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The Road to Redemption
by Josh Ruxin

In a place where murderers can live side-by-side with the families of their victims, anything is possible. The key is figuring out which interventions can move the most people the fastest.

I’m sitting with my wife and daughter looking out through a living room window over Kigali, Rwanda, reminiscing about exactly how in the world we ended up here. Passover preparations are underway, and for the fourth year in a row, we’ll be sharing this holiday not with family in Ridgefield, Connecticut or San Francisco, but with our friends in this central African republic. We’ve finally mastered the art of home-baked matzah, and now we’re tracking down ingredients for our family’s traditional chicken marbella (note: prunes are not easy to find in Kigali). Our guest list balloons every year, particularly among our Rwandan friends, who absolutely adore this holiday.

It’s been a long and circuitous road from Ridgefield, an affluent town where I was one of just a handful of Jews in my public school. I still recall the arguments over the crèche in front of the town’s community center on Main Street and how anti-Semitism of the most juvenile kind lurked in the school corridors. Still, as a 14-year-old geek (though I’m sure the term nerd was more in fashion at the time) complete with braces and a lanky frame, I was much more obsessed with the lucrative earnings I foresaw in my home computer installation business, “Computer Catch.”

In 1983, though, my Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ambitions began to change. I was preparing for my bar mitzvah at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut…and questions about social activism started creeping out of the corners of my mind. Contemplating my bar mitzvah speech on Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, I had dozens of conversations with my rabbi, Charles Lippman, of blessed memory. Rabbi Chuck, as he was called, was a bit of a radical in his day—advocating for gay rights in the Reform Movement and fighting for a slew of social causes. He taught me that the reason bad things happen to good people is because too many of us are indifferent to the suffering of others. He made it clear that my memorization of Torah passages and prayers was secondary to fighting for social justice, and he encouraged me to conduct my social action through a Jewish lens and my Judaism through a humanitarian lens.

My first chance to take real social action happened a year later, when a representative from Operation Moses, the organization that would transport thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, spoke at our synagogue about the dire fate awaiting our poor and hungry brethren in Ethiopia, a situation worsening by the day. Their plight coincided with the Ethiopian famine, which was grabbing headlines, particularly after rock stars launched Live Aid. In response, a group of Ridgefield teachers and students formed Ridgefield Efforts At Crushing Hunger (REACH). At our first event—a walkathon through town—we raised more than $50,000. By my sophomore year of high school I’d become a REACH student leader, and within a year, we had mobilized hundreds of schools nationwide under the umbrella “Student for Child Survival” to raise awareness and fundraise for global health issues. I was now the de facto national spokesperson, presenting our concerns to a congressional subcommittee and coordinating with development organizations.

In 1987 I decided to go to Ethiopia to see for myself the fruits of our efforts. From the Addis Ababa airport, we—five students and one teacher—took a rickety government plane to the remote Yifat and Tamuga village area in the north. A group of students, all orphans from the famine, invited me into their classroom, a mud hut with a thatched roof and one prominent, jarring detail: a poster of the students from Ridgefield who had participated three years earlier in fundraising activities. Apparently an aid worker bound for Ethiopia had received the poster and decided it would be a nice gesture to bring it out to the middle of nowhere. The village kids recognized my picture on the poster and were amazed. They weren’t half as amazed as I was. At that moment I had the epiphany of so many who work in fighting poverty: that there really is no distance between us and the extremely poor, and that the greatest difference in our lives is a matter of circumstance. I started to weep uncontrollably, and the villagers and students gathered round to comfort me. That was the moment I decided that I needed to figure out some way to make a contribution to ending the outrageous chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished. I’ve been working on it ever since.

After graduating from Yale in 1992, I began traveling throughout the world, working for a variety of development projects while earning a Masters in Public Health and a PhD in Medical History. In Bolivia, as in El Salvador, Colombia, Namibia, Nigeria, and Kenya, I tried to understand the roots of poverty and the leverage points for progress. Everywhere I sought out the Jewish community for its embrace and support. In the midst of these travels I met Alissa, a woman with a similar wanderlust and a profound desire to make a contribution in Africa—the woman who would one day become my wife.

Surprisingly, one of the countries I was most drawn to and felt most at home in had no synagogue or cohesive Jewish community: Rwanda. Perhaps it was because the Tutsis, who consider themselves one of the lost tribes of Israel, feel a deep camaraderie and historic tie with Jews. Combine that with the Catholic Church’s complicity in the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis (and moderate Hutus), and you, upon revealing your ethnicity as a Jew, will receive a warm Rwandan welcome.

Rwanda’s recent history has also shaped the country’s pro-Jewishness. When Rwanda’s ruling class, the minority Tutsis, were forced from power in 1959, the Hutu leadership began a series of systematic massacres. Pogrom-like in their frequency and approach, these attacks, combined with the Tutsis’ now second-class status, prompted hundreds of thousands to flee Rwanda and live in exile. In South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, the U.S., Belgium, England, and elsewhere, generations of Rwandan Tutsis preserved their traditions and language—Kinyarwanda—and dreamed of returning home. One such exile, Paul Kagame, eventually became a leader in Uganda’s military. In the 1980s he and his colleagues secretly built a military within a military, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which took control of Rwanda on July 4, 1994—but not before more than one million people, mostly Tutsis, were murdered between April and July of that year.

By the late 1990s Rwanda’s borders were secure, and, despite having few natural resources, the nation, led by President Paul Kagame, was beginning to enjoy booming prosperity and growth. Nevertheless, Rwandan Tutsis still feel vulnerable, as refugee genocidal killers and various other rebel groups carry out attacks against them from strongholds in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just over Rwanda’s borders, more than five million people have died in the ongoing epidemic of disease, murder, rape, and torture, and there remains no international consensus to do anything about it. Moreover, millions of Rwandans are desperate to escape from a life of poverty. The average Rwandan woman has six children to support on less than one dollar per day. Rwanda desperately needs prosperity creation—employment, capacity-building, new companies, foreign expertise and training, and investment to get real take-off, create a larger tax base, and move forward. Public health improvements, access to micro-finance (loans that have helped the poor throughout Asia), and education alone are not enough.

And so, here we are, my wife Alissa and me, trying to do what we can for prosperity creation in Rwanda. When Alissa first arrived in 2006, she sought to apply what she’d learned at Harvard’s public health program as a coordinator for Orphans of Rwanda, perhaps the only organization in sub-Saharan Africa that’s focused on higher (rather than primary or secondary) education for orphans. Soon she realized that job creation was more important—and designed a top-tier restaurant that would give dozens of orphans jobs with fair wages and health care. Built by 100 workers from scratch and overseen by a pregnant Alissa, Heaven Restaurant is now a glorious open-air space overlooking Kigali’s hills crafted from native materials and flush with local artwork, a New York-style international kitchen, and a bar complete with Rwanda’s only mojitos. It’s Kigali’s hotspot, and nearly three dozen orphans keep it running smoothly. Alissa plans to also make it into Rwanda’s premier vocational training center. It’s a clear tribute to what Rwanda needs and what Rwanda can become.

For my part, building on my earlier experience in Rwanda, I started up and began directing three projects: the Millennium Village Project Rwanda, a poverty reduction initiative which encompasses improvements in health, job creation, and agriculture (started by a fellow Columbia professor, Jeffrey Sachs, who received the Union for Reform Judaism’s Eisendrath Award for Service to Humanity); the Access Project, which provides management to 79 health centers serving 2.5 million people; and the National Neglected Tropical Disease Program, which de-worms more than five million Rwandans yearly.

The Millennium Villages Project met with astonishing success in just the first 12 months of operation. One community organizer told me—jokingly, of course—that I’d robbed her of her job as funeral director. Whereas she used to preside over about one child’s funeral per week, she hadn’t had a funeral in months. Farmers’ yields have increased by more than 60% and famine, a lurking threat, has vanished. Women like Jeanne Mukamurigo, a widow and mother of three, are no longer destitute. Today, thanks to our basket-weaving cooperative, her kids are in school and she’s saving up for their university education. The resilience of this community of 25,000 has convinced me that in a place where murderers can live side-by-side with the families of their victims, anything is possible. The key is figuring out which interventions can move the most people the fastest.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from Millennium Village is that as soon as people are healthy and not traumatized by maternal and childhood death, they want jobs. Thus, healthcare is the first building block to economic growth. With this knowledge I’ve initiated Rwanda Community Works (RCW) to start local businesses in the impoverished Bugesera District, the very epicenter of the genocide. RCW is focusing on building the district a top-quality health system while simultaneously raising the capital for new for-profit businesses in fashion, tourism, and agribusiness. Under the label The Urban Village, rural women like Angelique Nisengwe, 45 (who has four children but no house), are paid nearly $5 for their labor—up from $0 before the project began—to produce high-end mohair scarves for export. In tourism, the RCW team is working with the district and a local cooperative to create visitor centers with cafes, gift shops, exhibitions, etc. at several genocide sites visited by hundreds of international tourists. A slew of other agribusiness investments are currently under consideration by donors and investors alike: an eco-lodge on the border with Burundi which would take advantage of some of the world’s most impressive migratory bird life, a dairy and fruit processing plant to package local products, and poultry production for the district and the nation. Several such companies and business ventures already exist, employing hundreds of people, and in five years the workers should be in the thousands. New American-style businesses will change lives more effectively than any hand-outs ever could in the last place you’d expect to find opportunity: rural Rwanda.

Now, as our Rwandan friends (including former soldiers who liberated the country in 1994) join us at our Passover table adorned with gorgeous Rwandan flowers, I think of the talmudic teaching that to save one life is like saving a world. The good news is, we’ve made great strides in saving the world. Global infant mortality rates are at an all-time low. Malaria, one of the top killers of children, is finally being fought strategically, with increasing resources deployed for insecticide-treated bednets and effective therapy. The momentum lost in the wake of AIDS is beginning to be regained. And throughout Asia, hundreds of millions of people have been moved from poverty to prosperity.

The question for us, as North Americans and Jews, is whether we’re ready to offer support at unprecedented levels to provide sub-Saharan Africans with the same promising future. For what amounts to a pinch out of our household income, we may yet be able to create a poverty-free Rwanda. Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank, says that in just a generation we may be able to build museums about past poverty in the poorest countries. To that, I add: We should dream of museums filled with arts and entertainment, built with the prosperity that is waiting to be created.

We have been telling the Jewish story of freedom for thousands of years. Now it’s time to help create a similar story for the Rwandan poor. As one young Rwandan said to me, “Poverty is lack of freedom.” The poor are not free to choose, not free to study, not free to travel, not free to control their lives, and in the case of women, not even free to control their bodies. Faced with large families and perennial pregnancy, women—the very key to salvation of the poor—are the least free of all, enslaved just as we were in Egypt. Perhaps decades from now, Passover seders in Rwanda will include a second haggadah, one that tells of this people’s redemption.


Professor Josh Ruxin resides in Rwanda with his wife Alissa and their daughter Maya. As a professor of Public Health at Columbia University, he directs the Access Project, which delivers assistance to 79 Rwandan health clinics. He also founded and directs the Neglected Tropical Disease Control Project, which de-wormed over five million Rwandans in 2008; the Millennium Villages Project; and Rwanda Community Works. In his free time, he is known to bartend at Heaven, Alissa’s restaurant in Kigali.  


Union for Reform Judaism.