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Encino Woman Gives Voice To Women In Congo

Matt Pressberg |
February 15, 2012 | 2:14 a.m. PST

Staff Columnist

Janice Kamenir-Reznik (photo by Matt Pressberg).
Janice Kamenir-Reznik (photo by Matt Pressberg).
While discussing the grave situation for women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one might not expect the conversation to turn to mobile phones. 

“Is your cell phone kosher?” Janice Kamenir-Reznik asked. “It’s not. Every one of our cell phones has rape minerals in it.” 

Most people are undoubtedly saddened when they hear things like this, but very few believe anything they could possibly do could actually make a difference. Kamenir-Reznik is one of those very few. As co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch, an organization with a global footprint dedicated to the fight against genocide and mass atrocities, she has devoted herself full-time to helping some of the most vulnerable people in the world: those in the Darfur region of Sudan and Congo.

Kamenir-Reznik has been to the villages near Congolese mines where these so-called “rape minerals” are quarried. She has helped develop solar cookers that use the blazing Sahel sun, preventing the women of Darfur from having to leave the camp to gather firewood, a journey that far too often results in their rape by outside men and ostracism by their families, particularly if they happen to become pregnant.

Kamenir-Reznik paused while discussing her advocacy of legislation that would mandate a “Good Housekeeping” seal on electronics. The move would verify that mineral components used in manufacturing products would not fund the type of groups involved in rape and other human rights abuses. She said the American market plays a huge role in driving worldwide demand for these minerals, and as long as American consumers are unaware of what goes on in procuring them or do not care to pay a premium to ensure they are “clean,” there will be little incentive for the situation to change. 

“You still walk on the streets of Los Angeles, one of the biggest, most informed cities in the world,” Kamenir-Reznik said, stressing the word “informed” in a tongue-in-cheek manner, “and you ask 100 people if they know either about Darfur or the massive rapes of the women in Congo.” While they may be vaguely aware of suffering in Darfur, Kamenir-Reznik said, most Angelenos she encounters are completely oblivious as to what is occurring in Congo. “Six million people have been killed in Congo. And 2 million women have been raped in Congo. These are massive, massive numbers. It’s the bloodiest, most dangerous place since World War II. And people don’t know what’s happening.”

Never again

World War II is a most fitting analogy for Kamenir-Reznik to make, but it is likely not a comparison most people would use when thinking about violence in Africa. It wasn’t the comparison she made at first either, until she received a phone call that would take her to places, once wildly foreign, that now could not be more integral to her core understanding of herself and her faith.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is a lion in the Los Angeles Jewish community and a longtime advocate for disenfranchised or otherwise ostracized groups. The one word several of his congregants immediately associated with Schulweis was wisdom, and when the venerable rabbi decided eight years ago that the deteriorating situation in Darfur needed his attention, he drew upon this in his choice of partner.

Schulweis phoned Kamenir-Reznik, a stalwart member of his congregation, and mentioned a common Jewish refrain. We have been saying “never again” for 65 years, said the octogenarian rabbi, but there have been tens of genocides since the Holocaust. Then, as rabbis are prone to do, he made his statement by asking a simple question.

“What did you do during Rwanda?”

Speechless at first, Kamenir-Reznik admitted that she had done nothing and had felt guilty about it for years.

“I had this dramatic realization as a Jew that I had never thought about these other genocides as really connected to me,” she said. “Somehow, I thought that we had our Holocaust and other people had their genocides. And that’s a ridiculous notion, because if everybody thinks that way, there's just going to be more genocide.”

Schulweis then asked a question by making a statement. “One hundred thousand people have been killed in Darfur and I want to know what you and I are going to do about it,” he inquired. There could only be one possible answer, one that would take Kamenir-Reznik on a journey not just to the heart of Africa, but to the heart of her personal understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Empowering women

Kamenir-Reznik has spent a lifetime giving her powerful voice to those who are muzzled. As a young girl, she said, her “mother’s milk was advocacy, rallies, the civil rights movement and the women’s choice movement.” After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, Kamenir-Reznik joined the Los Angeles Jewish Federation as the Director of the Commission on Soviet Jewry. She worked as part of a worldwide effort that evacuated two million Jews from the Soviet Union, and considers that to be where she “cut [her] professional teeth” in a major political advocacy movement.

Kamenir-Reznik then went to law school and embarked on a successful two-decade career in environmental real estate law, several of them as a partner alongside her husband Ben, with whom she has three grown children. Throughout her law career, she advocated for women’s causes, including serving as president of California Women Lawyers, the statewide women’s bar, as well as founder and president of the California Women’s Law Center. 

Soon after that fateful conversation with her rabbi, she retired from her law career and dedicated herself full time to Jewish World Watch. Kamenir-Reznik has since been to Africa five times to establish and oversee projects ranging from solar cookers and rape treatment centers to supporting prospective female political candidates.

Kamenir-Reznik drew a direct connection between her advocacy for professional women in California and that for agricultural women in Central Africa.

“I think it all relates to women’s economic empowerment, which is why so much of the work I’ve done in my career in general as a lawyer, volunteer and now in Africa has to do with economic empowerment of women,” she said. She expressed hope that these small nudges would lead to “a tipping point, where village by village, they will be able to take control.”

Because of the skewed male/female ratio which one would expect at a refugee camp in an active war zone, despite their lack of official legal protections, women can amass a certain amount of what Kamenir-Reznik refers to as “practical power.” She recounted a meeting at a Darfur camp, in which the spokesman for the council of elders, otherwise known as the village males, expressed the group’s opposition to a plan that would use recycled gray water (waste water from washing) to irrigate crops, as it was supposedly against the local interpretation of Islam. Before he could finish his diatribe, a woman who had been sitting in the back jumped up and began shouting. After calling him an idiot and thereby getting the attention of the room, she pointed out that he and his children had been eating vegetables irrigated this way for months, getting the nutrients they needed.

Despite her obvious pride in anecdotes like this that demonstrate the increasing independence of the women she has worked with, Kamenir-Reznik was careful to note the importance of not ignoring men in forging local partnerships. She recalled from sites she visited that the women do just about all the work and the men don’t seem to contribute to the local economy in any meaningful way.

“The men also need to be empowered,” she said. “Everyone needs to be empowered, but not against each other.” 

A natural progression

With a new medical clinic in Congo set to open in May, Kamenir-Reznik is planning her sixth visit. While it’s hard to picture many of her Encino neighbors choosing to spend their summers in Central Africa, she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Aside from the fact that she was introduced to her current mission by her rabbi, Kamenir-Reznik sees it as just an extension and not a shift from her previous advocacy for Jewish causes.

“To me, this is a natural progression,” she said. “It’s less Jewish in terms of the people we’re helping but very Jewish in terms of its spirit.”

Kamenir-Reznik spoke of her maturing as a person, a woman and a Jew in making the connection between the lessons of the Holocaust, her work as a tireless advocate for women and the larger fight against genocides around the world. 

Kamenir-Reznik admitted to feeling “removed” when asked to get involved in Darfur. But in fighting genocide from the inside by empowering local women, making them more valuable and less vulnerable, she is standing up for a cause which she calls “the natural course” for her life to have taken. She mentioned the “universalism” of the organization’s message, which was a telling descriptor. 

To Kamenir-Reznik, the genocide that Jews must never permit to reoccur did not end in 1945, but has been repeated many times over and is happening in Darfur and Congo today. If Jews don’t fight for other victims of genocide, she argued, how can Jews expect communities around the world to rally behind them in the same circumstances, just as they did not during the Holocaust? In Kamenir-Reznik’s view, nothing is more fundamentally Jewish than actively opposing any and all acts of genocide, taking the lessons of the Holocaust and applying them to the most vulnerable, no matter where in the world they may be.

“To me, the words ‘never again’ don’t mean ‘never again will there be another genocide,’” she said and paused. “It really needs to mean, and this we do have control over, ‘never again will the world be silent in the face of a genocide.’”



Reach staff columnist Matt Pressberg here.



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