The women said that they had been told since they were little girls that education was of no value to them because their job was to maintain a clean house and provide for their husbands.
For the longest time, they said, they believed this would be their lot in life. But then they decided to band together, creating Asociación Nuevo Horizonte, a coalition of Maya women advocating for their rights in Guatemala. Leading by example and running training sessions, they’ve helped other young women to do the same.
Their stories weren’t particularly surprising to Rabbi Analia Bortz. They had a certain familiarity because, you see, Bortz had been there.
“Listening to these women now in their 30s, I reflected back to that time in my 20s when I wanted to become a rabbi and others told me I couldn’t,” Bortz said.
Well, we all know now that they were wrong. Bortz, a medical doctor from Argentina, not only became the first female rabbi in South America in 1994, but in 2003, she co-founded Congregation Or Hadash in Sandy Springs along with her husband, Rabbi Mario Karpuj.
“By empowering myself, I knew that I’d pave the path for new generations of women to become rabbis,” she said. “Today we have plenty of female rabbis in Latin America.”
Last week, after spending seven days in Guatemala, Bortz juxtaposed her own story with those she’d heard during her visit to the Central American country to make a point: Stories connect us in ways that numbers and facts never can. They make us human.
Primary education is free and compulsory in Guatemala, yet the average girl there attends school for just four years. Nearly 25% of the population is illiterate, and in the indigenous population, that rate is more than 60%.
And although school enrollment has increased in recent years, Bortz said it is still a privilege to have access to education. Of the 2 million children in Guatemala that do not attend school at all, the majority are indigenous girls who are among the country’s most disadvantaged, with limited schooling, extreme poverty, early marriage, and frequent childbearing.
Bortz intends to share these facts when she travels to Washington, D.C., next month to lobby Congress for foreign aid and educate our representatives about the situation in Guatemala, as well as the historical and present involvement of the United States in perpetuating the human rights struggles Guatemala continues to face.
Bortz pointed to the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état and what she called a covert operation carried out by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that deposed the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz and ended the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944-1954.
“It installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian rulers in Guatemala,” she said.
But she is convinced it will be the personal stories of the women and children she met that will make the difference.
She won’t be alone. Thirteen other rabbis and cantors, fellows of the prestigious Global Justice Fellowship run by American Jewish World Service, will travel there with her armed with similar stories, excited for the chance to advocate for the human rights of indigenous people and rural farmers they met on the ground in Guatemala, one of the Central American countries that residents are fleeing to seek asylum in the United States.
Bortz told me she decided to apply for a scholarship to make the trip with the Global Justice Fellowship because it would afford her another opportunity to get outside her comfort zone and do something good.
“The idea is to help the world become a better place,” she said.
Bortz and the other fellows hope to play a key role in educating the public and elected officials about the importance of U.S. leadership on the global stage in standing up for human rights and ending poverty around the world.
It’s a tall order but Bortz has spent most of her life doing this work here at home and abroad. She’s worked with an organization in Honduras to build shelters, teach English, and provide counseling to children living on the street; she collaborates closely with an Atlanta nonprofit to keep families living in shelters together, ensuring they have access to lodging, food, and tutoring for kids; and she’s taken local Syrian and Darfuri refugee families under her wing, making sure they have the resources they need to get back on their feet.
She knows from experience that when we listen to people’s stories, we will discover not just who they are but the underlying causes of their pain, and in this case, why they feel the need to flee Guatemala in the first place.
“Congress has a lot on its plate, and our representatives don’t always have all the facts,” Bortz said. “We have a chance to awaken them to a new reality, to explain why we’re seeing what we see on the border.”
The Guatemalan people are fleeing their homes, she said, because of gangs, crippling poverty, no opportunities for their children’s future … but they would rather stay in their country, where they feel a sense of belonging.
“We have to help them do that by defending human rights.”
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