My day job in Jewish advocacy makes it easier for me than for most to implement the Hirschian ideal of bringing Torah to every profession, every occupation, every nook and cranny of the globe. I am forever meeting interesting people from outside the Jewish community to whom I must somehow communicate Jewish ideals. Still, some of the situations that HKBH throws my way are breathtaking in the worlds they weave together. This week, it was Telshe and the Congo.
Growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ely Shabani Katembo saw savagery that would suck the life force out of others. His country is the single richest on earth when measured by its mineral wealth – but that has been its greatest curse. To date 5.4 million people have perished in the ongoing wars for control of the riches. It is the rape capital of the world, with 2,000,000 victims. The poverty and disease are unspeakable in this country of 70 million. There are too many tribes, and not enough leaders to which people can look up.
Like victims of the Holocaust, Ely saw things that no human being ought to have seen. He speaks of them only elliptically. He determined to move himself as far from the conflict as he could, and set out, on foot, on a 3000 kilometer walk. He narrowly escaped death a number of times. The end of his odyssey left him nowhere with a future, but he desperately attempted to construct one. He wrote to foreign embassies, pleading for help. He was fortunate – extremely fortunate – to participate in a lottery for US visas and won. Vanderbilt provided him a full scholarship, and he works in DC as an international development consultant.
Many Americans associate parts of Africa with irredeemable tribalism, thinking its inhabitants to live by values far removed from any civilizing influences. After witnessing what he did as a child, Ely could be expected to be a savage himself, if not a torn soul, drained of human emotion. In fact, Ely is bright, well dressed, personable, sensitive, and as refined as an old Oxford don. Safely ensconced on the Beltway, his psyche should have shut down the old memories, allowing him to fully utilize his opportunity to begin a new life. In fact, Ely cannot do that. Without a trace of anger or bitterness, he nonetheless says with passion that he cannot forget his country and the suffering he knows takes place and will continue to take place unless something breaks the cycle of violence. He is only about thirty, but together with a few others, he desperately shuttles from city to city, looking for ideas and help. In truth, the Congo has not been ignored by human rights organizations. No one, however, has a clue about what to do. They are prepared to help, but don’t know how. Ely simply won’t allow himself to accept that. Instead of defeat and resignation, his voice is full of quiet determination – coupled with humility.
He knew of Jews when he lived in Kinshasa, and his memory of them was positive. The Congo is Christian, so there is some awareness of the Jewish people of old as well. (He related that his mother became quite agitated when the Israeli Embassy in Kinshasa suddenly shut down one day. She told Ely that when Jews move away, it is a sign of the End of Days.) Jews have helped him along the way, and he and his friends feel close to Israel. After meeting my colleague Rabbi Abraham Cooper at a conference on anti-Semitism in Canada, he sought his help for his campaign, thinking that Jews surely would be the ones to offer assistance and insight. This brought him to the headquarters of the Simon Wiesenthal Center this week, where we both spent some time with him, showing him (for the first time!) the Congressional Yellow Pages, and pointing out the people on the Hill who would be interested in his insights about the Congo in general, and the upcoming November election there in particular. He was gracious and effusive in his thanks to us.
I spent a few minutes in more relaxed conversation with him just before he left. I wanted to hear more of his story. Every time he shares an executive summary of the state of his country of birth, he must feel overwhelmed by the task ahead of him. (In the immediate future, he would like to see some factions put their differences aside and field a candidate who would not immediately turn to the path of venal corruption.) A bit of that feeling intruded in the conversation, and I knew that I should offer some reassurance if I could.
Enter Osama bin Laden. More accurately, exit bin Laden. My youngest son has been in Telshe-Riverdale for several years, and had eagerly transmitted what the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Avrohom Ausband, had shared with the talmidim about the operation. True to form, he bypassed all the peripherals, and went straight for the mussar, offering a beautiful message to his young charges. “Think of who bin Laden was. The 17th child out of 54, he could have lived in rich mediocrity and obscurity. Instead, he shook the world, and changed not only the course of history, but the way a hundreds of millions of people would live their daily lives. For a decade, he escaped a manhunt organized by the most capable government on the planet. One man accomplished so much in the service of evil! We believe that the power of good is so much greater than the power of evil. Think of how much good one person can do!”
I was pleased that Ely found chizuk in this thought. We’ve continued to correspond. I’ve directed him to a DC center that does faith-based mediation of global conflicts, and Ely has told me about the book he had begun to write about his years in the Congo. (I’ve opined that he may do better with a screenplay.)
As much as Ely may hopefully have been helped by his meeting with us, I took at least equivalent chizuk in the opportunity to take the sichas chulin of a talmid chacham to some Riverdale talmidim and apply it as a contribution to a world problem. In a week in which we have seen tremendous chilul Hashem, it is refreshing to think of how many opportunities for kiddush Hashem are available to us.