This week I passed the 100-day mark as executive director of American Jewish World Service, San Francisco and the Western Region. To officially welcome me, the community held a meet-and-greet reception at Perry’s in the City. I want to share the text of my speech (though I probably didn’t keep on script as I spoke) as it felt like an opportunity to tie a number of loose threads from my life into an order. It is also a genuine expression of my love for the work and the organization I represent.
After I told my mother-in-law that I had accepted a position with the American Jewish World Service, she went online to see what this organization was all about. She later told me that she felt as if someone had created this organization specifically for me.
I have been deeply involved with social justice all my life. I made my first political protest and speech at age eight when a teacher told me to remove a Free Nelson Mandela sticker from my pencil-case. When I refused, and I was a well-behaved student, she said I could keep it provided I stand in front of the class and explain who Nelson Mandela was and why he should be freed. I probably described him in superhero terms, but I hope for all of us that my oratory abilities have improved since.
I am 100 days into this new position and feel deeply privileged to have such an exciting responsibility. What I am most proud of is the principle by which AJWS does not tell people in developing countries what they need, what we will build for them, but listens to and guides grassroots organizations who understand the needs of their own people. As you can hear from my accent, I herald from the most colonialist country in history, so you understand why I find such a principle most refreshing.
I just returned from a Study Tour to India with a number of our donors and our president, Ruth Messinger. I was proud to present to a group of Muslim girls and women in Calcutta, most of whom had never interacted with Jews, how it is our Jewish values that compel us into action against injustices: how we believe all people are made in the image of God and that every person has the right to live in freedom and dignity.
AJWS has committed itself to help a broad coalition end child marriage. In India it is against the law to marry before the age of 18, yet 48% of girls reach that age already married, often with terrible consequences. Throughout the world, there are over 10 million child brides a year… 10 million…a year. Such statistics seem daunting that there is so much injustice in the world and it is so easy to burn out and walk away.
But our Jewish sources also teach that while it is not for us to finish the task, neither are we free to desist from it.
If you are new to the organization please take an annual report from the info table. It is the most concise and up-to-date reflection of our work. If you are interested in getting involved as an activist, please join Erica and our Action Team at 7pm in our office next door.
Thank you for the taking the time to come tonight and welcome me into the AJWS family as we strive together to create a better world for all people. But more important. thank you for supporting AJWS with your financial generosity and your precious time. Each and every one of you make all that we do possible.
Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, The First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. His latest novel is Sacrificial Flame, the fourth in the series.
Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+
In just over two weeks, I will travel with a group of global activists to India to see projects funded by American Jewish World Service and hear the stories of our grantees, their challenges and vision. To help prepare myself, I just finished reading Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers. I admit I do not often read non-fiction, but Ms. Boo truly brought the people she followed to life as though they were characters straight from a classic novel. I felt the same regarding setting and even plot (the individuals’ stories). This book has made me reevaluate how I feel about the genre. If you write or read non-fiction, this book is well worth picking up. If you don’t read non-fiction – it is still worth the read and is so accessible in Ms. Boo’s writing. I listened to the audio during my commute and walking my dog – it is a superb rendition.
Ms. Boo follows the lives of a number of people who live in Annawadi, a makeshift slum that is both side-by-side and overshadowed by beautiful, pristine hotels and the Mumbai international airport, all within a stone’s throw of each other. Their stories reflect everything that seems so wrong in India, but it is told without condescension and judgment. Crime and corruption live alongside hope and the driving desire for dignity.
The dichotomies are everywhere. As Patralekha Chatterjee shares on DNA India: ”More Indians have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet. Everyone knows that. The issue became a major talking point in 2010 when a report by the Ontario-based UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health pointed out that while India had roughly 366 million people with access to improved sanitation in 2008, a far greater number, 545 million, had cell phones.”
It is the irony and frustration of a beautiful land and incredible people, more a continent than a country, several nations under one flag and within one border. But everywhere you go, you find a society immersed in a deep history, rich philosophies, and pulsating culture. I spent several months there when I was younger and, in many ways, I never left.
While the memories have faded, the sensory assault dulled, Katherine Boo brought me back to the streets of India, even as I negotiated the BART public transport commute and long walks with my dog along the water looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz . Back in the early 90’s I was a tourist on a spiritual journey to India to find myself. Two decades later, I prepare to return as a global human rights activist, working for a transformational non profit organization, and traveling with inspiring philanthropists driven to help make a better world for those most marginalized.
To read about AJWS work in India, please click here. One of our main projects is the struggle to end child marriage. Despite a law making it illegal, 47% of girls in India are married before they reach 18.
Shashi Tharoor summed up best what I am feeling: “India shaped my mind, anchored my identity, influenced my beliefs, and made me who I am. … India matters to me and I would like to matter to India.”
For the last month I have been utterly engrossed in the audio book I Am Malala, the story of an incredibly brave Pakistani girl who stood up to the Taliban for the rights of all girls to have an education. She almost paid for it with her life when at 15 she was shot in the head on a school bus from close range, and even had to endure a smear campaign after she survived.
On Friday, it was announced that Malala has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with the Indian child rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi, who has worked endlessly to save children incarcerated in human trafficking and advocate for their rights. That a Pakistani and an Indian have received the award together is a powerful message. Announcing the prize in Oslo on Friday, the committee chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, said it was important for “a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism”
Perhaps the best quote I saw came from Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General:
“With her courage and determination, Malala has shown what terrorists fear most: a girl with a book.”
Here was my first introduction to Malala and why she inspires me each day to empower people to realize human rights and eradicate poverty in the developing world. There can be no doubt that the common key to all these problems is education and Malala shines as an example to us all.
Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and three more novels in the epic fantasy Wycaan Master series. Shalev has also authored three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes and The Accidental Activist. He swears there is a connection. Learn more at: http://www.alonshalev.com.
I have been somewhat quiet on Left Coast Voices of late. This is, in part, due to a change in employment. I am now the executive director of American Jewish World Service, San Francisco and the Western Region. The AJWS works to realize human rights and eradicate poverty in the developing world. The best way to explain this transformational organization is to introduce you to Ruth Messinger, our president, as she addressed a group at Google last year.
Happy to answer any questions and field any comments.
Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and three more Wycaan Master books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes and The Accidental Activist. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com.
Alon Shalev is an author of novels that highlight social injustice. His latest novel is The Accidental Activist. Click on the icon above for more about the author and his books.