By Rachel Knopp
On the 13th anniversary of B’nai B’rith’s Resident Leadership Retreat, 28 seniors joined together at Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa. with the intent to bring a greater sense of community back to their homes. These representatives came from the 38 low-income senior housing facilities from across the country that B’nai B’rith proudly supports.
As the largest national Jewish sponsor of federally subsidized housing for the elderly in the United States, B’nai B’rith has become a key advocate for low-income seniors on Capitol Hill. However, experiences like the Resident Leadership Retreat remind us that our residents are their own best advocates for their communities.
Janel Doughten, associate director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, reminds us of the importance of our resident leaders. “Unlike staff and the board of directors who go home at the end of the day, our residents call these facilities home at the beginning and end of each day. The goal is to help create a sense of community among the residents.”
The safety, security, and peace of mind that B’nai B’rith buildings have brought to residents lives were frequent topics of discussion between attendees. One resident from the B’nai B’rith building in Tucson, Ariz. said that finding his current building brought him out of homelessness. Many others shared in the sentiment including Bobbie Rudolph, from B’nai B’rith Apartments in Allentown, Pa., “I no longer have to worry about being evicted, due to not being able to pay my rent. The B’nai B’rith and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Supporting Housing for the Elderly Program allows seniors to retire and live with dignity.
With this in mind, it becomes clear why the resident leaders are so invested in strengthening their communities. Some representatives are long-standing officers of their building’s Resident Council, while others are self-proclaimed activists who demonstrated leadership by starting a recycling bin, like Liam Flanagan who lives in Covenant House, which is located in Brighton, Mass. Despite the range of displays in leadership, each representative arrived to Camp Perlman with an open mind to learn from one another.
Diane Daria, also from Covenant House, regards her building as providing a “built-in community.” Many of the seniors in B’nai B’rith housing facilities have lived alone for many years, like Daria. Before moving into her building, she lived by herself in a little bungalow located in the suburbs of Massachusetts. Now, Daria has the opportunity to connect with the over 250 residents that also call Covenant House home.
Still, Daria recognizes her responsibility to foster community. In addition to taking Russian and cultural classes to connect with her neighbors, she is an impassioned member of the newly-formed Residents Council. Throughout the retreat, Daria connected with other resident leaders to brainstorm ways to engage more residents.
During the day that focused on diversity, the group suggested ways to have more inclusive programming so that they can cultivate a community of acceptance within their buildings. While many buildings offer English as a second language classes, the group felt native-English speakers would benefit from Spanish or Russian as a second language classes as well. One resident, Jerry Fiman, of Covenant Place in St. Louis, shared his initiative to have a representative from each of the distinct cultural groups of his building acting as active members of the Residents Council.
The spirit of open-mindedness was exemplified that same night during a Havdalah ceremony to conclude the celebration of Shabbat. Most of the resident leaders are not Jewish, yet they approached the HaMotzi blessing that preceded each meal with respect and curiosity. Each resident leader placed their hands around the flame of the Havdalah candle, following a considerate discussion of interfaith values that morning. The culture of acceptance that was felt throughout the retreat is undoubtedly an integral part of their communities back home.
When the Resident Leadership Retreat concluded its week of living and learning, many expressed the instilled sense of confidence that the retreat provided. Helen Jordan from Pasadena, Texas expressed how the retreat not only fortified the beliefs she already had, but the curriculum gave her a means to implement them. A key component of the retreat was to harness this feeling of empowerment so that residents can serve as advocates once they return.
The retreat included an advocacy session led by Evan Carmen, B’nai B’rith assistant director for Aging Policy: “The goal of the advocacy session is to educate B'nai B'rith Housing Network residents on the best ways they can engage with their elected representatives; this way their members of Congress are aware of the issues which are important to them.”
One of the attendees, Martha Boyle, has confirmed a meeting with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) Boyle plans to discuss with him about rental subsidies as it relates to affordable housing for seniors.
For many of the resident leaders, a week at a sleep away camp tucked away in the Poconos Mountains provided an escape from their regular routine. For most low-income residents, a week of vacation has been an unavailable luxury to them for years. For others, the space to learn in a classroom environment was a reminiscent change, found to be invigorating.
From my perspective as a member of a younger generation, I am inspired by the commitment to learn and make a difference that I see in the generation before me. The leaders who I grew to regard as friends are the same leaders who pushed forward for the social changes I enjoy today. Since then, they have not quit moving and shaking. I regard the B’nai B’rith facilities across the country as a new ground for these leaders to make their mark.
Rachel Knopp is a student at The George Washington University studying International Affairs and Conflict Resolution. She is an Intern at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. In the spring of 2017, she studied Anthropology and Spanish in Cusco, Perú. Prior to interning at B’nai B’rith, she interned at The Israeli Embassy to the United States and the Israeli Mission to the United Nations
Today, we see that same trend of student activism visit another country with a democracy on the brink of collapse: Venezuela. In Venezuela, supermarket shelves and pharmacies are virtually empty. Due to the lack of food, medicines and medical equipment, people are dying of easily preventable causes. The Venezuelan economy is heading in a nosedive, evident in a current unemployment rate of 17 percent and an inflation rate that is expected to hit 481 percent by the end of the year, per Ian Bremmer of Time.
The severity of the humanitarian crisis is felt by many, with two million Venezuelans taking refuge in neighboring countries throughout recent years. Yet, the dire situation continues to grow. The Maduro-led government refuses to accept humanitarian assistance from the international community. Refusals indicate a blatant disregard for human life, amid an increasingly tense political climate.
According to Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, President Nicolas Maduro has deliberately dismantled the democratic institutions of his country since his election in 2013. The Venezuelan constitution, which safeguards the most coveted freedoms of democracy, has overtly been disregarded. Maduro and the executive branch now enjoy a strong-hold over all key government institutions. The Supreme Court has stripped powers away from the legislature and the military has become government cronies in quashing opposition.
Maduro has explicitly stated his contempt for dissent. “Prepare for a time of massacre and death if the Bolivarian revolution fails,” he warned. Sadly, Maduro’s warning has come to fruition, with university students bearing the brunt of this burden. Of the 92 dissidents who were killed from April 1 to July 10, 31 of them were aged 21 or younger.
Even with Maduro’s grave forewarning and demonstrated commitment to stamp out opposition, many students have nevertheless left their lecture halls in favor of the streets. "We just couldn't sit calmly in class when down the road fellow youths were being killed in clashes with the security forces," Gabriela Sayago, a 24-year-old dentistry student at the University of Merida. told the BBC News. Students like Sayago have vowed to complete their studies, but only under a free and fair Venezuela.
To achieve that goal, student organizers have partnered with the opposition party to resist the regime and its grim promise to rewrite the constitution. According to David Gonzalez of The New York Times, the recent opposition-led referendum voted 98 percent in favor of rejecting Maduro’s efforts to rewrite the constitution, of nearly 7.8 million votes. These Venezuelans demanded that the current constitution be respected in order to prevent Maduro’s path to dictatorship.
The student activists are being credited with utilizing more sophisticated tools of protests, including psychological sessions and civil disobedience workshops on their university campuses. In conjunction, the opposition is organizing a nationwide 24-hour strike, which is expected to be a “massive, nonviolent protest.: In some areas, the movement has even adopted a database to track the safety of protesters who continue to take to the streets.
Almagro recognizes the grueling, historical struggle that Latin American countries have faced to achieve democracy. Many of the region’s most respected leaders have their own memories of participating in popular protest. Yet the case of Venezuela demonstrates the fragility of even an established democracy.
Still, the Maduro government claims to be a representative voice of its people on the international stage. Particularly, the Venezuelan government has used its position at the United Nations to criticize and condemn Israel. Venezuela uses the same institutions, in which it refuses to accept humanitarian assistance to save its own people, to turn the focus toward the State of Israel.
In May the Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations raised in the Security Council whether Israel intended to “wage a final solution sort of solution [against the Palestinians] as was perpetrated against the Jews?” The comparison to Nazi-Germany was quickly condemned by the United Kingdom and the United States and distinguished as anti-Semitism by Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon. Anti-Semitism has become a flagrant issue within the country itself. Since Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, took power in 1999 nearly 50 percent of Venezuelan Jews have left the country. During that time, Chávez took steps to deepen relations with the Palestinian leadership and Iranian government. He viewed Israel as a Middle Eastern proxy of the United States and thus adopted anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments in his rhetoric. Chávez’s rhetoric spilled over into government-sponsored media and local governments thus creating an intolerable space for Jews in the country.
The January appointment of Vice President Tareck El Aissami has reiterated concerns over Venezuela’s connections in the Middle East. From a testimony last year at the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Joseph Humire detailed the vice president’s complex financial network, which includes laundering millions of dollars on behalf of organizations like Hezbollah. Hezbollah, an internationally recognized terror organization, has called for the destruction of Israel since its founding. El Aissami’s financial dealings point to the infiltration of Islamic extremism at the highest levels of Venezuelan government.
In June U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called for Venezuela to step down from its position at the United Nations Human Rights Council if it could not put an end to its own human rights abuses. Haley continued to express her frustration that not a single resolution had been considered by the council to address the Venezuelan abuses, yet five had been passed against Israel in March alone. This, she said, marked another example of the anti-Israel bias that has long plagued the U.N.
Various human rights violators of the world have used United Nations institutions to divert attention from their own records of abuse and shift the focus toward Israel. Venezuela has been a leader in this diversion tactic, yet the popular protests that ensue within the country suggest that these accusations do not represent the concerns of the people.
Those who follow the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement have seen student activism as a tool to delegitimize Israel in the region. In particular Chile, the country with the largest Palestinian population outside of the Middle East has answered the BDS call. Chile’s votes against Israel at the United Nations mirror the Pontifical Catholic University student body vote to reject ties with Israeli academic institutions. Not coincidentally, anti-Semitic incidents and attacks have risen within the country. Schools, synagogues and cemeteries have been vandalized and the president of Chile’s Jewish community has been provided police protection.
Observers of the BDS movement may regard university campuses as a battle to be lost, but that fear may not be warranted elsewhere in the region. The young people of Venezuela continue to carry out the fight of their lives, with July 9 marking the 100 consecutive day of protest in Caracas. This past Sunday marked the deadliest day yet, following the fraudulent election to move forward with the Constituent Assembly. The election results ensure that a return to democracy through traditional democratic channels is impossible, now making the protest movement indispensable.
Evidence from other countries in the region suggests that the students who are protesting in the streets today will become the key decision-makers of their countries tomorrow. We must look beyond the votes of diplomats and recognize the strength of the movements that are fighting against this phony representation. The current standoff between the government and its opposition may signify a change in who will speak on behalf of Venezuelans in the future—and how they will exercise that voice on the world stage.
Photo via Flickr
Rachel Knopp is a student at The George Washington University studying International Affairs and Conflict Resolution. She is an Intern at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. In the spring of 2017, she studied Anthropology and Spanish in Cusco, Perú. Prior to interning at B’nai B’rith, she interned at The Israeli Embassy to the United States and the Israeli Mission to the United Nations.
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