by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein
An etude is a song, a song of praise. This summer I spent time bouncing on a bus as part of American Jewish World Service’s Global Justice Fellowship in Guatemala. Part of a two year program, we studied text together, we lobbied together, we learned organizing skills together and then we experienced Guatemala together.
It is hard to reconcile the beauty of the land together with the brokenness of the country. In 1954 there was a coupe organized in part by the United Fruit Company and the CIA to protect US interests and land ownership. There was a bloody civil war, a genocide really, with a peace accord that was signed in 1996. But these struggles are not yet over. On September 6, 2015, there will be yet another election and land rights and land ownership are some of the hotly contested issues.
For the Mayan people, the indigenous people, the land is very important. We were witnesses to several Mayan blessings to start our meetings. The first was at an NGO Codecut which trains Mayan women to be midwives. Their circle included colorful candles symbolizing sun, rest, water, purity, blood, transparency, air, sky and the green natural world. We told the story of Shifrah and Puah, the two midwives in the book of Exodus whose civil disobedience enabled the Jewish people to survive. I watched as the head of Codecut, Maria Cecelia, beamed as the story was told. Unfamiliar with the story, she understood the connection as her face lit up with joy and appreciation at the parallels. Their song was an etude for the earth.
Later in the week we visited CCDA. By now the candle ritual was expected and understood, but this NGO added a Maize Dance. During this dance we learned the importance of the struggle for the land. It is not unlike the story of Abraham buying a burial plot for Sarah and the struggle that has ensued ever since. This is the very land that grows maize and provides nourishment for the people through the ubiquitous tortillas, also made as part of the dance. Their dance was an etude for the earth.
CCDA is a grassroots organization of small farmers in 11 regions of Guatemala. They advocate successfully for land rights, help local farmers increase their yields and protect land from environmental damage. Those increased yields help members gain access to health care and education. They can track accounts of human rights abuses against the indigenous, mostly Mayan farmers.
Some of this has come with the sale of their organic coffee beans, Café Justica, to global partners. Some of it is even more local. In their Patio Systemes, there was one woman who explained that with just one chicken on her patio, she was able to put her daughter through 6th grade and now she is entering high school. The woman herself does not read or write. “We’re not just in the business of buying and selling coffee,” said Leocadio Juracán, Coordinator of CCDA. “We are using the resources we have to work for justice in our communities.”
This advocacy comes with risk. There are 84 arrest warrants out for leaders of CCDA. Yet, they are making a difference in protecting their land rights, frequently from large multi-nationals who would like to engage in strip mining or who would like to put in large hydro-electric dams.
When Rosh Hashanah comes, I will be proud to be serving CCDA honey on my table, making it an extra sweet new year. And I will remember the Guatemalan etudes for the earth.
Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL. She recently returned from Guatemala as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service. She chairs the 16th Circuit Court Faith Committee on Domestic Violence and works with Community Crisis Center, the U46 School District, and the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, www.theenergizerrabbi.org.
This post is part of Ma’yan Tikvah’s Divrei Earth series, Earth Etudes for Elul.