The luckiest trip of all

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In his Notebooks, Albert Camus wrote:

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country….we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.

This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing.

Our family has been lucky in life, and lucky in vacations.

We've been to Israel, Hawaii, Costa Rica, and Cozumel.

So why do I feel our luckiest trip of all was the one we just took to war-torn Liberia on a seven-day study tour with American Jewish World service (AJWS)?

I can tell you, it's not for the obvious reasons of comfort and relaxation, because by comparison, our life in Evanston is far easier and more comfortable. And while we stayed in a modern hotel during our trip, our view was of poverty and inequality all around. The things we take for granted--clean, running water, near-constant access to electricity and the Internet, and roads and schools and a government that works, if not perfectly, than at least adequately, most the time--are not the reality for most Liberians.

It was, perhaps, this juxtaposition of what we have with what others don't that made me feel so lucky and grateful that we were able to experience this part of the world and meet and travel with this group of people,extraordinary leaders and peace and rights activists from Liberia, and 25 Americans of all ages,who feel committed to making the world better.  Our family has taken plenty of nice vacations, but Liberia was the trip of a lifetime.

I wasn't expecting that feeling in the months and weeks leading up to the trip. Rather than excitement, I felt mostly anxious about taking my family this far out of our comfort zone. And Liberia, after all, wasn't the most accessible or tourist-friendly of the African countries. It was hard to imagine what we would see and hear once we arrived.

In preparation for the trip, we began to learn about Liberia. Like many Americans, our family didn't know the intimate and complicated historical connection the United States has to the country; that between 1820 and 1847, Liberia was established as a destination for the repatriation of freed American slaves, and that Monrovia, the capital, was named after U.S. President James Monroe.

To learn about Liberia's recent turbulent history, we watched the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which was recommended to us by AJWS. The movie tells the story of Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist and AJWS grantee who was one of the driving forces behind a movement of brave Liberian women who stood up to the oppressive leader Charles Taylor and his army of child soldiers, using protest, prayer and song to insist on an end to the civil war. The women's peace movement has been credited for helping hasten Taylor's exile and move the peace talks forward, and for her role, Gbowee was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite its inspirational ending, the movie's images were raw and the fighting so recent, that it left my daughter Lily with only one question: "Why are we going there?"

The short answer was that we had supported AJWS for years, and Monte, my husband, had recently joined its board of directors and was committed to the work it does.

The longer answer is a series of interconnected facts and values that drew us to this trip: we are Jews who mainly express our Judaism by assuming our responsibility for repairing the world; our kids went to Solomon Schechter Day School and were raised to be good people and care about others; Monte's father is a Holocaust survivor who lived through horrific times, echoes of which Gbowee describes living through in Liberia; Monte loves to travel, and our kids (now ages 19, 17 and 15) have seen parts of the world, but only through the lens of entitled tourists.

These factors combined, it seemed like the right time, and Liberia seemed like the right place, for our family to go and see and hear and feel where our philanthropy dollars go and what they can do.

Fast forward to the trip itself:

After long flights through Brussels and short lines through customs, we were outside a small, bustling airport near Monrovia, Liberia's capital, being assailed with offers from people of all sorts, all looking to trade their services in exchange for a few dollars.

We quickly realized that in Liberia there was so much need, and our ability to fill it at that moment, was very small.

But as the trip progressed, we also saw evidence of the positive changes taking place in Liberia, from the President's office down to the rural villages. Women are stepping into positions of power all over the country and it's slowly making a difference. President Ellen Johnon Sirleaf, who was elected after Charles Taylor left office in 2007, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Gbowee last year. Her political agenda includes reconciliation among all those who fought and lived through the long civil war, creating infrastructure and jobs for the 50 percent of the population that is under 20, and addressing the issue of rape, which is rampant through out the country.

Because of the size of our group and the impressive human rights work being done by AJWS in Liberia, we were able to meet with President Sirleaf herself, and found ourselves sitting around a table with the President, Leymah Gbowee and the United States Liberian Ambassador on our second day in the country. After this incredible meeting we had dinner with Gbowee, and had the chance to sit in on an interview of her conducted by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the American writer, activist and co-founder of Ms. Magazine, who was also a participant on our trip.

I went to bed on that second night, my head spinning from all that I took in from the day. There we were, Monte, our kids and I, sitting just seats away from a president who was making her mark on the world stage. And then at night, again, we looked on as a leading force in the America feminist movement had a conversation with Liberia's leading women's right activist.

"Wow," I thought. "History lessons don't get any better or real than this."

As heady and impressive as these encounters were for all of us, I think that what my kids will remember most about Liberia is the other children we met in every village we visited. With big, beautiful, brown eyes and worn out clothes, the Liberian children would swarm around our teenagers curiously and excitedly. "Lift me up," they'd ask my tall teenage boys, again and again. Abe and Louie, both big football players, got some of their best workouts of the summer by lifting dozens of kids way above their 6-foot-3 inch heads, over and over and over again.

Liberia was a fascinating, evolving country, and being able to see the experience through a Jewish lens made it resonate even more. Each day, before we headed out to visit the non-profits that were receiving funding from AJWS to do work in literacy, land rights, disability rights and women's empowerment, we would contemplate words from our tradition. Rabbi Sharon Brous, a young leading voice in Judaism (she was named one of the ten most innovative Rabbis in America) was with us on the trip, and provided opportunities for some intentional morning prayer. We also had time set aside to process the trip individually and together, exploring our feelings about what we were seeing, and what all the need in Liberia evoked in us personally, from a Jewish perspective. Jewish texts came alive as never before, sparking conversations and deep thoughts about the nature of justice and responsibility.

One of the concepts that came up was "slum tourism" a phrase I had never heard before. It got me to think about our motivation for coming to Liberia: it's wasn't only to take pictures with adorable children or to buy woven cloth from the women in the villages. I wanted to learn about this place, I wanted to know these people. I wanted to help.

But what did it mean that I was quick to shake hands with everyone I met in the villages yet wished that, along with the Purell that we used to clean up before meals, I could wash away the discomfort of each visit? And what does it mean to be donors who visit so briefly with good intentions but then soon return home to our lives of comfort? I wonder what can we do as  donors, volunteers, Jews and conscious world citizens that can make some difference to people in need? What feels right? What is culturally sensitive? What really works?

Ruth Messenger, AJWS's president (who was recently named "the 6th most powerful Jew in the world" according to a recent Jerusalem Post survey), put things in perspective for us. We Americans don't have all the answers, for ourselves and for our own country. We need to be humble in our encounters and listen more than we talk. This philosophy underpins AJWS's work with all 400 of its grantees in the 32 countries where it supports grassroots change efforts.

Since coming home, I've heard each of my kids describe the trip as "eye opening." In some important ways it altered how we think about all that we have, and what we can do for those who don't have as much.

A few days after getting back to Evanston we lost power for several hours on a sweltering hot afternoon. While we knew that in Liberia only 2 percent of the population has access to reliable energy, we still grumbled about the briefly downed Internet and the dwindling cold air in our house. Eventually, we caught ourselves and recognized that what we take for granted, what we feel entitled to, would be life-giving luxuries to most Liberians. I'd have to say this awareness was the most valuable "souvenir" we brought back from our AJWS trip.

While we're still processing how this trip has changed us, and our views on philanthropy, we've already committed as a family to making small changes. Abe, our eldest son, plans on getting involved in organizing a Global Hunger Shabbat (as part of AJWS's annual nationwide event) on his college campus. Our daughter Lily may explore other AJWS opportunities to volunteer abroad, and I've started a blog to chronicle our change-making efforts.

I know we cannot leave our experience tucked away in a photo album that we look back on fondly from time to time. We feel compelled to keep the conversation going, to share what we've learned with our family and friends and, hopefully, to stay inspired and inspire others to repair the world in whatever ways we can.

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