Our experience – and our tradition – have taught us that authentic change requires time and consistency, local knowledge, and the flowering of a networked, connected leadership committed to the common good.
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By Micha Odenheimer
For the past seven years, Tevel b’Tzedek has been exploring what sustainability could mean in the context of the too often heartbreaking vulnerability of the extreme poor in the globalizing world. In the face of so many failed interventions in the world of international development, we asked ourselves the following questions: How can we treat poverty in the 2/3rds world at its root? How can we truly transform the situation for those who are tragically vulnerable, while strengthening, not destroying, their own culture and way of life? And no less important: How can we train a generation of Israeli and Jewish young leaders to truly understand and embrace these crucial goals as part of the core of our spiritual and cultural identity?
Inevitably, because of who we are and how we are perceived, our work is done with a consciousness that we are representing Israel and the Jewish people. We believe that our approach resonates profoundly with Judaism and the Jewish experience, not just in a general “tikkun olam Judaism believes in helping others” kind of way, but in principles and methodologies that are reflected all the way down to the smallest details of our work.
Part of what distinguishes Judaism from other spiritual approaches is in its refusal to separate body from soul, theory from practice, physical from spiritual. In a profound way, the Hebrew Bible, from the expulsion from Eden through the Prophets, is the story of humanity’s, and then the people of Israel’s, search, under constant threat of exile, to have a home, physical and embodied as well as spiritual. It is the search to live permanently on and with the land, “as the days of the heaven upon the earth.”
With this story imprinted in our spiritual DNA, it is perhaps not surprising that, after four seasons of work in urban slums, with street children, orphans, and trafficked women, we came to the conclusion that to reach the source of poverty we would have to work in the rural villages. As is the case nearly everywhere in the two/thirds world, the villages in Nepal and Burundi, home to 80% of its population, are in crisis, first of all, in terms of food. Because of environmental degradation, population growth, loss of traditional agricultural practices, the loss of forested areas and migration of its labor force, villagers are not producing enough to feed their families. The lack of good educational and health systems serving rural populations also contribute to the crisis and instability of the villages. Yet to be pulled into urban poverty is a form of exile: migrants lose their land, but also their thickly woven life-giving threads of friendships and associations drawn from their ancient culture and their deep knowledge of their human and natural environment.
Tevel goes into village areas to work for 3 to 5 years in order to forestall this exile. We don’t believe that everyone should stay in the village; sometimes – unfortunately, all too rarely – the city can offer unparalleled opportunities for education and advancement for lucky, persistent villagers. But we also don’t believe that people should be driven from their homes into the anomie and dislocation of urban slums because they lack food, education, health services, and most of all the knowledge and skills to act together as a living community during these times of transition, globalization and crisis. And we also know that within a few short years, as the communications infrastructure grows in countries like Nepal and Burundi, nearly infinite quantities of information and knowledge will be available within the village itself – and unpolluted farming land in places of exquisite, unpolluted beauty, will find its true value.
How does our approach differ, and how is it rooted in Jewish wisdom on sustainability? Firstly, we recognize the power and significance of the organic structures of community in transforming the world – echoing the lessons of the Jewish experience throughout history and the teachings of our tradition. Using a combination of local, professional staff and Israeli and Jewish volunteers, we help communities double or triple their food production (almost always with organic methods), from women’s groups for empowerment, micro-saving, literacy, income generation, and the improvement of nutrition and health, working with the local public schools on early childhood development and teaching methodologies, and with our own homegrown youth movement on leadership and a wide array of issues. At the same time, everything we do is meant in the end to strengthen inclusive community institutions which themselves know how to adapt and change so that when we leave, the village continues to flourish and transform. We have already succeeded in doing this in two remote and marginalized areas – after phasing out a year and a half ago, they continue to surprise us with their growth and accomplishment.
The discourse about international development today is often dominated by the notion that what is needed to fight poverty are clever new technologies – quick techno fixes – and the unleashing of market forces. This approach disconnects body from soul, individual from community, heart from mind – and usually ends with the appropriation of the technology by the stronger families, castes or individuals at the expense of others, once again widening the inequality gap. Our experience – and our tradition – have taught us that authentic change requires time and consistency, local knowledge, and the flowering of a networked, connected leadership committed to the common good. As the Torah’s extensive social justice laws, such as periodic land reform and the commandment to give interest-free loans to the poor tell us, our tradition is focused on preventing the development of societies in which inequality reigns.
Another surprising effect of the Jewish component of our approach is the extent to which the local staff and villagers we work with appreciate our approach to ethnic identity: that we are devoted to our own tradition and way of knowing without the need to missionize, that we connect with them as a particular group with its own history building solidarity with another particular group, not Westerners coming in the name of “universal reason” or “universal religion.” In fact, the developing world is a mosaic of tribes and ethnicities, all searching to continue to draw strength from their origins while connecting to the global world in a healthy and enriching way. The need for both recognizing and valuing cultural uniqueness while concurrently connecting to an encompassing global ethic is of great urgency today. Surprisingly, despite Jewish self- doubt about continuity, Tevel’s Jewishness provides, for many of the groups we work with, a model for integrating particularism with universalism, the sustaining of identity with the skillful navigation of the new global world. Searching for, and articulating, a sensitive, modern articulation of this balance between universalism and particularism is part of Tevel’s mission.
Especially with our volunteers – both international (Jewish) and national (Nepali and Burundian) – part of our strategy for sustainability is to broaden horizons so as to understand the world in a new way. We present to our participants a broad picture of the world and its power structures, emphasizing the often only partially understood underpinnings of the forces that determine conditions for people all over the world, including the poorest populations. Our primary, but not exclusive, focus is on the world economy and the process of economic globalization. We discuss the history of economic globalization, and argue that globalization in its current form is not simply the result of innovations in science, technology and communications; but it emerges from a set of value-laden assumptions about human nature.
The Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, drawing on our prophetic teachings and ethical precision in order to make the world more sustainable and equitable: if we can make this vision a reality, we can change everything – for the world, for ourselves, and for the future of humanity.
Micha Odenheimer is the founding director of Tevel b’Tzedek, an Israeli organization working in Nepal, Burundi and Haiti for sustainable development of communities of the extreme poor. Micha is a writer, journalist and ordained post-modern orthodox rabbi.