Yeshiva students
Yeshiva students. Photo by Dan Keinan
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When I told my friends that I was off to spend two weeks volunteering with the American Jewish World Service in Ghana, many of them were shocked. "Why would you want to go there?" they asked, "Haven't we got enough problems in Israel?"

When they heard that the trip would require me to receive inoculations against a terrifying array of diseases, sleep under a mosquito net, and take anti-Malarial tablets, they thought I was mad. "Stay in Israel," they said, “that’s where you are needed"

As a Yeshiva student, I was deeply inspired by Religious Zionism. Israel was increasingly prosperous, it was winning its battles against the Arabs and our classrooms were packed with Jews from every corner of the earth.

It really seemed that God was on our side, the ingathering of the exiles was underway, and the arrival of the Messiah was imminent. I felt pious and smug.

At the time, my study partner asked me a question that shattered my religious equanimity. "How can you be so sure that we stand at the beginning of the Messianic era," he queried, "when every day twenty-five thousand people die of poverty related hunger and disease?"

His question has haunted me ever since. My religious Zionist ideals remain. I love the idea of building an idealistic, ethical, society with justice for every resident of our ancient homeland. But the same beliefs which motivated me to leave London and make aliyah to Jerusalem compel me occasionally to look beyond our boarders to those who live in the most poverty-stricken parts of the world.

So, when I received an e mail calling for "awesome, young rabbis" to join an American Jewish World Service Mission to Africa, I was thrilled. It was an opportunity to go with my head held high as an Orthodox Rabbi to volunteer my services and more importantly learn about some of the issues of poverty, trafficking and sustainable development.

Traveling with a Jewish organization meant that all my religious and culinary needs were taken care of and all we had to do was immerse ourselves in the program.

Our mornings were spent building a new structure for a school. We were a ramshackle team of rabbinic builders. Barely any of us had mixed cement before, our experience was limited to erecting a shaky sukkah each year which need only remain standing for seven or eight days, so it’s questionable as to whether our Ghana structure is still standing!

Fortunately, we worked alongside professional builders who taught us the tricks of their trade, Ghanaian songs, culture and so much more besides.

Over the course of our trip, we ventured down to the seaside where boats were filled with child slaves, sold by parents who could not afford to feed them. The children are sent diving down to the bottom of the ocean to untangle the fishing nets which get caught on the rocks.

Since the children cost far less than the nets, their lives are easily expendable and many drown in the process.

Witnessing this horrible exploitation of children made the work that we did in the local school all the more rewarding.

The school is redeeming children from slavery, counseling them and educating them. For the first time in history, children from this village are becoming literate, learning to use basic facilities and are building the foundations for healthier, longer lives.

It was exhilarating to spend our evenings in workshops and seminars learning about varying Jewish responses to sustainable development. We discussed how to avoid simply throwing money and material objects at the problem, but instead make a lasting, sustainable difference.

As Israel calls on its government for social justice, I find my mind wandering back to the child slaves, the homeless, the sick and the poverty stricken that I met in Ghana.

Our primary responsibility is to our own people, our land and the formation of a just, democratic and caring society for everyone who lives here. It is an enormous project and we must constantly renew our full commitment to it.

We are exceedingly fortunate that it is within our capacity to make such changes and I am proud that I came to live in Israel to play my part in building and developing our country.

However, as Jews our responsibilities extend beyond our own turf to the people of the world who are suffering. As the motto of the school we volunteered at declares – "From those to whom much is given, much is expected".

That is why I went to Ghana.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel and director of the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.