Former environmental attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik has lived the good life. She was well-respected in the legal community, having served as president of the California Women Lawyers in the late 1980s. She was a founder and president of California Women’s Law Center, a public-interest organization advocating for the rights of women and girls; a trustee of the California State Bar’s Trust Fund; and a trustee of the LA County Bar. She practiced law with her husband and longtime legal partner, and the couple lived comfortably in the Los Angeles area with their two children.
But when her children finished high school and began leading their own lives, Kamenir-Reznik decided she wanted something more, something that would leave a legacy of positive change. She and her husband decided that both of them no longer needed to earn six figures. He remained in the legal field, but she left their practice to make an impact on the other side of the world.
“I was always very involved in very activist causes,” Kamenir-Reznik told WEALTH magazine. “But I didn’t want to be one of those people who sits in her five-thousand-square-foot home, fully decorated, and cries about the terrible things happening in the world and writes checks. I wanted to understand for myself. I wanted it to permeate my soul.”
So in 2002, Kamenir-Reznik began to do charitable work full time. It was a question from her rabbi that led her to Africa. He asked her about organizing against the Darfur genocide, and she had to admit she didn’t even know where Darfur was, let alone what was happening in the war-torn region. After she learned about the civil uprising’s horrific human toll—the United Nations estimates at least 300,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced—she set out to do something about it.
“I was really inspired by the notion that during the Holocaust, we [Jews] were abandoned by the rest of the world and lost half our people,” she says. “How could the world have allowed such an abandonment? Yet it’s happened recently in Rwanda, and who came to the aid of the millions there? What about Cambodia? There have been thirty-six genocides between the Holocaust and Darfur. How are these people any different than we were? I thought, ‘How could we vilify people who let us die and not feel some responsibility to others?’ ”
Within two weeks of leaving her law practice, Kamenir-Reznik had co-founded Jewish World Watch and coordinated a meeting for synagogue leaders in the Los Angeles area. The group decided that providing solar cookers for refugees would be a great way to help keep women and children safer, as they were vulnerable to rape and physical harm when they tried to gather firewood for cooking.
Only six months later, JWW members gathered more than $125,000 and purchased solar cookers known as CooKits from Solar Cookers International. They then traveled to Africa and trained instructors to teach the women in the Iridimi refugee camp how to use the cookers they assembled.
“I went to Darfur and came back completely changed by the people I met, people I am unlikely to ever see again,” Kamenir-Reznik says. “But their stories come back to me and are superimposed on me. They entrusted me with their tragedies, so I would come back here and use all of my talents and skills to make a big difference.
“It’s just an incredible thing to be able to move from corporate America to what guides my conscience every day.”
Today, after just five years, JWW has raised and distributed more than $4 million for direct relief aid, primarily to Darfur’s 2.5 million refugees, and to Chad and the Central African Republic. Kamenir-Reznik has made several trips to the region, including a visit in November 2009 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire.
“We added Congo because almost six million people have been killed over the last 10 years, and women are just being destroyed,” she says. “Congo is one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world. Cell phones are made with minerals from the Congo. And in order to control the mineral wealth in the country, you have to destroy the villages. The easiest way to do that is to destroy the women.
“Women’s bodies are ravaged and their wombs destroyed. And the church there is the only infrastructure to work with, so we work with the Catholic and Protestant churches to be able to build economic development projects so women can care for their babies of rape and get surgeries they need. We were very successful in that mission.”
Altogether in Africa so far, the organization has constructed three medical clinics, built 25 water wells, and handed out 15,000 educational toys and 15,000 backpacks filled with school supplies, shoes and hygiene items. There are chapters nationwide and hundreds of organizations that count themselves as members of JWW. The nonprofit has inspired schoolchildren, college students and business professionals alike to take part in worldwide relief efforts. It has motivated people to care for others who live across the globe.
“In America, we live these beautiful, privileged lives in the wealthiest country in the world,” Kamenir-Reznik says, “and part of our obligation is not to close our eyes to what’s happening in other places. My job is to visit these people and come back and be their representative and tell their stories. Because a huge percentage of our digital cameras, computers and cell phones are made with minerals that were illegally mined in the Congo at the expense of women’s bodies. Once you know that, wouldn’t you pay more to make sure your phone or computer isn’t a phone or computer of rape?”
To that end, JWW is raising political awareness, lobbying Congress for a “blood diamond”-type of chain of custody that would trace the minerals used in electronics back to the original mines.
“Do I feel wealthy? Incredibly so,” Kamenir-Reznik shares. “I loved the law, because justice is important. But I was really just working to transfer money from one person to another. Allocating resources in a fair way is all well and good, but it wasn’t God’s work. Helping create justice between two people is much different than helping a woman get surgery who has been gang-raped by 12 men for a period of four weeks and now can’t hold her urine. Working in those kinds of situations unpeels you to a level of much more basic humanity.”
Kamenir-Reznik says it is real lives being changed for the better that makes her feel her life is truly rich. She speaks about her journeys to Africa to area groups and synagogues and loves seeing others catch the vision to help.
“Sort of what the mission of JWW is, in a way, is to educate people about things they haven’t thought about before,” she says. “We are all connected and responsible for each other, especially for widows, orphans and unempowered, exploited people.
“We should be asking ourselves, ‘Am I giving enough financially?’ and ‘Can I spend some of my time worrying about other people instead of myself?’ If we put away our narcissism and self-absorption, we might create some different results.”
Kamenir-Reznik says the most interesting part of giving sacrificially of your time, money and energy is that what costs you the most ends up becoming your biggest blessing.
“I feel completely enriched every day of my life, giving voice to the voiceless, shoes to the shoeless, medical care to those with none,” she says. “I am helping to breathe life into people who are forgotten. Because, for a long time, the world didn’t know that six million people had been killed [in Congo] in the last 10 years. They were completely invisible souls. How could people be invisible?
“Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting my hair cut in a nice style and wearing nice clothes to go to a nice lunch, but life is not all about aesthetics. A purpose-driven life is such an excellent adage. Every day, we should be asking what kind of valuable contribution we can make today.”
Natalie Nichols Gillespie, a freelance writer based in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, is the former Editorial Director of WEALTH magazine.