Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf with the leader of a collective of midwives in Guatemala
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf with the leader of a collective of midwives in Guatemala

Guatemalan midwives taught me the meaning of moral courage

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Traveling in Guatemala last month, I met many ordinary people doing extraordinary things. In a country where the rule of law is not guaranteed and personal freedoms are not protected, moral courage propels people to go above and beyond for others.

What is moral courage? It’s the courage required to take action in the face of injustice, despite possible personal consequences. It’s the courage required to act, when staying quiet would be so much easier. It’s the courage needed to banish complacency.

I traveled as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service. AJWS is an organization that helps the American Jewish community look outwards — well beyond the borders of our own country. Their work challenges us to investigate and learn about civil societies all over the world.

Guatemala is one of 19 countries in which AJWS provides financial and other assistance through grants and a network of program officers. They support 21 organizations in Guatemala. We met with five of them, learning about the impressive moral courage of their leaders.

Many of the heroes we met are women who are inspiring other women to join together and gain strength as one voice. We spent a day with leaders of CODECOT, a network of more than 700 indigenous Mayan midwives working in small communities. These women have become the spiritual guides and supporters of women who seek their advice on pregnancy-related issues.

Officially, they provide women with prenatal and postpartum care and safe birthing options, all leading to better health outcomes and more autonomy for the patients. Unofficially, they do far more. They connect women all over the country who work together at times when men are not present. They help women understand the right to a safe and non-abusive home, nutrition and good family care. They help women know that they are valued and that their lives matter.

Freedom, safety and opportunity allow people to build lives that feel worthwhile in their own countries.

We were invited to the home of one of these midwives. There we talked openly with a small group of midwives who had travelled to tell their stories. We learned that the midwives walk long distances to see their patients — especially those in labor — often putting themselves at great risk. They experience the threat of violence from gangs and vicious dogs as they walk alone at night. To support other women, the midwives put themselves in danger. But moral courage propels them forward, as they feel a responsibility to help women and babies to be supported and safe. It was quite an extraordinary experience to be in the presence of these courageous Mayan women.

We met many other ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Two journalists spoke to us. At great personal danger, they report on government corruption and abuse. We met with a brave man who had survived an attack on his family because of their Mayan ethnicity. He told us of Guatemala’s many decades of ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples. We also met with young women building a grassroots coalition to allow girls to be educated along with their brothers.

Above all, during my visit to Guatemala, I learned about the importance of supporting, promoting and helping to create civil societies that allow their citizens to live with basic human dignities. Freedom, safety and opportunity allow people to build lives that feel worthwhile in their own countries. That way, they contribute to their society’s growth, instead of looking for a way to escape.

The moral courage I witnessed in Guatemala is an inspiration to me as I settle back into my American life. How can I act out of moral courage? How can I encourage others to believe, against all odds, that justice will prevail if we work hard enough? How can I support the efforts of ordinary people who do extraordinary things?

As the first sanctuary synagogue in San Francisco, Congregation Sherith Israel has become a leader in accompaniment work with migrants here. We work with other synagogues and faith communities to strengthen civil society in our own country and around the world. Our Jewish values compel us to engage in the ongoing pursuit of justice.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.