Since I returned from Phnom Penh in January, I've been asked, "What's a nice Jewish guy like you doing helping Buddhist and Muslim girls in Cambodia?" My usual response: "Because this is what Jews are called to do."
Each of the world's great religions suggests a fundamental problem with the world and a solution to that problem. For Judaism, the predicament facing the world is brokenness -- the absence of shalom. Judaism's solution? Being God's partner by healing this broken world whenever and wherever possible.
It's called tikun olam, literally "the repair of the world." A lofty goal certainly, but one which requires recognizing the pain of humanity and bringing hope wherever one can. Even as an American Jew in Cambodia.
In January, I had the privilege of spending three days with students at the Harpswell Foundation's leadership center for university women in Cambodia's capital city.
My time there culminated with an Interfaith Symposium on Spirituality attended by members of the Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist communities in Cambodia, with guests from Bangkok to Boston. It was the first time Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish or Christian leaders had ever convened in Cambodia, and it was a sublime and unforgettable experience.
The Harpswell Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded by former Memphian Alan Lightman, the MIT professor and best-selling author. "When I was in Cambodia," Alan told me 12 years ago, "I met with the children of the survivors, and there is a unique determination and spirit to go on despite the odds."
As I heard Alan speak about the resilience, talents and desire of these children of Cambodia to survive, I couldn't help but think of the eerie parallel to the Jewish experience. Cambodia and Israel form the bookends of Asia, but the stories of the Cambodian people and Jewish people in the 20th Century are more than a matter of geography.
From 1975 to 1979, more than one in four Cambodians -- about 2 million people -- were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge. This genocide occurred only decades after the murder of 6 million Jews by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In 1945, the Jewish people shouted, "Never Again!" Thirty years later, the world let it happen again.
Cambodian men, women and children were tortured, forced to dig their own mass graves, then beaten to death with iron bars and hoes. Some were buried alive. The instigator of this genocide, Pol Pot, said to those he murdered, "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss." Every Cambodian lost relatives and friends. Many lost their entire family. But what sadly distinguishes the Cambodia genocide is that educated people were singled out for extermination.
The mission of Lightman's Harpswell Foundation is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and the developing world, specifically through housing, education and leadership training.
In January, I lectured and learned at the leadership center in Phnom Penh, two dormitories which provide a safe place for about three dozen women to live while they attend college. Harpswell believes that those educated women with the magnetism and creative vision to match constitute the most powerful force to bring about positive change in Southeast Asia's poorest country.
In a world filled with darkness, the Harpswell community in Cambodia is pure radiant light. These top female leaders whose parents somehow survived the genocide represent every part of the country and are the best hope for their nation. All have earned scholarships to colleges and universities. Many are the only female students in their fields and are already at the top of their class.
The girls at Harpswell truly believe that if they can become college-educated only years after living in squalor, anything is possible. They are the seed of a global movement to emancipate women and girls for the improvement of humankind.
While I was there, I thought of parallels to Memphis and the occasional words of hopelessness and despair heard from naysayers when it comes to finding solutions to our most pressing problems. Interestingly, these future Cambodian leaders in government and business who came from nothing expressed an interest and willingness to show our youth in Memphis what's possible when you follow a dream and work hard.
As a result, I am hopeful that my next visit to this global role model will result in strengthening the learning link between Cambodia and Memphis to help alleviate poverty, improve education, and elevate the plight of women from violence and fear to hope and optimism.
Tikun olam, the repair and healing of this world, mandates that we join hands with God as Abraham did, and respond to a world in pain. By putting out the fires of violence, ignorance and tyranny, we begin to build the kind of world God wants and needs us for in this lifetime.