By Rabbi Greg Harris and Faith Roessel
Community is needed now more than ever and, in the time of COVID-19, community has no limits or geographic boundaries. We at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County are extending our community far west to the Navajo Nation. When one of us is in need, we all are in need and have an obligation to help, especially with our unique relationship with Navajo culture through members of our congregation.
Carl Slater, who grew up at Beth El and, since his election in October, sits on the Navajo Nation Council, asked us to partner with Navajo communities who were trying to help themselves so they could buy food, supplies, PPE and water.
When basic human needs are not being met, we could not turn away. Drawing attention to the challenges facing the Navajo people is a role Slater is willing to assume.
He sees an opportunity to merge his Jewish and Navajo identities, too. “I have two homes. I grew up at Beth El. Rabbi Harris officiated my bar mitzvah,” he says. “And I grew up in my Navajo community. My parents raised us in both the Navajo and Jewish traditions. I know of no other way to be.”
The Navajo Nation has a death rate higher than any state in the country except New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Its infection rate is the third highest in the United States. The virus swept through Navajo communities close to reservation bordertowns and those in isolated areas only accessible by dirt roads. This puts a strain on local leaders to reach community members to prevent or mitigate the spread.
“It is a matter of survival,” explains Ramona Rogers, a community leader in Round Rock, Ariz. “We have elders who we must protect. Without them we lose who we are. Families need food, water and supplies. We are their lifeline.”
Navajo lands stretch across portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, a high desert terrain and climate covering an area similar in size to West Virginia. With the largest Indian reservation in the country under nightly and over-weekend lock downs, Navajo residents are facing challenges exacerbated by isolation, food insecurity, limited running water, electricity and broadband, high rates of chronic diseases and inequities in health care and access to it. Only five hospitals serve 178,000 residents reservation-wide. ICU beds are almost non-existent and critical care COVID-19 patients are regularly airlifted to metropolitan areas in Arizona and New Mexico.
Arizona state Rep. Arlando Teller (D), whose district includes the Navajo Nation and seven other Indian tribes, says that reservation residents do not have what most Americans take for granted. “Our country has failed our first peoples. The cracks are deep. How can you fight this virus when you can’t wash your hands because you have no running water? How can you keep students in school when they have no way to connect? No computers, broadband and electricity. It is unconscionable. Tribes are resilient and resourceful. Even this they will overcome. But at a great cost.”
The Navajo Nation has set up a central health command center to coordinate tribal action to combat COVID-19. The Navajo Nation Council, an elected 24-member legislative body, has taken action to suspend in-person sessions and now legislates by remote means in keeping with social distance guidelines. Navajo Council delegates risk their own health and safety as they travel throughout their districts assessing need, working with local officials and navigating the bureaucracy to get on-the-ground supplies delivered. Slater, one of the youngest members of the Navajo Nation Council, knows all too well what this has meant for his communities. “We had two communities that rely on a community well for domestic and livestock water uses. The well was closed until we got PPE for volunteers — some families went almost two weeks without water,” Slater says.
We could reflect as a congregation and ask why treat one area over another, the virus has hit all parts of the country. What compelled us is it came from within our community — a starting point for so many of our social justice and activism. Longtime members of our congregation asked if their community here could help their community back at Navajo. We said yes and joined as partners.
To learn more, visit navajorelief.fund
Rabbi Greg Harris is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, in Bethesda, and Faith Roessel is a congregant and member of the Navajo Nation.