An Israeli in Sri Lanka

Sarvodaya is the largest grassroots organization in the country – devoted to developing “the spiritual, moral, cultural, social, economic and political spheres of local life.”

May 9, 2011 16:17
3 minute read.
The author is second from right, in the back row

An Israeli in Sri Lanka 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Aserendipitous convergence of events made it possible for me to join the family of Tag volunteers for a three-week period in Sri Lanka in January. Most of my time was spent in the Media Unit at Sarvodaya – the largest grassroots organization in the country – devoted to developing “the spiritual, moral, cultural, social, economic and political spheres of local life.”

However, I did venture beyond HQ occasionally. This was an opportunity to travel slowly – there’s no other choice on the rudimentary roads – and take in the lush tropical vegetation.

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Hands-on skills

With a focus on community development, projects include services for vulnerable populations such as women, children and the elderly; disaster preparedness and response programs; leadership development; and numerous empowerment initiatives. Hence its close cooperation with the British NGO Tag International Development.

“Sarvodaya” is a Sanskrit word that translates as “awakening of all.” I embarked on my personal path to awakening, Sarvodaya-style, in the comfortable hostel at the HQ in Moratuwa, 18 kilometers south of the capital, Colombo.

The room was clean and comfortable, furnished with a dark wood bureau and mirror, two-door closet and bed, complete with a deep pink mosquito net that was unwound each night to surround the bed in a hazy tent of protection.

Living according to Buddhist principles proved less daunting than anticipated – it was fine to eat only vegetarian food and refrain from alcohol and cigarettes. It was harder to observe the modesty injunction, which means keeping one’s shoulders covered at all times, despite the tropical climate, with temperatures stable in the 25º-30º range, 24/7, and rarely any air conditioning.

Illegal narcotics were out of the question, even should I have been so inclined, as the penalty for being caught with them is simple and straightforward: death. As for the other regulations, off-premises one could eat, drink and dress any way one chose.

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I was not the first Israeli to lend a hand at Sarvodaya. For the past five years, Jerusalem Anglo-Israelis Jonathan and Pamela Lubell have given generously of their time and expertise. Jonathan Lubell worked there via Tag, as a volunteer in the Media and Development Units.

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 Dig, Dig, Doog and Shirim Ktanim, the first musical videos designed specifically for the younger set. He is also the man behind the classic Pessah Haggada for children based on Rony Oren’s claymation. In recent years, Lubell has devoted himself to projects related to social justice and social change. He and his wife, a PhD in Asian studies who also has expertise in fund-raising and development, have given countless hours to Sarvodaya.

It was humbling to meet so many dedicated individuals from all Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups who work at Sarvodaya HQ.

These include the majority Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhists; the largest minority – the Tamils – who are mostly Hindus; and Muslims and Christians.

They are willing to make the usual sacrifices that the NGO sector requires, to prove with their dedication to their work and their daily lives that their country can be reunited and healed. Sarvodaya invests significant effort to promote reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups, following nearly three decades of civil war.

Sarvodaya has determined an individual’s 10 basic needs, and forms societies across the teardrop-shaped island situated just south of India in an effort to meet those needs for all 20 million Sri Lankans. Founded 52 years ago, Sarvodaya has helped to establish its societies across the land.

The “Ten Basic Human Needs,” as defined by Sarvodaya:

1. Food
2. Water
3. Clothing
4. A home
5. Health care
6. A clean and beautiful environment
7. Essential energy requirements
8. Basic communication requirements
9. Education
10. Spiritual and cultural fulfillment.

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