Seeing traditional circular mud huts at the roadside in northern Ghana came as something of a shock.
It was no less shocking to see classrooms which would have been out of place in Victorian England, devoid of facilities save for a miserable collection of dilapidated cracked wooden desks, where 120 children are expected to learn at the same time.
Yet as Genna Barnett, country director for Britain’s leading Jewish social action charity Tzedek, explained, the school in question is the best in northern Ghana. It was – appropriately during Chanukah, the festival of miracles – the setting for an extraordinary project launched by the Chief Rabbi.
Rabbi Mirvis embarked on the Ben Azzai programme, which aims to make young people aware of the extent of extreme poverty, because he believes the Jewish community should be reaching out rather than reaching in.
Last year, 16 committed Jewish students went to India. Last week, 16 more of Anglo-Jewry’s brightest and best completed a unique learning opportunity in Ghana, in partnership with Tzedek and supported by the Pears Foundation.
Such social action projects are often taken on by progressive Jews rather than those in the Orthodox community, something that has not escaped the Office of the Chief Rabbi’s (OCR) attention.
Chief Rabbi Mirvis has wanted to see observant Jews taken on a broader brief, bluntly saying: “being socially responsible is an important part of who we are as engaged, outward-facing Jews, as part of a Judaism that emphasises the principle of ‘achrayut’ – responsibility which broadens beyond our immediate circles of concern and extends to humanity at large.”
Not all of the 16 students of the Ghana study tour were from an Orthodox background, but they were all high achievers with volunteering experience from home who the OCR believed could become capable communal leaders in the future.
They were accompanied by Rabbi Daniel Epstein of Cockfosters and North Southgate Synagogue, together with his United Synagogue and Tribe educator wife Ilana, who helped the students link some of what they witnessed — the extreme poverty and deprivation in Ghana — with their Jewish identity and motivation.
The core of the programme was focused on Tamale, the biggest city in northern Ghana, where Tzedek has been working with local communities for 25 years.
Northern Ghana is primarily Muslim, rural and offers an immediate guide to the country’s two huge problems: how to improve the lot of women and how to tackle illiteracy.
Three women who overcame their difficult starts spoke to the students. George Rosenfeld, one of the youngest participants at 18, said he was “inspired” by their stories: “What they said felt to me like the essence of empowerment, and the idea of what can be done in helping people to help themselves.”
For Lauren Keiles, the prospect of going to Ghana opened up after Chief Rabbi Mirvis spoke at her university.
“I knew that if it was a Jewish volunteering trip, the connection would be that we would have a similar mindset — that social responsibility is part of my Jewish identity.
“I believe that whatever denomination you are from, that — social action — is what connects us. We all believe that we have to have global responsibility.”
Two projects supported by Tzedek in the region are striking. One is the Village Savings and Loans Association, which was founded by a Ghanaian community chief. At its most basic, it consists of a large box with three padlocks – but it allows women to save small sums locally in a way not possible with the big city banks.
Then there’s the Shea Butter Women’s Cooperative. It creates one of the most desirable cosmetic creams in the West through the efforts of Ghanaian women in the most labour-intensive way imaginable. The women crouch on pieces of card on a mud-strewn floor, adding water from disused paint cans to gigantic bowls of ground and dried shea nuts, stirring by hand to make a thick creamy paste.
Women traditionally have fewer work and education opportunities than men. Since men are allowed up to four and sometimes up to 12 wives, the resulting number of huge families means that there is rarely money for uniforms, stationery, or girls’ education. The women’s co-operative allows them a measure of economic independence not previously available.
The Ben Azzai group was also able to visit one of Tzedek’s flagship partnership projects, the School for Life, set in an area which has Ghan’as lowest rates of literacy and numeracy. The team painstakingly visited remote rural villages and persuaded parents to let their children come back to school. The desks and equipment may be Dickensian and the classroom overcrowded, but the sheer will to succeed and make Ghana a developed country is really admirable.
They were also able to meet Ghanian youth leaders for whom Tzedek is running a leadership development programme. These near-contemporaries, whose opportunities have been nowhere near those of the Ben Azzai participants, could well be the future social and political movers and shakers of Ghana.
Like last year’s India cohort, the Ghana group pledged to take their stories and impressions to their communities, synagogues and campuses. Jordana Price, a first year geography student at Cambridge, said the trip helped her to focus on the way she expresses her Jewish identity — and also on keeping tabs on international developments in the news.
She, and all the Ben Azzai group, left Ghana determined on one thing: to try to make a difference.