Standing on a rooftop, I looked around, and felt anywhere but home. As far as the eye could see was a morass of concrete and dirt. The thick humid air smelt of smoke. The sounds of donkeys, and horses, and a muezzin filled the air.
I was surrounded by twenty four colleagues – fellow rabbinical students from throughout the United States – as we prayed the morning service from atop a building in downtown Dakar, the capital of the West African nation of Senegal.
For two weeks, our delegation joined the American Jewish Service to work with its grantee, Tostan, aiding in community-led development in rural villages facing extreme poverty throughout Africa.
No prior experience could have prepared me for what I saw in Senegal: children with flies in their eyes; distended bellies; open sores; bare feet; hunger; sickness; a land parched by drought. At first glance, the place seemed like hell. How could God allow such a place to exist?
For ten days we worked with locals in the villages of Darou Mouride and Keur Songo, building latrines and helping them in their daily chores. I swept, I tilled soil, I brought forth water from wells. All the while, I built bonds with people so different from me, and yet so similar. They love, they cry, they laugh, they play.
I played with many kids. Two in particular I will never forget, Tidiane Geye and Popmusonjop showed me firsthand the power of the AJWS and its grantees to bring positive change to the world.
As I butchered their names time and time again, the two kids laughed in a way that any would at a blubbering foreigner standing before them. “Tubob” they called me – white man.
Finally, Tidiane Geye crouched down and spelled out his name in the sand below him. In a country with almost no literacy, this defiant act writing was nothing short of miraculous.
But my new friends need far more than an education. They need food. They need mosquito nets. They need basic health services and access to a world which has left them behind. They need shoes.
They need an American Jewish community that remembers them, and does all we can to help the billions of people like them who live in abject poverty, trying to make ends meet on as little as a dollar a day in conditions more horrific than most of us could imagine.
I returned from Africa inspired by the work of the AJWS. I returned motivated by my new cadre of rabbinical students dedicated to bringing our message of social justice to our home communities. I returned ready for the hard work ahead.
The Wolof word used in response to a greeting is “mangifee,” which translates literally as “I am here.” The Hebrew equivalent is “hineini”, the response by Abraham when God first calls out to him in service.
To all my brothers and sisters in this world stricken by the disease of poverty – to Tidiane Geye and Popmusonjop – to all of the communities where AJWS works and those yet to be helped, I cry out Mangifee. I am ready to help you. I am here to work on your behalf. Hineini.