From Danville to the Amazon
Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, a passionate interfaith advocate in Danville, California, never intended to be a rabbi. In fact he was a filmmaker and an adventurous “border-crosser” when he was selected to be an interim spiritual leader for Beth Chaim Congregation in the San Ramon Valley, just a 30 minute drive from Berkeley, California.
When the contract of their Reconstructionist rabbi ended, the B’nai Chaim congregants told Dan they wanted him to be their rabbi.
“I’m not a rabbi,” he insisted. “Then become one,” they told him.
“I went kicking and screaming into the Aleph Jewish Renewal rabbinical program,” he recalls. Known for his playfulness and self-deprecating humor, it’s obvious Rabbi Goldblatt loves hyperbole. Actually, he dove into his studies with enthusiasm. In 1995 he was ordained as a rabbi and since has served Danville’s Jewish community.
Two years earlier he had joined the existing Interfaith San Ramon Valley (I-SRV), originally an ecumenical council of churches. At the time there were no synagogues nearby and no Jews in the group. Their programs were organized around Good Friday and Christianity. Rabbi Dan was not included at first. But a natural progression occurred, just as it has been happening in the rest of America, he points out, “a raising of consciousness through progressive leadership.”
The I-SRV motto became “No proselytizing,” he said, and the evangelical contingent soon stopped participating. Today they have Baha’is, Catholics, Christian Scientists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Mormons, and followers of The Ma.
Three months after he joined, he vividly remembers, they held the I-SRV meeting at his synagogue, instead of at the Lutheran church. “Then one morning we woke up to find a swastika had been scrawled on the window of the local Jewish book store,” Rabbi Dan remembers.
“I was new in the community and had no idea how to respond. We live in an upscale, gated community, and people were scandalized,” he recalled. “Someone from the interfaith group called me and said we want to have a meeting at your synagogue today. Twelve people showed up.
“This is not just about the Jewish community,” they emphasized. “This is about all of us.” They decided to write a letter protesting the swastika, get people to sign it, and assured me that the most important thing to do right now is work together and show our solidarity as the model for people of faith.
“That sealed the deal for me,” Rabbi Dan said. “This was the way to handle discrimination in our communities and what interfaith work was truly about.
Today Danville hosts an active clergy support group. They know each other’s families, and every year they hold an interfaith retreat. Equally important was collaborating around social justice issues.
“Many corporate headquarters are located in or near Danville and San Ramon, including Chevron and Pacific Bell.”
Taking on Chevron
In 1994, representatives of 30,000 indigenous folks in the Ecuadorian Amazon filed a law suit against Chevron for despoiling the environment and causing serious human damage as well. Nine years later, in 2003, an Indigenous delegation of 12 leaders, in feathers and full ceremonial attire, arrived in Danville along with representatives from the Pachamama Alliance and Amazon Watch. Their goal was to meet with the CEO of Chevron.
“We got wind of this in Danville, and since all of us have Chevron executives among our congregants,” Rabbi Dan notes conspiratorially, “we hosted the delegation in our homes. We arranged a rally for them. We created several events for them and took care of them, got to know them, and started to form relationships. We also launched a letter writing campaign to try to convince Chevron to meet with them.”
The Chevron CEO wouldn’t meet with them, though, claiming that since Chevron was in the midst of litigation, their attorneys wouldn’t allow them to meet with the Indigenous representatives.
After the delegation returned to Ecuador they invited a group of interfaith activists from San Ramon to join them in November, 2004. Four accepted, paying their own way: the head of the local AFLCIO, two Lutheran representatives, and Rabbi Dan.
“We spent a couple of days in Quito. Our hosts were Amazon Watch, who provided a guide and translator. From Quito we went down into the Amazon and spent several days in one of the most pristine reserves left in the Amazon – unbelievably beautiful,” he says, his voice full of wonder. “We met with shamans, with tribal members of the Cofan, Secoya, Huaorani, and several other tribes, and we delivered emergency medical supplies for their clinics: syringes, bandages, very basic stuff.”
“We were invited to bear witness,” he says. “We toured an area about the size of the San Francisco Bay area. We were astonished to learn that in this Amazonian rainforest – where water is everywhere and in every village – there is no potable water. Can you fathom that?
“We saw children going into streams and pushing away oil slicks in order to bathe. We learned about a huge spike in skin disease and in cancer, most deeply affecting women, children, and the elderly. Chevron did not cause the damages,” he points out. “ Texaco did, but Chevron bought Texaco.”
Arriving in the Amazon, they were invited to a meeting of representatives of tens of thousands of indigenous people. That afternoon, they were scheduled to visit the largest city in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Coco, to meet with an activist named Angel Chingre, but he had been assassinated that very morning.
“Who killed him? We were told that if you cross the border to Ecuador’s neighbor, Colombia, you can hire a killer for $20.
“Despite those unforeseen developments, we had a remarkable adventure in the Amazon,” he continued. “Panthers walked through our camp, and we spotted exotic birds at every turn. It’s one of the few places in the planet that was never glaciated during the Ice Age, and today there are 287 varieties of trees in that area. Then, from that magnificent environment, we were taken into a place where we saw an empty field the size of a football field. Actually, it was a pit where the oil companies dumped their runoff oil and waste, so nothing can live there. Originally, the oil companies pledged 40 million dollars for compensation, but they basically just turned over the earth.”
Next they went to clinics to talk with the native women about their illnesses and how they had contracted cancer as a result of the oil companies’ cavalier attitude towards getting rid of waste materials. “It was very painful to be a witness,” Rabbi Dan said. “The local people took such good care of us and treated us warmly, and I never felt for even a moment that I was an ‘ugly American.’ What I did feel is how privileged we are in America.”
The head of the local Council of Churches told them that, to the best of his knowledge, this was the very first interfaith delegation in South America. Strong relationships have been built. The interfaith team returned to Danville with renewed energy where they continue addressing social issues such as affordable housing, homelessness, and gay and lesbian rights. The struggle to bring justice to the Ecuadorian Amazon continues.