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Newark teacher draws lessons from Africa trip
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Newark teacher draws lessons from Africa trip

Synagogue hosts talk by woman who joined Times writer abroad

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Noreen Connolly, a journalism teacher at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, often draws inspiration from the stories told by her students — immigrants who had arrived with no family to greet them, poor youngsters from some of Newark’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

Last summer, she had a chance to tell some stories of her own, when she traveled with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to five sub-Saharan African nations. As a winner of Kristof’s annual Win-a-Trip contest, she accompanied the journalist as he reported on the struggles of the world’s poor and efforts to alleviate them.

“I want to test myself to do the things I urge my students to do every day — find the story that won’t get told unless you do it,” she wrote in her application essay.

Connolly, 66, the first teacher and the first senior to join the trip, will speak about her experiences at Bnai Keshet in Montclair on Friday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m., following kabalat Shabbat services. The talk, her first since her return, is free and open to the public.

Connolly’s appearance marks the second event in a series at the Reconstructionist synagogue that focuses on tikun olam. The series opened last week with a talk about the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system. The talk was given by Rebecca Brown, senior policy advocate for state affairs at the organization, and the daughter of a congregant.

The series will continue on Friday, Dec. 9, with a presentation by Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service.

‘The right place’

In a telephone interview with NJJN on Oct. 16, Connolly offered a preview of her talk.

Kristof’s group, which included a medical student from Atlanta and a photographer, observed projects that are having a positive impact in Morocco, Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

“The images are very vivid,” she said. “I was more impressed with people’s resilience, hard work, and dignity than by what they didn’t have or their suffering.”

She met a man in southern Niger with river blindness whose pregnant wife was suffering from a severe infection on her leg. In Burkina Faso, Connolly saw women dancing as they learned to plant their own vegetable gardens.

In rural Niger, group members observed a program meant to educate women about the health benefits of breastfeeding for infants. “It’s not a big deal in terms of cost but it’s a big deal in terms of changing people’s ways,” she said.

Going with Kristof, whose columns frequently champion women’s health and advancements in the Third World, offered the opportunity to understand what she was seeing in some depth.

“We noticed the kinds of changes that you might not if you were just a tourist looking at a village,” Connolly said. “You’d see huts, but you wouldn’t understand that women inside are changing their breastfeeding habits and their children are living, or that they are growing a vegetable garden that is making their lives easier and providing better nutrition, or that because they belong to a microcredit union they are able to have more things.”

Connolly would like to find a way to share the trip with her students at St. Benedict’s.

“I’d like them to see some of the stuff I saw — how people live with so much less but try to make their lives better; it’s not about BMWs. Traveling can be so incredibly illuminating for kids,” she said.

The publicity generated by the trip and the columns Connolly wrote for Kristof’s blog have put her in touch with people who may be able to offer her a next step — from a nun helping women create a handicraft business in Senegal, to a “Lost Boy” from Sudan.

One of her columns also caught the eye of Emil Schattner, a member of Bnai Keshet who knew Connolly from their days at HomeCorp, a Montclair organization focusing on affordable housing issues.

“Arranging for Noreen to make her first presentation about her time in the sub-Sahara was a natural fit,” said Schattner. “The trip was arduous and instructive, and Noreen had promised Kristof to carry the message of the needs of the region — so we made a shidduch.”

Connolly, who is Catholic, is thrilled to be giving her first talk in a house of worship.

“I feel like this opportunity has been so spiritual; it’s soul-sustaining, and I think it’s appropriate to give the talk in a synagogue,” she said. “It feels like the right place.”

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