Jewish Journey

Tevel b'Tzedek brings Israeli backpackers to Nepal to expand their understanding of social justice and globalization

August 31, 2008 13:29


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"Namaste," the women say shyly, their hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards in the traditional Nepalese greeting as they slowly fill the room. Outside, cars honk, motorcycles whiz, peddlers shout and dogs bark on the dusty, crowded Kathmandu street. But inside, the women shed their shyness as they would a sweater after coming in from the cold, and the room fills with happy, excited chatter and laughter. "Look, they've all come, they're all here," says Esther Ben-Ari, 52, an artist from Ramat Hasharon, tears in her eyes. Some thirty women, ranging in age from 16 to 38, have come to a drop-in center for women who work in the infamous Cabin Restaurants in Kathmandu, where the waitresses serve sex à la carte. The center, organized by a local non-governmental organization, offers them an opportunity to learn sewing, basic literacy, and other skills that might help them find a better life. For the past three months, Ben-Ari; Tome Lev Dekel, 23, a dancer from Tzuran, a moshav in central Israel; and Carmel Pelunsky, 36, an organizational consultant from London, have been meeting with these women three times a week to offer them an opportunity for meditation, creativity and self-respect. The three Jewish women are volunteering with Tevel b'Tzedek, a program launched two years ago to expand Israeli and Jewish consciousness about globalization and tikkun olam - the concept that it is incumbent on mankind to "repair the world." This will be the group's last meeting. Dekel guides the women through a few moments of meditation, then Ben-Ari says, "It's hard to leave. I hope we can remember the times we laughed together." They have prepared folders for each of the women, containing their drawings and the photographs they have taken during their sessions together. They have asked each woman for her favorite color, and tied the packets accordingly from spools of thread. The three volunteers know some basic Nepalese, and communication also takes place in the women's broken English, with smiles and mutual goodwill. "Rangy changy," Ben-Ari says. "Colorful. Remember to use colors and to love colors." "Balio, balio," Carmel adds. "Strong women. Don't give up the fight. And let's all applaud ourselves." They clap and laugh for a long time, their bangles twinkling. They have brought bright powder to give Ben-Ari, Dekel and Pelunsky each a tikka, a sign of blessing, on their foreheads, and they have brought traditional scarves to give them as a parting gift. And when it is time to leave, they don't want to go, and file out of the room slowly, sadly, back to the street. Tevel b'Tzedek (the phrase is from Psalms, 96:13, loosely translated as "the Earth - with Justice") has just completed its third four-month session in Nepal; the fourth session is scheduled to begin in early September. The program was conceived and developed by Micha Odenheimer, a rabbi, journalist and writer from Los Angeles now living in Jerusalem, who believes that the program can tap into young Israelis' treks through southern Asia and infuse this cultural rite-of-passage with Jewish meaning and universalistic significance. Some 50,000 Israeli backpackers pass through south Asia every year, most of them just after discharge from their military service, forming the largest group of travelers per capita of any nationality, anywhere. They come, often for months at a time, to trek, to take advantage of the cheap drugs, and to transition into adulthood by escaping from the responsibilities that they shouldered during their military service. They talk endlessly about how happy they are to be away from the tensions of life in Israel and how excited they are to experience life in countries that are neither Jewish, Christian, Muslim nor Western. But they trek through the exotic scenery in an Israeli bubble, following routes marked out for them by Israelis, eating at restaurants set up by fellow Israelis, and meeting other Israelis, ignoring the culture and people that surround them. Yet in his own travels through the East, Odenheimer says that he sensed that some of these young trekkers were seeking something more. "I sensed a thirst to connect, to touch the societies around them, to understand themselves and their own society better. Above all, I sensed that they are looking for a way to make the world and Israel a better place." Odenheimer, 50, is a graduate of Yale University and received his (Orthodox) rabbinic ordination from the renowned scholar and halakhic authority, the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. A follower of the neo-hasidic rabbi and singer Shlomo Carlebach, Odenheimer came to Israel in 1987. He has retained a charismatic, American 60s-like off-beat manner. Always curious, with a bashful smile, Odenheimer sometimes seems naïve; at other times, his questions are searingly, almost brutally, incisive. It is easy to understand how his sense of purpose and certainty pervades the group of volunteers that he has assembled and why these young Israelis, most of them secular, trust him so implicitly. Tevel b'Tzedek is one of the boldest and most comprehensive programs among the many new Jewish social justice projects that embrace the concept of tikkun olam. Participation in the program is free; participants pay only for their plane tickets, health insurance and visas. Most are in the early to late 20s, although some, like Ben-Ari and Carmel, are mature adults with specific training and skills. Most are Israelis, but in each session there are also a few Jewish participants from English-speaking countries, some of whom are on their way to immigrating to Israel, others who will return to their native countries. Some join up with the group while on their trek through Nepal; others will continue on the trek afterwards. In Israel, volunteers hear about the program through word of mouth and networking; Odenheimer and a team of volunteers interview each applicant. "The meeting between the Israeli and Diaspora Jews," says Odenheimer, "is an important aspect of the program, because it reinforces the concept that what what we are doing here is part of our responsibility as Jews, wherever we live." For four months, participants in Tevel b'Tzedek live together, commune-like, in a four-storey house in Kathmandu. During the first month, they study Jewish texts on social and environmental justice, learn about Nepal's language, culture and politics and about the effects of globalization on the poor. Then, for the next three months, they volunteer in a variety of projects, most of them run by local NGOs. Each of the projects - including, among others, empowerment for the waitresses at the Cabin restaurants; informal education for abandoned street children; community organization in the slums along the toxically polluted Bishnumati river; organic farming on an orphanage farm outside the city; a theater group for working children in the Kalimati vegetable market; teaching English in a remote village six hours out of the city - has been selected by Odenheimer and his team. "We want to make sure that the projects are worthwhile for the Nepalese and for the volunteers," explains Yotam Pulizer, 25, from Mitzpe Harashim, a community in Israel's north. "But we don't want to impose our own ideas on the Nepalese, either. We want to work with them, and we know that they have what to teach us, too." Pulizer, who calls himself a "committed secularist who cares about being a Jew," had participated in a previous session of Tevel b'Tzedek and now works as a project coordinator and counselor for the program in Nepal. On a cloudy Friday morning, standing on the rooftop of the Tevel b'Tzedek house, Odenheimer, incongruously and serenely wrapped in his tallit (prayer shawl) and wearing tefillin (phylacteries), recites his morning prayers against the backdrop of the deep green mountains that enclose Kathmandu as the smog mixes with the mist of the early monsoon rains. Then he joins the 16 Tevel b'Tzedek group members, who are sitting on cushions on the floor, eastern-style, in the common room, ready for a seminar on Jewish thought. Odenheimer divides the group into smaller break-out groups, handing each photocopies of texts from the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Ezekiel. In one small group, Dekel reads the Hebrew from Isaiah 58 aloud, helping Simon Kaye, 28, from Manchester, England, with the complicated Hebrew. Odenheimer has chosen the passages carefully. "What is the prophet trying to tell us? There are powerful, universalistic concepts here - can you articulate them," he prods them. "How do they relate to our lives here and in Israel today?" The discussions continue heatedly. "As Jews, it is our responsibility to repair the world," Odenheimer says. "This is what the prophets tell us - and it is even more true now, in this time of globalization, when so many people are injured and there's so much to repair." Globalization has been a central focus of other seminars during the session. "As the world economy becomes more interconnected, the poverty in the third world becomes our problem, too. There are some 10,000 Nepalese people working in Israel as caregivers right now. It's important that our volunteers understand why they are working in Israel and how this is connected to global processes," Odenheimer explains. Eran Ben Yaminy, head of the Environmental Fellows program at the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv, is one of several speakers that Odenheimer brings over from Israel to Nepal to lecture to the volunteers. "We try to teach them to think critically about globalization and neo-liberal economics," Ben Yaminy tells The Report in a conversation back in Israel. "They learn, for example, that the industrialization of agriculture means bigger businesses but fewer, and much more wealthy, stakeholders; that's why the villages in Nepal are collapsing and that's why Thai workers are brought to Israel and the smaller agricultural businesses are collapsing. They learn that they will have to make choices as adults living in Israel. Not everyone will be a professional activist, but everyone can contribute to making the world a better, more just place," he says. With a population of just under 30 million, Nepal is one of the poorest states in the world. Devastated by a Maoist insurrection and civil war that have led to the establishment of an unstable democracy plagued by infighting, Nepal's annual gross national per capita income was under $300 in 2007, according to World Bank figures. Nepal was only opened to the outside world in the 1950s, after a century of government-imposed isolation, and since then has been torn between tradition and breakneck modernization. Kathmandu, Nepal's only large city (pop. 700,000) is an intoxicating and dizzying mix of modern and ancient, transcendently sacred and crudely mundane. Throughout the city, there are thousands of temples, monastries, pagodas, votive pillars and fountains, together with feral dogs, wild monkeys, roaming cows, Internet cafés, people chatting on mobile phones, taxis speeding around hairpin turns and motorcycles zigzagging at breakneck speed. The air pollution can be suffocating, the views of the mountains awe-inspiring and humbling. Social organizations report that in Kathmandu there are over 1,000 ragged children that no one wants between the ages of 4 and 16 picking through the garbage or the ashes of the bodies cremated along the rivers, searching for something they can trade or sell. Most of them come from nearby towns or villages, but no one is looking for them. They sleep on piles of uncollected garbage that provide a foul, soft warmth or sell their bodies to any bidder; most of them are addicted to drugs or glue-sniffing. Tevel b'Tzedek volunteer Tamar Priel, 25, from Yesod Hama'alah in the Galilee, works with these street children, some of whom have been persuaded to come to the drop-in centers organized by field workers from Nepalese NGOs. "These children are miniature adults who have to fend for themselves, but they are also little children who want to be hugged and to give love back, but nobody wants them. The drop-in center gives them safety, clothes, a hot meal, but it doesn't provide them with any organized activities. So in our project, we organize daily, fun activities and work with local volunteers and help them build ongoing projects for these kids." But there are street kids in Israel, too, aren't there? Their situation may not be as dire, but certainly in Israel there are children who also need the love that Priel and the other volunteers are offering. After all, Jewish tradition teaches that aniyei irkha kodmin - the poor of your own city come first. Priel answers thoughtfully. "In many ways, we all live in one big world city. Social justice isn't about the particulars of this place or that place. Once you learn to draw on your own self to give and not run away from the pain - then you can give that anywhere." "There are several ways to think about the concept of 'the poor of your own city,'" Odenheimer says. "Caring about the world in all its brokenness does not mean that we are abandoning Israel or Jewish identity or Jewish solidarity. But we can't work for social justice in Israel without understanding the other half of humanity, the so-called Third World, because we are all interconnected." Joining with socially minded Nepalese to help the some of the poorest, most oppressed people of the world is "an utterly Zionist, totally Jewish endeavor," he continues. "Zionism was founded by idealists who wanted to create a just society. We wanted to be a light onto the nations. "In the past, because we were a powerless people, Jews had to maintain our insularity, our particularity," Odenheimer observes. "Because we are no longer powerless, because we have a state, we can unite the particularistic parts of our people with the universal aspects taught by our prophets. There's no contradiction anymore. Judaism and Zionism must have meaning for the world - the idea of Holocaust and Redemption is simply not enough to sustain us as a people, cannot provide meaning for us in the 21st century, after the State of Israel is already a reality." In Tevel b'Tzedek, he says, volunteers can become simultaneously more Jewish and more universalistic. "They will develop a deeper sense of Jewish identity because they will understand that Israel is part of the world - the global markets, and the food crisis, the ecological crisis. And they will learn to position themselves, as Jews and as Israelis, in this matrix." The communal home is the comfortable base from which the volunteers go out to their projects. The large house is located in the Kimdol section of Kathmandu, near the Swayambhunath, one of the world's oldest Buddhist sites, built high on a hill, presiding over the entire city. An unpaved, uneven path, lined wth wild marijuana, past feral but docile dogs and often aggressive monkeys, leads up to the house. The neighbors, like most Nepalis, string Buddhist prayer flags from wall to wall, so that the winds will carry their blessings to the gods. House life is Israeli-style, seasoned with Nepalese. A local woman cooks lunch and dinner - usually daal bhat, the national dish of sticky rice, lentil soup and cooked vegetables. But the volunteers make their own breakfast (French toast is a big hit) and ask visiting Israelis to bring tehina and chocolate. Sometimes some of them break away in search of a Diet Coke or a western-like sandwhich in one of the restaurants in Thamel, the area in Kathmandu totally dedicated to tourists, a 20-minute, harrowing cab ride away. They live three to a room, dormitory-style. Conversations are open, informal and spontaneous in a typically Israeli way; their rich language and articulate expressions reveal that this endearing group is made up of well-educated and highly intelligent people. When the lights go off at night during one of Kathmandu's frequent "power shedding," the guitars come out together with shared bottles of wine. Most of the men and women wear harem pants and most of the young men either grow their hair long or shave it close. Dudi Kaufman, 23, from Nahariya has posted a sign on one of the bathroom doors. "Remember the Baghmati," he urges, referring to one of Kathmandu's dangerously polluted rivers, attempting to convince the group members to make use of "all their waste products" by using the compost toilet. (Not all of them do.) In deference to Odenheimer and the other religious members, the house is kosher-vegetarian and "Shabbat-friendly," with optional Friday night services that everyone attends willingly, even though most of them are self-proclaimed secularists. On Shabbat, when they cook for themselves, they are encouraged to invite people they have met at their projects to join the group for services and dinner. Watching the group, and the way that the younger Israelis interact with the more mature members and with the Jews from abroad, Odenheimer comments parentally, "These Israeli kids have grown up in groups, from early childhood. They are amazingly flexible and spontaneous, with that special Israeli ability to 'just get things done.' This is 'Israeliness' at its very best," he beams. And he knows that for most of these volunteers, this is also a crucial time in their lives as they move from the pre-determined courses of school and army to the decisions they will have to make for themselves as adults. "This is the developmental period when most Israelis are more open than ever before in their lives," he says. "They have a natural sense of justice. If we can give them the fuel to inflame the passion for tikkun olam, then that passion can burn for the rest of their lives." Close to 2,000 people squat in crowded wretched huts fashioned from bamboo and cardboard in the Balkhu slums on the foul banks of the Bishnumati river. They have come to the city from distant villages to escape the poverty and the insurgency, but too-rapid urbanization, combined with waste mismanagement and bureaucratic incompetence, have turned Kathmandu's once flowing, sacred rivers into turgid pollution. Raw sewage oozes in the mud, seeping into the makeshift shanties. Tevel b'Tzedek volunteers, Ben Tzur, 23, from Tel Aviv, and Eli Elias, 25, from New York, working with local NGOs, have created a project to provide basic health care and services for the hundreds of children, some of them showing the unmistakable signs of malnutrition or parasitic diseases. They have convinced pharmaceutical companies in Kathmandu and Israel to provide vitamins, calcium, toothpaste and toothbrushes, pre-measured portions of medicine against worms and parasites and colorful nail clippers, which the volunteers back at the house have packed into zip-lock bags. They have persuaded Nepalese public nurses to give them lectures on basic preventative health care. And while they anxiously wait for the people to file in, Elias reads Ralph Ellenson's 1950s classic, "The Invisible Man." Many of the slum dwellers, Tzur and Elias learn, have been summoned to the courts; the municipality may be preparing an eviction case, since they are squatting here illegally. But slowly, several dozen people, mostly women with young children, gather together here, in the largest, most substantial structure in the slum - the straw and bamboo church built by Christian missionaries. Intuitively, Tzur and Elias have applied the best principles of community organization, learning also that "Third World" societies are no less complex than the societies they come from. Even in these destitute slums, they work with the NGOs to avoid the missionaries, sex traffickers, drug dealers and landgrabbers, who know that some day, this riverside property might be worth real money. Two projects operate outside of Kathmandu, and the volunteers come back to the house only on weekends. Newlyweds Simon and Aviva Kaye volunteered in the remote village of Sispa, northwest of Kathmandu, a six-hour bus ride followed by a two-hour walk away. In Sispa, Simon, 28, from Manchester, England, and Aviva, 25, from New Jersey, taught English, started an English library for children, and offered informal English activities along with helping with the agriculture and regular daily chores. Religiously observant, they lived in a house without indoor plumbing or electricity, counting only on themselves and the villagers for daily needs. In the next session, Tevel b'Tzedek will also bring in volunteers to help the villagers develop more efficient and organic modes of farming. As this group of Tevel b'Tzedek winds down, the Kayes made the long trip back to Kathmandu for the last time. After continuing to trek through Asia for a few more months, they will return to Jerusalem, where they have been living for several years. Aviva is excited, because she has convinced a Jewish day school in New York to donate books to the library as part of their hesed (charity) program. Thoughtfully, almost wistfully, she adds, "As I left, I couldn't say, 'I love you.' I don't have the words in Nepalese and anyway, it's not the way they express themselves. But maybe that's even more cool, because they knew. They knew what I felt and I knew what they felt." At the farm in Panchkal, a two-hour bumpy ride from Kathmandu, Tevel b'Tzedek works with children in the Bal Mandir boys' orphanage and farm, established by the Nepal Children's Organization, a non-government body initiated by (the recently deposed) royal family in 1964. Throughout Nepal, "orphanage" is a loose term - many of these children's parents are not dead; they have been abandoned because their parents didn't want them or perhaps couldn't afford to educate or even feed them. Here, the 47 boys range in age from 4-16; for another three adult men who are severely developmentally delayed, the farm is the only home they have ever known and will be their old-age home, too. In Panchkal, the three volunteers, Racheli Halbertal, 23, from Jerusalem; Yonatan (Jon) Ziv, 22, from Rosh Pina; and Yoel Werte, 23, from Klil, a community in Israel's north, have taught English in classes and informally and worked with the children to create a student council. The day before, the younger children banded together to propose a law: "The seniors must understand the problems of the juniors." It didn't pass, but in a compromise, they passed another law: "The seniors will have to prepare football practice for the juniors - at least once." Towards the end of their stay, the volunteers ran a summer camp for the children. How do you say summer camp in Nepalese? "Summer camp," Halbertal replies in English. "It's not something they have a word for." Bringing the kids together in a crowded, almost unbearably hot room, Ziv strums his guitar and the kids sing their really favorite song - "We are going to take over the world," to the tune of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." Ziv smiles a bit sheepishly, "It's not very 'politically correct,' I know…. But they're having so much fun." They have divided the kids into two teams for a rousing, raucous game of Capture the Flag. The flora, fauna and poorly constructed dormitories and school house look different, but from afar, this could be summer camp in Israel or the United States. Laughing, principal Bhimsend Dhakal looks on. "We provide what we can for our children. But these Israelis, they provide happiness and fun," he says. And then more quietly he adds, "We will miss them." And while the men and boys play, Halbertal visits with four very disabled children, who appear to be about 10 or 12. They can neither speak nor sit up and must be propped up in makeshift highchairs. But there are only three chairs. Halbertal sits on the floor, cradling a young boy, tickling his contorted body as he gurgles and giggles with pleasure. The Israelis have also worked on a program to implement sustainable agriculture on the farm, as a model for local farmers. During the next session, Israel's Foreign Ministry, through its Department for International Cooperation, will be sending over Israeli agricultural experts to work with Tevel b'Tzedek and the local residents. And they hope to use the farm as a base for shorter-term work with other backpackers who "pass through" Nepal, adding, even briefly, another dimension to their experience. Odenheimer and Pulizer come out to Sispa and Panchkal several times during the session, to ensure that all is well with the volunteers and the projects. Halbertal, Ziv and Werte "host" them in their room, in a formerly abandoned two-storey shack, which they have cleaned up and rebuilt. For three months, they have slept on tufted mattresses on the floor in one large room, without indoor plumbing, and they have made their "home" comfortable in a 1950s kibbutz sort of way, with packing crates for bookshelves and Hebrew novels next to their beds. Says Werte, "It'll be hard to leave. I don't know what I'll be doing. I was a law student. Now, I'm a confused student. But I'm a more committed person." As they prepare to leave, the volunteers assess the contributions they have made through their projects. Says Dekel, "In one of my projects, I worked with girls in an orphanage. We put on a play with dance sequences, in which they pretended to be sleeping and then got up to act out their dreams. At the beginning, they couldn't do it. They didn't know what I meant - the most they could say is what they are afraid of - being trafficked, being hungry, being sick. But little by little, they opened up. One of them wants to be a teacher, another a singer, a third a social worker. They may not all achieve their dreams, I know. But they had a chance to dream, and I think that matters, too." Says Ben-Ari, "I look at the women from the Cabin restaurants - what are their lives like? What do they have to do to survive? I know they might not be able to rebel against the men who abuse them or against fate or the world. But they've been empowered enough to laugh and have a bit of fun. And that matters, too." And what Tevel b'Tzedek does, says Israeli Ambassador to Nepal, Dan Stav, matters for Israel. "There are Nepalese activists who remember the training programs in agriculture and early childhood training that the Foreign Ministry used to offer, especially at the Mount Carmel Training Institute in Haifa. It changed their lives. When Israel was a small, fledgling country, we were involved in tikkun olam through training for Third World countries. When we were poor, we were generous. I hope that as a nation, we are becoming generous again." Tevel b'Tzedek volunteers work with civil society, in a way that diplomats could never do, Stav continues, and so create genuine relationships that, indirectly, contribute to Israel's image in Nepal. "True, Nepal is hardly a world power that is likely to play an important role in Israel's security," he says. "But we must not base everything on realpolitik. We must also take the humanitarian and human dimensions of nations into account when planning our nation's foreign policy." Perhaps above all, Odenheimer remarks, the experiences matter for the volunteers themselves. Says Priel, "I learned a lot about globalization and Nepal and about street kids. And I learned to see. When I first came to Nepal, I wanted to run away from the pain and injustice, but I didn't. So I learned to see. And when I go home to Israel, I hope I'll continue to look and see." Observes Jon, "In Nepal, it's easy to play the 'colonial white man' and expect people to bow down to us because of all the material goods we have. Some of the Israelis do that. But I've learned how complicated this world is and how much we, the white people, have made life difficult for other peoples. Here, I feel very small, because I know how little I understand. That's part of the reason I want to go home, to my own society, where I understand things better, so maybe I can do more. I'm a secular man, and I haven't become religious here, but I know I've become a deeper Jew." Tevel b'Tzedek is growing rapidly. For the next session, beginning in early September, Odenheimer has accepted 20 volunteers, among them a man and wife in their 70s, out of more than 60 applicants. With funding from numerous foundations - including the Schusterman, Pears, Rochlin, Wolfensohn, Blaustein, Slifka, Shapiro and Orion foundations - as well as from the UJA Federation of New York, he is hopeful that the program will continue to develop sustainable projects, work on short-term projects with more Israeli backpackers, and branch out into additional areas outside of Kathmandu. And he's already planning "Stage 2," providing ongoing connections in Israel and building a network of activism. Not all of the graduates from the previous sessions have returned home, and some are continuing their treks throughout the world. But a few have already returned, and while Odenheimer's hypothesis that the experience in Nepal would shape them as Israelis has yet to be proven, it would seem that at least some of the graduates are choosing involvement in social activism. One graduate has continued her work in Nepal by working with Nepalese foreign workers in Tel Aviv. Others are working or volunteering with non-profit social change groups, such as the Movement for Equality in Government and Ethiopian groups. As she contemplates her return to Israel, Halbertal concludes, "I have been a religious Jew since birth. But this experience has penetrated into every level of my experience, and I have found a fuller way to be a Jew and a human being." • For more information:

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