by Abigail Pickus
These days, Omer Malchi and Emily Sasser are living and working in Bhwasa, a village nestled in the mountains of Nepal.
As part of the year-long Tevel Fellowship of Tevel b’Tzedek, an Israeli NGO whose mission is tikkun olam, these two young American Jews have chosen to immerse themselves in a culture and part of the world far from their own – in a program that is steeped in Jewish values.
“I was started to look at things like the Peace Corps, but when I saw Tevel something opened up,” said Malchi, 32, a teacher from New York. “It was a perfect fit, not just because of the development work, but also because of the Judaism aspect.”
For Sasser, 24, a recent master’s graduate in public health from Florida, the program is inspiring.
“Here we have the opportunity to not only do development work as individuals, but to also really focus on forming Jewish community. This gives the experience value and longevity. Experiencing how to live and work in the value of a Jewish community is something just as valuable as the work we are doing here in Nepal,” she said.
The two are part of a group of ten fellows from across the globe, including four from Israel, who work alongside nine Nepalese fellows. The international fellows spent their first month in Israel for an orientation.
Once in Nepal, the fellows work in their areas of interest. Malchi, who was born in Israel and moved with his family to New York when he was 6, is a longtime teacher in New York City.
As part of the education group, his work includes running a before school program that has so far increased attendance from 30% to 50%. One of the reasons so many children are not in school is cultural, according to Malchi. For example, whole families stay home for festivals or weddings that can last up to five days.
“Because of the current educational model, parents don’t see school as relevant. This is something we’re trying to change by working on new methodologies to make it more child centered,” he said.
They also started offering English language classes for the teachers, who requested it.
“It’s touching for me to see so many teachers who are so committed to improving the education for their own students,” he said.
And it’s not just education. Many of the villagers are thriving on the variety of educational groups being offered and have since taken on leadership roles of their own in the community.
The way Sasser and Malchi see it, their first job is to understand the culture.
“Coming from a public health background and having done work in other developing countries, I realize that success depends on understanding the culture,” said Sasser, a Florida native who has volunteered in Nicaragua and El Salvador. “If you’re building toilets and you don’t understand that the community has a severe water shortage problem, you won’t understand the right toilets to build and these interventions won’t be successful.”
Sasser works in the women’s group, where she and her Nepalese counterpart offer classes on health and are working with a local hospital to encourage safe motherhood.
The experience has challenged her in ways that far surpass her background in academia, she said. She holds a B.A. in political science and religion and a master’s in public health and is certified in public health.
“Here I have to interact with women with whom I don’t have a common language and we don’t have much in common so it’s exciting to challenge my creativity in the ways in the ways in which we work with them,” she said.
Whether it’s through games, exercises or story storytelling, they always find “fun ways to get the women to laugh.”
Each international fellow is paired with a Nepalese fellow. These counterparts, all highly educated, help translate and explain the culture, although Nepal’s citizens represent a variety of ethnicities.
“We are working with some unique Nepali fellows. We are learning a lot from each other. Building relationship with them is exciting on both ends,” said Sasser.
And living in the village is an adventure.
To begin with, water is a scarcity. Living in a drought prone area, even during monsoon season, Malchi and Sasser still get water through taps that come near their house “almost daily,” while their Nepali counterparts who live in a different house in the same village only have a close water source every four or five days – which is common.
So on the days when they don’t have water, they have to go to the public tap, which is a ten minute walk downhill to retrieve the water and a (long) 20 minute walk uphill carrying buckets of water. (Wondering where they bathe? That’s right: the public tap.)
Jewishly, the group celebrates Shabbat every week in different ways, everything from communal Shabbat dinners to kabbalat Shabbat services.
“We all come from varying Jewish backgrounds, everything from religious to secular,” said Sasser, including fellows from Germany, the Ukraine and America.
And for some, like Malchi, their Judaism has really begun to take root on this fellowship.
“I didn’t always feel a strong connection to Judaism, especially when I was younger,” he said. “Definitely as I get older, I realized that there are so many different forms of Judaism. I believe in a very humanistic Judaism. My brothers and I would take over the seder on Pesach to talk about the slavery that exists in the world today.”
Through study sessions with Tevel B’Tzedek’s Founding Director Rabbi Micha Odenheimer, Malchi has found a Judaism that resonates with his core values.
“We talk a lot with Micha that giving isn’t just in terms of money, but about giving ourselves, giving our time. Here in the village we can draw on that idea of giving and its connection to spirituality and that we all come from the same person, we are all the son of Adam,” he said.
Malchi tells the story of visiting the home of a 17-year-old severely disabled girl. Since his background is in special education – he worked with students with autism and severe disabilities – he immediately approached her and began speaking to her as he would anyone else. The girl’s family didn’t know what to make of his interaction with her since she doesn’t walk, speak or make eye contact.
“I sat with her and tried to get her to play games and found she responded to music,” said Malchi. “When I put music on she started to smile.”
He also opened her hand, placed some food inside, and led it to her mouth. “By the end of the day she would bring the food to her mouth herself. Her family was shocked. It was an amazing experience,” he said, explaining that then he worked with the family on new ways to understand and interact with her. “We take for granted all the knowledge and experience we have in the West about working with people with disabilities.”
As for what comes after Tevel ends, both fellows hope to continue working in international development, Malchi in international education and Sasser in global health.
It’s an investment they both feel is worth the effort.
“The biggest investment we can make is in human capital – both for the fellows and the community.”