Give the gift of Israel to the world

An innovative British NGO founded by an enterprising rabbi is harnessing distinctive Israeli and Jewish expertise around the world.

By GILAH KAHN-HOFFMANN
May 9, 2011 16:19
VOLUNTEERS for Tag International Development

Tag NGO humanitarian project 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rabbi Yossi Ives is harnessing Israeli expertise to develop compelling humanitarian projects in 10 countries, including Kenya, India, Georgia, Myanmar, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. For Ives, founder of the British NGO Tag International Development, it’s all about Jewish values, community building, and Israeli expertise. And Ives has his own idea about the perfect gift for a country about to celebrate its 63rd birthday.

“This Yom Ha’atzmaut, a great gift we can all give Israel is to give Israel to the world,” he says.

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His advice? “Help make friends for Israel by building humanitarian bridges in your country, community or organization. Learn about what Israel can uniquely offer and find out who could benefit from it. Then bring both parties together and let the benefits flow.”

A resident of England, Ives was moved to found two British NGOs 18 months ago because he believes “that Jews should be making as big a contribution as they can to the world in general.”

“My involvement emerged because I felt that we should all look to make a difference and lend our skills in whichever way we can. In my case, this was by networking and building relationships,” he explains.

“Thus, I established Tag Institute for Jewish Social Values to share Jewish wisdom and experience of the development of family, community and society based on thousands of years of Jewish scholarship and living. Similarly, Tag International Development was established to help Israeli humanitarian organizations to share more fully of their unique social models and distinctive expertise.”

Ives says he wants Israel “to be known around the world for its solutions to social challenges, for its expertise in disaster preparedness and its humanitarian competence – not for all the negative reasons that seem to captivate the media. Stop treating Israel as a problem and start to recognize it as a potential solution: everyone will be better off.

“Israel has more humanitarian expertise per square inch than any country in the world,” he adds. “Think what could happen if its full impact was realized in developing countries.”

While the Jewish community and state top Ives’s priority list, he is also a major believer in tikkun olam, or repairing the word, via the Israeli expertise that he views as an outgrowth of Jewish wisdom.

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“While our priority has to be the Jewish community and state, we are part of the family of nations and humanity as a whole, and we should feel a sense of obligation to play our role in furthering human progress and, to use the biblical phrase, ‘be a blessing to the world,’” he says.

With that in mind, he decided to “focus on the areas with which I have some familiarity,” and established the two Tag NGOs – “Tag” being an acronym for the Hebrew words Torah and gedula, respectively spiritual learning and worldly greatness.

Since founding Tag in January 2010, the 37-year-old shepherd of a 200-family congregation at the Orthodox Richmond Synagogue in southwest London and happily married father of seven has chosen to work with numerous Israeli individuals and organizations to realize his vision.

Notable among them are Magen David Adom (MDA), Yad Sarah (the countrywide network of volunteers aiding the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound) and Matav (the country’s largest public professional organization, providing home care services). Tag also works closely with MASHAV, the Agency for International Development Cooperation at the Foreign Ministry, and the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC).

“When comparing Israel at 63 to other countries of similar age, it is striking just how well Israel has done, often against almost insurmountable odds,” Ives observes.

“A large part of this success was the innovative social solutions that were developed by government, charitable and private sectors. Because of this, Israel successfully navigated huge challenges, such as immigration explosion, economic upheaval, conflict situations and poverty,” he continues. “Many other countries are facing very similar challenges, and Israel stands uniquely able to help them address them. Israel will lose nothing, and the developing world can gain so much by this exercise in compassionate sharing. This, I am convinced, is a Jewish imperative that stems from the very heart of our traditional values, from Abraham onwards.”

There is a staff of six at the London headquarters, and Tag has permanent representatives in Israel, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and South Africa. It is also active in India and Georgia.

Tag’s Chief Operations Officer Amos Avgar is a man of boundless energy and years of experience. For three decades, he was a senior JDC professional and the executive director of JDC’s International Development Program. At Tag, Avgar continues to foster partnerships between Jewish and Israeli NGOs and international humanitarian organizations.

“I would say that 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 says.

“Knowing full 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 negative,” he continues.

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 a British NGO, Avgar explains, Tag can reach countries where access is more difficult for Israel.

“As a Jewish organization based in England, Tag is better positioned [than Israeli NGOs] to spearhead operations in moderate Muslim countries, thereby building bridges of friendship, changing attitudes and presenting Israel in a positive light,” he says.

Tag is currently developing a network of organizations involved in disaster response and community resilience, building on an initiative undertaken by the JDC in 2007. Its aim is to promote regional cooperation and identify opportunities for development following disasters. Made up of professionals from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Turkey, Jordan, India, Thailand and Israel, participants share best practices and assist each other with their respective advantages. For Tag, part of taking the project further includes serving as a co-sponsor with a Google Asia Network.

Israeli experts from MDA are active in the network, and the first meeting, sponsored by the JDC, was held in Israel. The second meeting was held in Sri Lanka and hosted by Sarvodaya, the largest grassroots NGO in that country (see box on Page 11), while the third meeting of the network, cosponsored by Tag and JDC, was held in November in India and hosted by the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI).

An example of regional cooperation that emerged from the third workshop is a school safety project focusing on disaster preparedness and response, to be implemented in Myanmar with the expertise of the grassroots Christian Indonesian organization YAKKUM (Christian Foundation for Public Health) and AIDMI. The partnership between the two was initiated by Tag and partially supported by JDC.

YAKKUM, dedicated to local self-empowerment, focuses on vulnerable populations and strives to harness and strengthen local capacity. It operates in the more peripheral and disadvantaged areas of Indonesia, which are inhabited primarily by the rural Muslim population and minority Christian groups.

Working with YAKKUM, Tag launched a project based on Israeli experience, aimed at developing a model community center that would provide a host of social-educational- health-related and disaster preparedness and response activities, especially targeting women, children and the elderly.

In October, JDC sponsored a seminar for a group of YAKKUM professionals and decision- makers in Israel, to which Tag invited Israeli community center experts. As women’s health is also a priority, Tag arranged a working session with Prof. Neria Lauffer, director of the Women’s Health Center at Hadassah-University Medical Center.

On October 25, 2010, shortly after the YAKKUM group’s return to Indonesia, the Mount Merapi volcano in Java erupted. It is the most active of the 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, and a series of violent eruptions continued throughout November.

The land around the mountain is extremely fertile, and is home to a number of heavily populated rural villages and towns. More than 350,000 people were evacuated from the affected area, and about 353 people were killed. The cold lava flood and the clouds of ash caused serious damage not only to the roads, bridges, buildings and homes, but also to the farmland.

While playing a central role in responding to the needs of the affected population, YAKKUM became a leading force in planning for short- and long-term recovery and realized more than ever how important the role of community centers could be in preparing for and mitigating the effects of disaster.

And so, following the volcanic eruption, Tag began the process of establishing a model community center for the villagers living in the vicinity of the volcano. Avgar was there.

“We conducted two workshops wearing masks, while the ash was still covering the ground, and the survivors were still displaced, living in temporary housing,” he recalls. “Some of the villages were wiped out by the lava flow, and many people lost their entire livelihoods when their cattle died and the trees and crops were destroyed. Also, there were some villagers who were afraid to return to their homes near the active volcano that has periodic eruptions. A community center with a functioning safety program could significantly decrease trauma, increase emotional resilience and potentially save lives.”

Planning has continued apace, and in March, Avgar was back with community center expert Joel Siegel, this time at a workshop attended by 40 village leaders and professionals from 11 villages. The goal was for participants to present their perception of the role, function and mission of a community center.

During the seminar, the conceptual model was developed, and the next step is for each village to establish a small community center that at first will perform only the most basic functions. Tag is to provide supervision as well as seed money so that three or four centers can develop the necessary organizational infrastructure.

MASHAV is also on board and will assist with training.

Meanwhile, Tag is also exporting Matav’s home-care expertise to Indonesia and MDA’s paramedical skills to its counterpart in Azerbaijan, as well as to the Kenyan wildlife service that handles medical emergencies involving accidents, poachers and attacks by animals.

Explaining his choice of partners, Ives says, “We work in developing countries, so a significant part of our expertise is how to implement on the ground. These experts, as you would expect, are local and therefore non-Jewish. We also work with a variety of partners that are neither Israeli nor Jewish – for example, USAID in Georgia. However, we are very proud that the purpose of Tag International Development and the reason for it coming into existence is to release the potential of this unique pool of knowledge [in Israel] by bringing it to as wide an audience as possible around the world.

“We are not discounting the value of British or Norwegian expertise, but we are saying that Israeli expertise is often... more suited for the requirements of developing countries, and is currently reaching only a tiny fraction of those who could benefit from it,” he adds. “We are determined to significantly expand Israel’s humanitarian footprint in any community or country that welcomes it.”

Citing “proof of concept” as his main short-term goal, Ives reiterates his delight that in the short time since its founding, Tag has “forged important relationships with key Israeli partners and local partners in our countries of operation. We have also created a range of innovative projects and generated many new opportunities, which we will be following up in coming months, such as projects in Zanzibar, Rwanda and Ukraine.”

He adds that “long-term, I can’t deny that I am ambitious. Not so much for myself or Tag, but for Israel’s relations with the world and its contribution to development around the world. Yes, Israel and Jews have many enemies, but we also have many admirers and friends – in fact, many more of the latter than the former. The demand far outstrips the supply. There is practically no limit to what can be achieved.”


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