Wattala, Sri Lanka - “I AM GOING TO SING something to you. It’s a Jewish prayer for peace,” Rabbi
Yossi Ives enunciates carefully in his rich British accent as NGO coordinator
Suchith Abeyewickreme translates his words into Sinhalese for the 25 assembled
children and youths in a community center in Wattala, in western Sri
Next thing, the bearded, dark-haired English rabbi with the
brilliant blue eyes bursts into an operatic rendition of the Hebrew prayer
“Ya’aseh Shalom” (“He Who Makes Peace.”) Later, he explains that he chose that
particular number because, “It is a prayer that the peace in heaven should
become peace on earth. Sri Lanka has just come out of a conflict, with tensions
between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities very high. Peace is now the main
ingredient to progress and prosperity in Sri Lanka.”
Ives is in Sri Lanka
in his capacity as founder and chairman of Tag International Development, a UK
non-profit that he established to help “the Jewish people to make the largest
and widest possible contribution to human progress and development, because I am
convinced that there is so much more that we could be sharing and offering to
the world, in particular in the areas of social values and humanitarian
Back to a community training center in Wattala, where despite
the sweltering tropical heat, Ives is garbed in a pressed white shirt, closed
primly at the wrists with cuff links, a fabulously multicolored silk tie covered
with tiny bright flowers, and suit pants and shoes in dark brown.
children, dressed mostly in T-shirts and shorts or tight leggings for the girls,
with one or two wearing pint-sized sari tunics complete with matching scarves,
are so polite and respectful that it’s hard to tell what they make of the man
who has pushed his glasses atop his dark skullcap (which must be familiar to
them as it reminiscent of those worn by the local Muslims) and whose ritual
fringes hang over the top of his trousers. One boy grins broadly, and quick
smiles flit across the faces of some of the girls, but they are beautifully
behaved and applaud politely when the last notes of Ives’ resounding baritone
cease to vibrate in the air.
A cow tethered nearby swishes at flies with
its tail and in an adjacent lot, workers climb over scaffolding erected atop a
Hindu shrine that’s in need of repair.
Everyone closes their eyes for a
moment of mindful meditation and then, using markers in all the colors of the
rainbow, the older children trace each other’s outlines on large sheets of white
paper and fill in the silhouettes with their hopes and their dreams, making
visible the home truth that we are all the same on the inside.
activities are part of the groundwork for a project that Tag is involved in with
Sarvodaya called “Children’s Stories about Peace.”
The children come from
the diverse ethnic groups in Wattala that reflect the ethnicities in the
population of Sri Lanka, which numbers some 20 million.
Wattala is a town
of about 30,000, situated near the road between Colombo (the capital) and the
airport. It serves as a social center for the surrounding villages. While
Buddhism is the dominant creed of Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group, which is
Sinhalese, this area is predominantly Catholic and people of all of Sri Lanka’s
faiths – which also include Tamil Hindus, the largest ethnic minority, and
Muslims – live here in peaceful coexistence. This, despite the only recently
concluded civil war that raged for 26 years, during which the Tamil Tigers and
other separatist groups sought to create an independent state in the north and
the east of the teardrop-shaped island off the coast of India. In May 2009, the
Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamils.
Ever since, this country of lush
tropical forests and beautiful white beaches, known as Ceylon until 1972 and
still famous for the production and export of tea, coffee, coconuts, rubber and
cinnamon (more than 90 percent of the world’s cinnamon is reported to come from
Sri Lanka), has been struggling to rebuild and
ABEYEWICKREME, WHO ORGAnized the afternoon’s activities,
represents both the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC) and
Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest grassroots organization. The word sarvodaya is
Sanskrit for “awakening of all.” GNRC is a worldwide interfaith network established in Japan, exclusively devoted to
working for child rights and other children’s issues.
Buddhist philosophy and Gandhian principles, the Sarvodaya Movement is active
across all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious communities, dedicated to the
sustainable empowerment of people through self-help and collective support.
Sarvodaya also promotes healing and reconciliation between Sinhalese and the
minority Tamil ethnic groups, following the long years of civil
Since its inception in 1958, when founder Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne
brought a group to share labor, thoughts and energy with socially marginalized
villagers, the organization has grown to encompass 15,000 villages.
usually sits in Tag’s headquarters in London, where there is a staff of six. Tag
has permanent representatives in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and South Africa
and is also active in India and Georgia. But when the 37-year-old Orthodox rabbi
can take time off from his 200-family congregation in the town of Richmond in
southwest London, and from his other full-time job “writing and reading, and
trying to be a half-decent husband to his beloved wife and father to his seven
children,” he travels for Tag.
Tag is also promoting two projects for
youth at Sarvodaya. There’s the “Children’s Stories about Peace” project,
described above, which aims to produce a series of stories for video and print,
written, narrated and illustrated by children and teenagers from conflict zones and also Trash-Inc., which through the creation of an
animated world for Internet and TV and a focus on environmental peace-building,
offers an innovative, multi-strategy approach to the promotion of conflict
mitigation and the building of mutual trust and empathy among children and
youth. Tag is also involved in several additional projects in Sri Lanka, in
partnership with Sarvodaya and supported by the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee (JDC).
Another noteworthy endeavor, initiated by
the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), brings together a network of
professionals from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Turkey, Jordan, India,
Thailand and Israel to share best practices and assist each other where each one
has a relative advantage, especially in the areas of disaster preparedness and
response. Tag is taking the project further, developing it and serving as a
cosponsor with a Google Asia Network. Israeli experts from Magen David Adom
(MDA) are active members of the network. The first meeting, sponsored by the
JDC, was held in Israel. The second meeting was held in Sri Lanka and hosted by
Sarvodaya, while the third meeting of the Network, co-sponsored by Tag and the
JDC, was held in November 2010 in India and hosted by the All India Disaster
The link between the JDC and Tag is Amos Avgar,
today Tag’s Chief Operations Officer. For three decades, Avgar was a senior JDC
professional and the Executive Director of JDC’s International Development
Ives views Avgar and his dedication to his organization as
“godsends,” while Avgar says he is thrilled to continue to foster partnerships
between Jewish and Israeli NGOs and international humanitarian
“Tag is a humanitarian Jewish NGO with the aim of
exporting Israeli knowledge, expertise and best practices, especially in the
field of disaster preparedness and recovery, to serve communities in developing
countries and the Third World,” Avgar tells The Report.
well the detrimental effects of disaster on communities, Tag tries to identify
windows of opportunity that open up following disasters, and use them as a lever
for development – to bring something positive out of something
Tag’s main fields of interest are community development and
disaster preparedness and response, with an emphasis on vulnerable groups. Many
of its projects focus on empowerment of women and women’s health, children,
youth and the elderly. The idea is to harness and build local capacity with
programs aimed at long-term development.
As part of a non-Israeli NGO,
Avgar can now reach new frontiers, where access is often blocked to Israel. “As
a Jewish organization based in England, Tag is better positioned [than its
Israeli counterparts] to spearhead operations in moderate Muslim countries,
thereby building bridges of friendship, changing attitudes and presenting Israel
in a positive light – presenting Israel in a positive light is one of its
goals.” In fact, everything that Tag does is aimed at assisting vulnerable
groups, presenting Israel in a positive light and exposing others to Israeli
expertise in the area of human services.
In Sri Lanka, Tag also focuses
on “double victims” – for example, those who were affected by the 2004 tsunami
and did not receive adequate attention from social services due to the turmoil
caused by the civil war.
AND JUST SEVEN YEARS FOLlowing the tsunami, in
January and February of this year, unusually severe monsoons caused damage to
infrastructure that Sarvodaya General Secretary Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, son of the
founder, describes as worse than that caused by the disaster in 2004, with well
over a million people affected. Hundreds of thousands of homes were either
damaged or washed away, rice fields were flooded, wells were contaminated, dams
burst, landslides ensued and hundreds of thousands of villagers, sometimes
entire villages, were displaced.
Tag’s efforts are currently directed
toward two basic dimensions of recovery: It is focusing on spiritual and
cultural replenishment, spearheading a project that uses art as a vehicle for
healing, and is bringing together Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims to
rebuild communal places and provide spaces for reconciliation and the nurturing
of rehabilitation and peace.
Tag often sends volunteer professionals to
work on its projects around the world.
“Israel has a well-developed
system/tradition of volunteerism and experience in mobilizing volunteers as a
response to disasters and in times of calm as well,” says Avgar. “We believe
that the volunteers we send to Sri Lanka make an invaluable contribution to the
development of communities and expose the local communities to knowhow and
methods from Israel.”
Ironically, explains the serene and unlined Vinya
Ariyaratne, with his thick thatch of swept-back gray hair, as Sri Lanka’s
ranking on the Human Poverty Index has moved up slightly from below the poverty line to somewhat above the
one-dollar average, Sarvodaya’s ability to improve the lives of the country’s
most vulnerable citizens has been diminished.
This is partly because a
number of international aid organizations use the dollar-aday average earning as
a cut-off when determining which countries should receive
Decreasing support for NGOs, combined with increasing demand for
services is making it harder for Sarvodaya to implement self-help programs and
outreach, seriously hampering its efforts at empowerment, especially in those
sectors where people have fallen through existing safety nets.
the general secretary reports that Sarvodaya is still strong, proudly
transparent, and one of the few organizations to serve and be trusted by all of
Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities. He says that the most valuable resource is the
villagers themselves, in line with the concept of Shramadana, which means the
giving of your time, energy and skills for the benefit of others without any
personal gain or benefit.
At Sarvodaya, Shramadana forms the basis of
village development, with villagers working selflessly together to create
something new for their community.
WHILE THERE WERE REPORTS of Jews in
Sri Lanka in the 12th century, there is no significant Jewish population there
today, although there has been a Jewish presence since 2005 in the form of the
Chabad movement. In April 2006, a Chabad house was moved from a surfers’ resort
frequented by Israelis to Colombo, “to establish a Jewish community there and to
provide Jewish necessities for the Jews living in the city and for businessmen
and tourists who visit it,” according to Chabad.
There has certainly been
a Jewish presence at Sarvodaya over the past five years, as Anglo-Israelis
Jonathan and Pamela Lubell, whose children are grown, have given generously of
their time and expertise. Jonathan worked there through Tag, as a volunteer in
the Media and Development Units, located at the Headquarters of the
He has conceptualized, produced and directed video, Web and TV for,
among others, the BBC, Time Life, and Israel TV and is responsible for such
Israeli children’s classics as the “Dig, Dig, Doog” and “Shirim Ktanim,” the
first musical videos designed specifically for the young set. He is also the man
behind the classic Passover haggada for children based on Rony Oren’s
In recent years, Jonathan has devoted himself to projects
related to social justice and social change. He and his wife Pamela, who holds a
PhD in Asian studies and also has expertise in fund-raising and development,
have given countless hours to Sarvodaya.
Joining them in their efforts
proved that it’s possible to shower in cold water for three weeks (true, the
thermometer never moved beyond the 25 to 30 degree Celsius range) and still feel
clean and fresh enough to sit in the office of the Media Unit and do a
satisfying day’s work in the service of Sarvodaya.
One also learns that
it is possible to eat rice and dahl for breakfast, lunch and supper in the
canteen at Sarvodaya HQ and to feel perfectly sated (admittedly, occasional
forays to local eateries did make some difference), as one can also happily live
in the HQ compound while respecting the injunction to adhere to Buddhist
principles of modesty, vegetarianism and the prohibition against alcohol and
cigarettes – at least in public spaces.
“The Jewish people, and Israel in
particular, have a huge amount to offer the world, and therefore a huge
responsibility to make as full a contribution as possible to international
development,” Ives fervently believes. “While it is true that some people harbor
hostile attitudes toward Jews and Israel, most are friends and admirers. Israel
is uniquely placed to help developing countries, given that it has faced many of
the same challenges in recent years and has successfully overcome most of them,”
he tells The Report.
With the help of his deeply committed supporters,
Ives continues to further his philosophy through Tag, often using his
exceptional singing voice to bridge language divides. “Visiting foreign
countries often leaves me frustrated from communication challenges. I am used to
being able to communicate effectively, and if I am unfamiliar with the language
I cannot adequately understand the locals, or be understood by them.
comes from the heart – and hearts don’t need words to understand each
“You don’t share music with people you don’t like. Singing is an
intimate form of sharing. Music, Jewish mystics say, is the language of the
soul. Souls have a way of understanding each other.”