Two Israelis, Amos Avgar and Roy Ben-Eliezer recently spent a few bone-jarring
hours rattling along some of the rutted dirt tracks that meander through much of
rural Myanmar. Their destination: a remote villages of the Pa-O people in the
impoverished Southeast Asian nation’s Shan State.
In hamlets of bamboo
huts on stilts with piglets rooting through refuse underfoot, the sudden
appearance of the two men created an instant stir. “Very few people from the
West set foot there,” recalls Dr. Avgar, a Jerusalem resident with decades-long
experience in relief work across the developing world. “I asked them, ‘Do you do
anything differently than your parents and grandparents did?’ They said no. I
told them, ‘You will, because we’re bringing you Israeli expertise.’” More
precisely, they were bringing queen bees from Israel.
Beekeeping has a
long and hallowed tradition in the Holy Land, stretching all the way back to the
era of “milk and honey” in early Biblical times, and the country is again at the forefront of
beekeeping. Avgar and Ben-Eliezer, who work for a British/ Jewish NGO called Tag
International Development, traveled to some highland hill tribe villages outside
the town of Taunggyi to give locals some genetically bred queen bees they had
purchased from the Levana Apiary in Israel.
The highly productive bees
and modern beekeeping techniques may go a long way toward helping the villagers,
whose sole income derives from harvesting wild honey in hilly forests and
selling 1,000 liters for just a few hundred dollars to unscrupulous middlemen.
“They live on less than $1 a day,” Avgar, Tag’s COO , tells The Jerusalem
“They have nothing. They are totally isolated.”
The Israelis hope
to change that. “Beekeeping is one of the best and easiest income generators in
agriculture for the rural poor,” says Ben-Eliezer, the organization’s Regional
Director for Southeast Asia. A road safety specialist from Petah Tikva, he
currently lives in Myanmar (formerly Burma) with his wife, development
professional Michal Strahilevitz, from Raanana, who is Tag’s Country Director
The couple is implementing various humanitarian projects on
behalf of Tag. They are helping set up an emergency response unit in Yangon for
the victims of accidents in the free-for-all that passes for traffic on
Myanmar’s roads. They are also working on providing resilience-building courses
for members of local NGO s operating in war-torn areas in the ethnically
“Unfortunately, in Israel we have acquired tremendous
expertise in first aid because of all the wars and terror attacks,” Strahilevitz
tells The Report.
“Now we can pass on that knowledge to others.”
Israelis’ job involves plenty of networking, sharing of expertise, liaising and
partnership building as they navigate the at times bafflingly byzantine ways of bureaucracy in a country that is just
opening up to the outside world after a half-century of domestic repression and
international isolation. Strahilevitz adds, “We have to build everything from
So do oth er Tag operati ves and consultants in places as
varied as Indonesia, Georgia, Kenya and Solomon Islands – more than a dozen
countries in all. Tag’s emissaries and advisors are all trained professionals,
whose ranks include the former CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a onetime
executive director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s
International Development Program – Avgar himself.
During their stints
abroad, the Jewish and Israeli experts initiate and collaborate on women’s
health projects in Turkey and Sri Lanka; help coordinate disaster response,
mitigation and preparedness in a quake-prone region of Indonesia; assist in
training embattled wildlife officers in Kenya; and set up a “model farm”
training and demonstration center in Rwanda.
Tag’s mission, in the words
of founder and chairman Rabbi Yossi Ives, is to spread “Jewish values” by
providing Israeli expertise, free of charge, in a variety of fields to as many
needy communities as the charity can reach (and handle on its limited budget).
“We, as Jews, realize that there’s a wider world out there that may need our
help and there is so much Israel can share,” Ives, an Orthodox Jew, tells The
from his home in England.
Ives exudes the relentless drive and
indomitable optimism of a self-help coach – which he is. The London rabbi, who
has a PhD in life coaching, has written books about Jewish mysticism and secular
selfhelp with titles like “There Must Be a Better Way!” When it comes to the
issue of Israel’s humanitarian potential, he needs little prodding to begin
elucidating at length about his vision of the Jewish State taking a lead in
humanitarian work worldwide, according to the concept of tikkun olam
“repairing the world.”
And that’s after he’s just spent three hours,
before dinner, preparing a strategy report for Sierra Leone, a new location he
is approaching with an offer of help from Israel.
“Israel has to engage with the
world,” he stresses. “We have a lot to offer. Because of the country’s
turbulent history Israel has more humanitarian knowledge per square inch than
anywhere else in the world. And where Israel has real expertise, it’s second to
none – whether it’s trauma services, first aid, rehabilitation or women’s
Ives launched the charity three years ago to try and help
foster social innovation, with the help of Israeli experts, in select trouble
spots and impoverished regions of the world. “Tag was set up to say to Israeli
organizations, ‘Look, we’ll do the networking. Can you work with us?’” he
MAS HAV (the Israel Ministry for Foreign Affairs Center for
International Cooperation), Magen David Adom (Israel’s emergency medical
service), American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), MA TAV home care
for the elderly and Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University, among others, said yes.
“We set ourselves very modest goals,” Ives adds. “But by the end of Year One, we
had more than 10 projects going.”
Today Tag is running, or planning,
several dozen projects, with the Jewish charity working on joint initiatives
with Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims in its widening global
“People can transcend their religious differences,” says Dr.
Roni Kaufman, head of the social work program at Ben-Gurion University who has
volunteered with Tag in Sri Lanka, as he sits next to social workers dressed in
hijabs from Indonesia and the Maldives at a recent conference in Bangkok, which
Tag organized for its partners from 12 countries on the subject of disaster
preparedness in Southeast Asia.
“If we cared about politics, we wouldn’t
be here in the first place,” he adds.
Tag’s modu s operandi is simple:
for the neediest, a little help can go a long way. Even coconut husks can make a
world of difference.
They certainly do in the remote village of Alegoda,
a community of poor farmers who cultivate coconut groves in central Sri Lanka.
Local villagers now make coir brushes – a million of them each month – and
thanks to their new smartphones with Internet access, courtesy of Tag and
Google, they can now sell their coconut fiber products profitably to the outside
world and create employment in the village.
To get the “Smart Village” project up and running, Ives and his Israeli helpers
have done what they always do: network relentlessly. They’ve succeeded in
bringing together a local entrepreneur, a local network provider, Sarvodaya (Sri
Lanka’s largest social justice and volunteer organization), and the corporate
giant Google, which donated android smartphones. Tag is also introducing Israeli
drip irrigation and organic farming techniques from Netafim (the Israeli company
that is a global leader in smart drip and micro-irrigation solutions) as well as
launching rural health projects and running a training project for wildlife
rangers in a biodiversity hotspot.
“We’re talking about raising villagers
out of poverty and all they need is some training and some phones,” Ives says.
“And at the same time we’re building bridges and creating alliances.”
continent away in Muslim Azerbaijan, Tag funded a youth football tournament in
designated “Play Safe Areas” among frontline villages in the country’s land
mine-infested border region with Armenia, where the two former Soviet republics
fought a bitter war in the early 1990s. “They received uniforms, equipment and
trophies, but as a precondition participating youths had to take a first-aid
course provided by the local Red Crescent society,” recounts Gilah
Kahn-Hoffmann, Tag’s Manager of Communications and Special Projects, who has
traveled to the area a number of times.
This past summer, in its second
pilot project in the region with the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society (AzRC), Tag
brought Maayan Fux, an outdoor training expert from Israel, to coach local
people on how to teach youths in isolated frontline villages about teamwork and
leadership. Tag also sent a senior Magen David Adom paramedic – Baku-born David
Applebaum – who brought state-of-the-art first-aid techniques to his colleagues
In addition, Tag funded a local master weaver to reawaken
interest in the traditional art of carpet-making, once the proud preserve of
Azerbaijani women in the region.
Tag donated looms, equipment and yarn to five villages so local women and girls can continue their
Exporting Israelis’ can-do spirit is a priority for Ives. “Many
people, when they see a problem, learn to live with it,” Ives, who describes
himself as “an agitator for good causes,” offers. “Jews are intolerant of
problems. When they see a problem, they need to solve it.”
recent Tag mission to the volatile border region of Azerbaijan, Kahn- Hoffmann
and the other Tag professionals were invited to a picnic in a forest. “There we
were, surrounded by land mines, having roasted lamb, homemade bread and vodka,
and singing ‘Hava Nagila’ with our Muslim colleagues, who knew the words in
Hebrew!” she recalls.
Bayram Valiyev, a member of the Azerbaijan Red
Crescent Society, was one of those colleagues. “Israeli professionals have a lot
of expertise and experience to share that we can use,” he says.
oil-rich Central Asian country, which is home to some 12,000 Juhuro, or
“Mountain,” Jews, is a rare Muslim-majority nation with close diplomatic and
economic ties to the Jewish State. “Local Muslims look favorably on Jews and
Israelis,” Valiyev adds. “They don’t have any of the common prejudices against
In Solomon Islands, Tag, together with MAS HAV and JDC is
involved in a program for local economic and social development that encompasses
Public Private Partnerships, agricultural innovation, industrial development,
health and education.
On a recent visit, local tribesmen surprised two
visiting Israeli experts by laying on a traditional welcoming ceremony for them.
Bare-chested warriors shook their spears, rattled their shields, brandished
their machetes, and blew a conch shell. Then, women wearing flower wreaths and
blue T-shirts emblazoned with stars of David and the words “I love Israel”
performed a traditional welcome dance and sang Hebrew songs.
and Strahilevitz have enjoyed similar hospitality in Myanmar. “I met taxi
drivers who know Israel’s history to an extent,” says Strahilevitz. “People here
have very high opinions of our country. It can only benefit Israel if we
make new friends.”
Ives agrees. “We don’t tell people what to do. But if
you feel we can help you, we are happy to do it. And we don’t want anything in
return,” he says. “But we do have some self-interest,” he acknowledges. “The
best way we can defend Israel is by building bridges with people across the