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Counting the Omer and Nigeria’s Kidnapped Girls

Nigerian women call for the freedom of Chibok’s kidnapped girls / Getty Images

Last month, an Islamist armed group called Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Presumably, these girls will be killed or sold into slavery and child marriages.

Even though I sit here in Los Angeles, this crisis affects me personally, deeply and immediately. You see, I am a Jewish mother of three daughters: Zohar, Ella and Hadar. And even though I do not know the names of the 276 girls, I know who they are. I see them clearly. They are my Zohar, my Ella, my Hadar.

I know what slavery means. I grew up reciting, every year at the Passover Seder, “In each generation, each person must envision being freed from slavery in Egypt.”

If I can imagine that, how can I not imagine what the mothers (and fathers and sisters and brothers) of those girls are feeling? And how can I not act upon my feelings of sadness, fear and outrage? After all, the Torah teaches, “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Those girls and their families are not strangers to me. They are my family.

The period between Passover and Shavuot is called Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer. It connects the redemption from slavery and the granting of physical freedom of Passover to the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the acquisition of spiritual freedom, marked by Shavuot.

Each day is counted, as a way of asking what we are doing each and every day to walk toward freedom. By extension, we must ask, what are we doing to help others walk toward freedom?

This Sunday — Mother’s Day — I am flying to Washington, D.C. to participate in a Policy Summit organized by American Jewish World Service. I will be joining 150 Jewish activists and rabbis to urge our legislators to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) — a critical bipartisan piece of legislation that was just introduced by one of my state’s U.S. Senators, Barbara Boxer, on May 8.

IVAWA supports programs that have been shown to decrease violence against women and girls. Many of these programs help women and girls do things we so often take for granted — go to school, earn an income to help sustain families, collect food or water without fear of rape or harassment, and bring perpetrators of abuse to justice.

Upon explaining to my daughters why we will not be together this Mother’s Day, I told them I need to be a mommy for girls around the world who are in trouble; I need to make sure that girls can go to school, that they are not forced into early marriage, and that no one will hurt them.

My youngest looked at me in dismay. Why would someone hurt little girls? I looked at my sweet girl’s face, and I had no answer. When she curled up next to me so that I could read her a bedtime story, my heart broke for the hundreds of mothers who do not know where their girls are sleeping.

As I watched my child smile while she dreamed, I cried for the shattered dreams of 276 girls, whose only crime was going to school. And as my three daughters lay safe and sound in their beds, I knew that I cannot just stand idly by, sigh and lament this terrible situation in Nigeria. I must do more. We all must do more. These girls in Nigeria? They are our girls.

This Shabbat, Jews in synagogues around the world read a section of the Torah, Parashat Behar, which describes the Torah’s mechanism for freeing slaves. We heard the famous statement, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…” (Lev. 25:10).

These words, which are inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia — an icon of American freedom — resonated deeply with me this Shabbat. I pray they can remind us that we are all created in the Divine image; that no one should be enslaved. I pray they can call us to act, to tell Congress to pass IVAWA, so that we are one step closer to realizing a world in which all girls will be safe, secure and free to live their lives.

I pray we can make this time of counting the Omer meaningful by asking ourselves and each other, “What am I doing to help others walk toward freedom?”

Naomi Ackerman is the founder and executive director of The Advot Project: Theatre For Transformation, and a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service.

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