Hearts Don’t Need Words

A Jewish organization partners with Sri Lanka’s largest grassroots empowerment NGO.

Sri Lanka_311 (photo credit: Sarvodaya)
Sri Lanka_311
(photo credit: Sarvodaya)
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 Lanka.
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 expertise.”
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.
The 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.
The 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 re-coalesce.
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.
Inspired by 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 war.
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.
Ives 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 Mitigation Institute.
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 Program.
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 organizations.
“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.
“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.”
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 funds.
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.
However, 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 NGO.
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 claymation.
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.
Song comes from the heart – and hearts don’t need words to understand each other.
“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.”