulnerable populations in the developing world.
For most of us, it was the first visit to a developing country. The encounter with the daily personal challenges and the remarkable strength and resilience needed to overcome these left an indelible imprint on our souls.
The trip took place as the pandemic was making its way around an unsuspecting world, upending lives and work. Before long, our world had been turned on its head.
It has been a year of separation from family, colleagues and congregation, testing individuals and communities. A bitter divide separates our nation too, with mistrust so deep that even families struggle to find common ground.
The lessons of gratitude, reconciliation, forgiveness and love we gained in Rwanda have since taken on deeper meaning yet. They have shaped our perspective on some of these challenges, and show us the way forward towards healing and hope.
Above all, the experience deepened our commitment to the work being done in Rwanda and to expanding the circles of our responsibility. It is in this context that we share our reflections today.
Reconciliation and forgiveness
Only one generation ago, a genocide devastated Rwanda, casting a dark and painful cloud over the future of the young nation that had gained independence only a few decades before.
A visit to Mbyo Reconciliation Village taught us that heartbreak can be turned into healing. Mbyo is one of six such villages in the country, where genocide survivors and perpetrators live together. They do so in the most literal sense, often building houses together and caring for each other’s families—almost unimaginable where people once turned on their neighbors with machetes. They have not forgotten, but some have forgiven. Now their children dance together.
Rebuilding trust by jointly building a home is deeply symbolic. Witnessing this almost extreme act of reconciliation and trust left us in awe of both sides’ commitment to bridging an unfathomable abyss.
While offering hope, this experience made it unequivocally clear that reconciliation is possible only through an intentional and authentic reckoning with the truth, an acknowledgement of the harm done, an apology, and the will to actively forgive. Since our return, this deep lesson continues to shape our perspective on seeking and achieving resolution and reconciliation in the different conflicts surrounding us.
The power of love and family
The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) also moved us deeply. Modeled after the Yemin Orde youth village in Israel, the village provides a home, loving adoptive families and top-notch education to hundreds of Rwanda’s most vulnerable orphaned youth. The name of the village tells its story: “Agahozo” means “the place where tears are dried” in Kinyarwanda.
Founded by Ann Heyman, a Jewish American, the village lives by the twin core Jewish values of Tikkun Olam and Tikkun Halev- repairing the world and the heart. At the village we also met the annual JDC fellows, the young Jewish volunteers who work in service of these values and continue the founder’s long-term vision in the spirit of “lo alecha hamelacha ligmor” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).
Our visit there was a powerful reminder of the importance of family and love, and that the collective responsibility of communities is the ongoing duty of all generations.
Gratitude and partnership
A growing number of Jewish organizations and individuals are taking part in the rebirth of Rwanda as it moves towards a stable, peaceful and prosperous future. Many ventures are deeply rooted in Jewish values, founded by visionary Jewish activists and co-led with inspiring Rwandan leaders. This illuminated for us how much more impactful and sustainable international development work is when developed in a genuine partnership informed by local knowledge, experience and skills.
We experienced everyday life in the capital Kigali, taking in the urban sights and sounds from vegetable stands and hair salons to vendors and traffic, observing both the striking similarities and extreme differences to our own cities. Every encounter throughout the trip deepened our gratitude for this opportunity to gain perspective and meet inspiring people, from grassroots to government, acting on the shared values common to us all.
Israel lights the way
With parallel histories and a shared global future, Israel too plays a role. Not so long ago a developing country itself, Israel has developed agricultural, water and energy solutions that are now at the forefront of global development and sustainability efforts. Now Israeli experts are training Rwandan farmers to improve their crops and capacity and help their communities thrive.
Israel is also bringing light to Rwanda, literally. The Israeli company Energiya Global has developed a solar field that supplies 6% of the country’s power and also generates revenue for the neighboring youth village. In a fascinating meeting with Dr. Ron Adam, Israel’s first Ambassador to Rwanda, we learned of additional fields of knowledge Israel is sharing in Rwanda, illuminating for us Israel’s important contribution to supporting global development.
The trip had been billed as a study trip and it was far greater than the sum of its five days. It is only in retrospect that we truly appreciate what we learned.
The year that passed brought uncertainty but also brought clarity on fundamental needs and values. We have questions – and some answers- about our commitments and priorities as Jewish leaders and individuals.
We do not know when we will be able to travel again. But we do know that Jewish leaders need not fly across the world to care about its most vulnerable people, and learn more about the global challenges that we know more than ever affect us all. Covid-19 has been a stark reminder of the need to work together as a global community.
We invite you to continue the conversation in your communities, and stir discussion, commitment and action.
The InterACT Global program was spearheaded by OLAM, in partnership with SID Israel,
Gesher Leadership Institute, and Shalom Corps.
David Cygielman, Founder and CEO, Moishe House
Liz Fisher, Executive Director, [email protected]
Cindy Greenberg, President and CEO, Repair the World
Daniel Kraus, Associate Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Birthright Israel
Eric Robbins, President and CEO, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta