International Human Rights Sabbath Blessing

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The closing ceremony ended with lighted candles and singing This Little Light of Mine
On June 22, the 33rd International Human Rights Training Program came to an end with an exciting and touching presentation by the participants of the songs they wrote as part of their work with the Raging Grannies, followed by the distribution of the certificates of completion and a celebratory banquet and party.  This day is always a combination of joy and sadness – joy at the completion of three weeks of intensive training and very hard work, and sadness of saying goodbye to over 100 new friends. However that night I had an experience that was truly extraordinary, beyond the always memorable ceremony.  I was approached by a woman whom I had not met before during the IHRTP.   She came up to me with great excitement, and introduced herself as Odile, from the West African country of Togo, and that she was very excited to meet me because she understood I was Jewish – and she too was Jewish. Now I must be honest and say that I betrayed my usual attempts to not stereotype and my position in a human rights organization by having my jaw hit the floor and asking “But how is that possible?” Odile explained to me that while she was not born Jewish, following an encounter with one of the perhaps 20 Jewish people in Togo, her parents began to try to follow some of the Jewish traditions when she was a young child, in particular Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), which begins Friday night.  It being Friday night, I suggested that we do our own little Shabbat ceremony.
Lighting Shabbat candles together
She was beyond thrilled.  We quickly found candles, wine and bread to bless, and went up to her room where I performed the prayers and explained to her and her room-mate (from Morocco) the meaning of what I was doing and saying.  Odile was familiar with some of the prayers but not much of the Hebrew, and it was a thrill for me and her alike to be in this almost surreal situation, sharing traditions, blessings and breaking bread together. Odile’s family practices some of the Jewish traditions and not others, and while I was positively delighted to have a mini-Shabbat with her, my encounter with her made me start thinking (again!) about religion and human rights.  If Odile wanted to move to Israel, or marry a Jewish-born or converted person in a Jewish ceremony, for some people she would simply not be Jewish ‘enough’.   Even myself, born and raised Jewish, would not be Jewish ‘enough’ for some.   I know that organized religion is, well, organized, and you can’t officially just wake up one morning and decide you are Jewish or Christian or some other religion, any more than you can wake up and decide you’re American or Chinese or any other nationality.  But from a human rights perspective, what happens when you’re not considered Jewish – or Muslim, or white etc – ‘enough’?
Ronit and Odile
It was an honour and a pleasure to meet Odile.  She broadened me as an individual and helped me remember how very lucky I am to live in a place where I am Jewish enough. – Ronit Yarosky

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