From practice to theory, and back again

Since participating in an international development trip to Honduras and Ukraine last year, I have spent much time thinking about human dignity — that we all have the right to live at a standard that dignifies us. Such self-realization is only possible with access to opportunities and freedom from oppression.

When a child is unable to attend school, her opportunity to find herself and to develop her intrinsic human abilities is severely limited. When a young person has to fight in war or fend for his starving family, he has time for little else, and probably lacks the energy or the resources for self-discovery and achievement. When a person dies a premature death, his potential is forever silenced, and an entire world of ability and possible achievement and contribution is destroyed. That person’s love, tenderness, ideas and expressions will never find their way to the mind or spirit of another.

On a trip last summer called the International Jewish College Corps, sponsored by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I connected this philosophy of humanness to the importance of doing good works to provide opportunity and to relieve people of the oppressive barriers to their own self-realization. In Honduras, I worked with 14 other North American Jewish college students to install a potable water system in a small village. Our work allowed mothers to send their kids to school instead of to the watering hole, and the villagers could live healthier and longer lives, free from the diseases of polluted water, free to engage in their community without the obstacles of constant health concerns and treks to a distant watering hole.

In Ukraine, as part of the same trip, we joined with another 15 students (who had gone to Ghana to build a school) to renovate the Jewish community in the city of Kharkov. We cleared the Jewish cemetery of overgrowth and fallen branches to restore dignity to the last resting place of many who died under an oppressive and anti-Semitic regime. We also cleaned up a Holocaust memorial at the site of a massacre of Jews. By doing so, we honored the lives and the potential of those who perished before their time, and we mourned the loss of all that they might have given and experienced.

I extracted my philosophy about the potential for building dignity by doing good from two principal observations: First, the children whom a few of us taught in Honduras were intelligent and excited about learning and practicing what they learned. Most of them would never be able to apply that intellectual capacity and curiosity outside of their town. Most of them would not go beyond the sixth grade. Only a handful would go to high school in the city hours away.

Second, and conversely, in Ukraine, a community that had been all but annihilated was experiencing a spiritual and cultural renaissance. Residents had rebuilt their synagogue, dedicated beautiful memorials, opened a museum, started a theater, founded several schools and established a Hillel. This rebirth was an amazing testimony to human ability and human spirit. After years of oppression during the Holocaust and communism, this community had survived and rebuilt itself.

On the other hand, many elderly Jews were still impoverished and living in squalor, especially those who have suffered so much already (one elderly man I visited tried on his Auschwitz prisoner uniform for us). But a thriving community was trying to provide through hospice and meal services.

I connected this summer experience, via a developing philosophy, to my past experiences in community service and to my goals as a law student at U.C. Hastings. During college, I tutored and mentored low-income minority youth because I knew, intuitively, that I had a responsibility to help provide opportunity for self-exploration and self-realization, to promote the human ability of others.

When I interned at the public defender’s office for a summer, I saw lawyers devote themselves to their clients whom they knew to possess some amount of goodness and humanity. I work at the General Assistance Advocacy Project because disabled people deserve to live with dignity. I also continue to do fund-raising and recruiting for AJWS because its work provides people in developing countries with the means to a life more fitting to their status as human.

While I was already committed to going to law school, the summer experience infused this commitment with a new significance. I would apply something I was always interested in, and something I knew I would be good at, to serve the dignity of others. Since grade school, and especially since 1994, when my 19-year-old cousin and her best friend were sexually assaulted and murdered, I wanted to be a prosecutor. My cousin’s death has also taken on a new significance since last summer. Her potential was silenced and her humanness was degraded by suffering and fear — something I re-experienced during my work abroad.

I still plan to pursue a career as a criminal prosecutor, but I also want to work in civil rights. The same principles of human dignity and human potential motivate both goals. When a criminal hurts someone, makes someone fear or kills, he violates his victim’s right to feel safe from pain and fear or her right to pursue and explore her own humanness. When the crime is prosecuted, society essentially denounces the mistreatment of its human members.

Similarly, when a person is deprived of her civil rights, her humanness and potential are degraded, and she is not treated as a human being deserves to be.

This summer, I will be interning in an office that combines both fields — the criminal section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. The attorneys there prosecute civil rights crimes, which are motivated out of racial hatred or which deliberately deprive others of their civil rights. These include arson of religious institutions, hate crimes, involuntary servitude and obstruction of access to health clinics, as well as police misconduct.

I hope to explore whether these principles of human dignity can guide me from experience-based theory into a meaningful and effective legal career.

Aaron Bernell Zisser, raised in Campbell, is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and now a student at U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. The International Jewish College Corps, sponsored by AJWS, is accepting applications for this summer. Information: (800) 889-7146, or