Israelis teach social justice ‘out of their backpacks’ in Nepal

An Israeli volunteer in Nepal – a bridge between the West and East.Doctor Livingstone, Columbus, and Neil Armstrong had at least one thing in common: all three were keen on chartering new territory. Today it isn’t so easy for adventurers …

An Israeli volunteer in Nepal – a bridge between the West and East.Doctor Livingstone, Columbus, and Neil Armstrong had at least one thing in common: all three were keen on chartering new territory. Today it isn’t so easy for adventurers to set their sails towards land never before encountered. Instead, the adventurous are turning to other realms of discovery – bridging the distance between cultures.

Some westerners pack their rucksacks and head off to Africa, South America or India and lend a hand in helping the sick, in building villages or by creating clean water supplies. Others, like the 16 Israelis recently recruited by Tevel B’tzedek (The Earth – In Justice) program, have their sights set on giving in a different framework: learning and teaching environmental and social justice in Nepal.

The world is a global village we now know, and for four months these backpackers took part in a program that helped them acquire the tools to help guide Nepalese through the challenges posed by globalization; program organizers hope that in return participants will transplant the basic ideas of sustainability – a catch phrase used by environmentalists today – back home in Israel.

Tom Noah, 24, studied law and cognitive sciences at the Hebrew University and heard about Tevel b’Tzedek from a friend, “The decision to participate was more emotional then rational,” says Noah. “It simply sounded like the right thing to do.”

Since being accepted to volunteer in Nepal, from where he writes, Noah has studied Nepalese history, Buddhism and the Nepalese language and culture. He comments: “I think that the attitude towards women here – especially towards widows is outrageous, and I wish I could do something in order to change it.”

Tevel B’tzedek was founded by Micha Odenheimer, 48, a writer, journalist and rabbi. With a passion for social justice, he also previously founded the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. Born and raised in Berkeley California, Odenheimer grew up in LA, studied at Yale and came to Israel 19 years ago.

“As a journalist I traveled to countries in Africa and Asia and became fascinated with the ‘developing world’ – its richness in human terms and what is happening to it in this time of globalization,” wrote Odenheimer by email to ISRAEL21c from Nepal.

“As a rabbi, I have always known that identifying with the struggles of the poor is part of the core of the Jewish tradition, as is the desire for a world transformed,” yet, laments Odenheimer, who has encountered many Israeli travelers on his journey, some “have lost touch with their traditional roots. Even as the economy of the world has grown more and more interconnected – just one small example, about 10,000 Nepalese are now in Israel caring for our sick and aged as foreign workers.”

Odenheimer suddenly recognized that the Israeli post-army trip to Asia, Africa or South America could be a “tremendous educational opportunity.”

“All these things got me to thinking, and the idea of doing an educational volunteer program for Israelis and other Jews to create a new Jewish language of social and environmental justice in the age of globalization was born.”

Recruited from the region, and given free accommodation and necessities, the volunteers were stationed in Kathmandu from mid-April until late July.

So far, reports Odenheimer, the Nepalese have been encouraging. “Many people in Nepal remember Israel’s training programs in agriculture and other fields, but recently have experienced Israelis only as youth tourists… the response of Nepali organizations and people when we introduce our plan to bring volunteers, has been one of great warmth, appreciation, and desire to partner with us.”

One reason perhaps is that Israel and the Israeli mentality lies somewhere between the East and the West, suggests Odenheimer. “We have technical knowledge and skills like Westerners, but we are not exactly from the West. And Israeli society and the army experience has given Israelis… innovational and improvisational skills beyond that of most Westerners. I think we can be a bridge between West and East.”

He goes on to explain that the Nepalese can also help Israelis. “Their social activists have been working on envisioning a new kind of world for a long time. They have gifts of wisdom and patience and experience that I think could also help transform Israeli society.”

In the first weeks the volunteers underwent intensive Nepali language instruction; after this they studied issues of globalization and sustainable development taught by a representative from the Heschel Center, an Israeli environment education group.

The volunteers will also meet with Nepali personalities to help them understand the country’s complex micro and macro issues. Hands-on volunteering will take place in village schools with urban street children, in orphanages, and with women’s empowerment groups.

The group will learn about organic farming and will be encouraged to teach sustainable methods of living.

The idea, writes David Pearlman-Paran of Israel’s Heschel Center, is to take advantage of the large numbers of young Israelis, “many with good intentions and minds who are open to learning and developing while there.

“The assumption is that on their return, when many of them are seeking new directions in which to develop themselves, they will choose to find ways to work for a sustainable Israel.”

One of the volunteer teachers recently flown to Nepal is Eran Ben Yeminy, who leads the environment fellows program at the Heschel Center. “I will teach backpackers about the social and environmental issue of globalization,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “The aim is not just to volunteer and help. It is more to open the minds of Israelis who go and travel to learn about problems of the world. Volunteering in an orphanage can help them fill in the bigger picture.”

They will also work with farmers in Nepal, says Ben Yeminy, who reports that economic globalization has caused tremendous problems not only in Nepal but also Israel.

For example, says Ben Yeminy, the agriculture industry is becoming “bigger and bigger but smaller and smaller in terms of the stakeholders”. Today, he says, you need a bigger scale to compete. The whole ‘commons management’ is changing. This is causing other problems in the environment and ecology.

“We have similar problems in Israel. That’s why we bring Thai people to work over here and smaller businesses collapse,” he explains.

Aya Navon, 26, studied psychology at the Hebrew University in Israel and recently helped Tevel b’Tzedek recruit participants. She was surprised to see a range of ages and backgrounds interested in volunteering. Those chosen include a nurse, a lawyer, a social worker, a photographer and a puppeteer.

“I was in the Israeli delegation to Sri Lanka after the Tsunami and it opened me to volunteering and international aid,” says Navon.

As for her attraction to working with backpackers in Nepal, she says: “There is something humble in Tevel b’Tzedek – not to teach the backpackers how to do everything right in Nepal, but to learn from them how to build a full picture of our place in the world through Nepal.”

With the first session of the pilot internship having ended successfully, the organizers are currently looking for new recruits in the 20 plus age range for the next session beginning in October. Those interested can email
Tevel B’tzedek.