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South of the Border

On a trip to Guatemala, a rabbi gets a deeper look at the root causes of immigration.

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There's a Jewish proverb that says "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Temple Beth-El Rabbi Michael Knopf takes the adage to heart and recently returned from an international trip that examined and embraced this concept of connectedness.

Named a Global Justice Fellow by the American Jewish World Service, a nonprofit that supports human rights efforts around the world, Knopf was one of 15 prominent Jewish leaders to travel to Guatemala in mid-January.

The purpose of the trip wasn't missionary or service-oriented — it was about learning. The weeklong excursion was an opportunity to meet recipients of grants from the service, see the work up close and return with an understanding of how happenings in the U.S. affects those in other countries, and vice versa.

"They call it a human rights-based approach," Knopf says of the nonprofit. "They lift up the work that people are doing on the grass roots, and try to give them more of an ability to do the work that they otherwise wouldn't have had."

The group provides funding to hundreds of social justice organizations in 19 countries. In Guatemala, recipients include a network of indigenous midwives who provide free services in impoverished areas, a group of lawyers representing victims of human rights violations and a collective of independent journalists who cover social justice. The group of American Jewish clergy met with representatives of five groups, communicating with real-time translations through headsets.

For Knopf, the experience was a reminder that people across the globe risk their lives on the front lines for human rights every day. When asked if anyone had a story that particularly stuck with him, he slowly answers "Yes," while removing his glasses to massage his temples.

One of the young journalists he met in Antigua, Guatemala, whose work to expose government corruption puts her in regular danger, told him about a recent court case she covered. To provide for their own safety, she and her colleagues often had to "be smart and compromise" on the job, she said. So after a family member of the person on trial pointed a gun at her outside the courthouse, she told Knopf, she could have reported him — but she has children at home, so she decided not to risk publicizing the threat.

Rabbi Michael Knopf
  • Rabbi Michael Knopf

"I'm also a parent of little kids," Knopf says.

He was also struck by the midwives and their dedication to helping poor women in a patriarchal society. Knopf recalls a harrowing tale of a midwife traveling on foot to deliver a baby. A stray dog bit her, and equipped with nothing but some homemade cornmeal, she formed a tortilla on the spot, used it to bind the multiple wounds and "just kept going to go deliver the baby," he recalls.

"That conviction and sense of purpose that people had was really moving," he says.

When Knopf and his fellow clergy left for Guatemala, the longest government shutdown in American history had been going on for more than three weeks. It wasn't lost on him that while the president and legislators engaged in a standoff over a wall at the southern border, he and his cohort visited a country where immigration to the U.S. has rapidly increased in recent years. According to an October story in The New York Times, more than 42,000 Guatemalans traveling as families had been stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last year.

He takes issue with the pervasive political narrative associating immigration with violence.

"What seems to be coming out of the White House is that we need to be thinking of immigration by and large as a criminal justice issue, most people who try to cross the border are criminals and we need to keep them out," Knopf says. "It's not true statistically, and it wasn't true to me empirically in hearing about it and seeing what was going on there."

Knopf explains that many challenges in Guatemala are "our responsibility in the first place," referring to America's involvement in overthrowing President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954. More than 30 years of internal conflict and genocide against indigenous people followed the coup d'etat, which was widely criticized and suspected of having economic motivations related to the United Fruit Co., now Chiquita Brands International.

"Seeing, both then and now, how what happens here has an impact on what happens elsewhere in the world, we're interconnected in that way," Knopf says. "It may be possible to be America first, but it's not possible to be America only."

Today, about 60 percent of the population in Guatemala lives in poverty, with roughly 23 percent living in extreme poverty, which Knopf says appeared to be the driving factor for leaving home.

"I do not begrudge those people in the least for wanting to come here in search of a better life," Knopf says. "That's what my ancestors did."

On Wednesday, Feb. 13, Knopf will deliver a presentation on his take-aways from the trip. The event, held at Temple Beth-El, begins at 7:30 p.m.

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