Though Miko Vergun becomes a bat mitzvah this month, she introduced her project to her congregation last fall. Her Nov. 9 talk at Congregation P’nai Or began simply: “My bat mitzvah project involves helping the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the country where I was born.” Miko hopes to increase awareness of the devastating effects climate change has had on her first homeland and help raise money for a much-needed island community center. By combining her birth heritage and Jewish spirituality in a bat mitzvah project, she’s helping Islanders while providing many Portlanders with their first glimpse of a fascinating Pacific culture.
With a combined land mass the size of Washington, D.C., but spread over 750,000 square miles of ocean (Washington, Oregon and California total 333,375 square miles), the Marshall Islands are about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Most Marshallese live on Ebeye, one of the most densely populated islands in the world. Some islands are uninhabitable due to post-World War II nuclear testing. A 1986 compact gave the United States continued military access and Islanders the right to live and work in the United States. About a third of the Marshallese population of 60,000 lives in the United States with the largest group in Arkansas.
Portland, too, has an active Marshallese community. When Pam and Rob Vergun decided to adopt through Journeys of the Heart, a Hillsboro-based adoption agency, they heard about a little girl in the Marshall Islands within a few days.
“People talk about IVF as producing miracle babies,” Pam says. “Well, this is our miracle baby.” Since adopting Miko in 2001, the family has learned much about Marshallese culture. They enjoy the annual Constitution Day, which is like the Fourth of July, and Kemems, the lavish party for 1-year-old babies that includes gifts for
all attendees and marvelous food, which some describe as a cross between Japanese and Hawaiian. Miko celebrates the festivities in her traditional, brightly colored skirt with embroidered appliqué flowers.
Meanwhile, Pam’s efforts to interest nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity in the Marshall Islands were frustrated due to the island’s remoteness and small population. Then she learned about Living Islands (livingislands.org). “Their approach is the most promising effort I have seen in 12 years to make a positive impact,” she says.
While various nations around the world suffer from global warming to some degree, the Marshall Islands may not exist 50 years from now due to its effects. With the highest point 15 feet above sea level and the average seven feet, the rising ocean has already topped seawalls and flooded neighborhoods in the capital, which happened during a recent storm. Coral destroyed by higher ocean temperatures kills the fish Islanders depend on for food, while drought worsens the already scarce drinking water supply.
Pam and Miko work with Living Islands to supply Islanders with lightweight solar water purification systems. Each $75 bag processes water for a family of four for one year. The new community center Miko’s bat mitzvah project is supporting will include a library, music center, museum about the world, computer center and place for Islanders to shelter during typhoons.
The Verguns look forward to celebrating Miko’s bat mitzvah April 4 and 5. Her younger brother, Isaac, is next in line. Also adopted, Isaac’s African-American birth heritage has benefited the family, as has Pam’s Methodist upbringing.
“Immersing our family in Judaism and the birth cultures has enriched our lives and communities,” Pam says. Like many, she believes social action is paramount to Jewish ideals. “It’s so easy to feel helpless. But there are a lot of things you can do. It’s one of the lessons I get from Judaism; you can have theological debates, but taking action has an effect.”
For more information about Miko’s bat mitzvah project, visit shalvahalizah.wordpress.com.