October 10, 2005
Jewish students joined thousands of their classmates, community members and social-justice advocates on Oct. 6 to call attention to the plight of Sudanese in the country's war-torn Darfur region with an international luxury fast. Spearheaded by Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), in cooperation with numerous organizations worldwide, including Hillel, the event encouraged participants to give up one luxury item that day and donate the money they would have spent on the item to a humanitarian-relief organization. Students also organized vigils, rallies, speeches by survivors and petition drives to educate their communities about the genocide in Darfur and push for government action.
"The fast is a great way to engage students and begin fundraising to give money for relief in the effort," said Patrick Schmitt, a student and STAND coordinator at Georgetown University, where the movement began last fall. "One of the difficulties of understanding genocide is that it is unimaginable to know what 400,000 lost lives looks like. It really depends on [facts to be presented] to push the enormity of the situation and illustrate how devastating it really is."
The luxury fast coincided with Tzom Gedaliah, the traditional fast that Jews observe the day following Rosh Hashanah. While the fast was originally instituted to mark the assassination of Gedaliah, the governor of Israel during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, it can also represent Jewish communal responsibility to one another and the larger world. Muslims are also currently celebrating their holy month of Ramadan, during which they fast until sunset each day, so many students abstained from eating as well as observing the luxury fast.
Alissa Melczer, a junior at Loyola University in Chicago, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Gedaliah reminds the Jewish faithful to be an active part of "repairing the world," and shedding light on what's happening in Darfur is certainly one step toward that. Hillel at Loyola University helped organize the campus activities, including a break-fast that evening where nearly 200 people heard from two Darfur refugees.
Brown University's Darfur Action Network held a candlelight vigil and collected more than $1,200 to be donated to Mercy Corps, which helps improve living conditions at the refugee camps in Darfur. Many students also fasted, such as senior Lisabeth Meyers, who told the Providence Journal that being the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors drew her to the Darfur Action Network.
"You hear these expressions -- never again," she said. "As I got older, I realized it was happening again and again."
Along with the more than 43 universities and colleges dedicated to the fast, the STAND coalition garnered the support of many high-profile individuals, including Hillel President Avraham Infeld, comedian Bill Cosby; Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the former commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda; Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times; Judith Lewis, the director of U.S. relations for the World Food Programme; actress Bette Midler; Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); basketball star Dikembe Mutombo; Desmond Tutu, the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa; and Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Rabbi David Saperstein.
Thought the fast has ended, the students' mission is far from over. Hillels around the country are continuing to support their students' efforts, and STAND offers many ways for newcomers to get involved.