New Year’s Questions, Not Resolutions

Games of Pictionary foster bonds and provide a common language across cultures; photo courtesy.

by Gideon Herscher and Charlene Seidle

Imagine setting out on a journey and upon landing discovering that you are seven years younger than when you left. This is only one of the magical and mysterious offerings of Ethiopia, a country that operates on its own calendar, and has a 12-hour clock.

Just a few weeks ago, we embarked on an eight-day adventure through the cities and countryside of this East African nation, celebrating the onset of 2014 Ethiopian-style. A group of travelers ranging in age from 12 to nearly 70 had come together under the auspices of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Each participant brought an adventurous spirit and a commitment to helping some of Ethiopia’s most challenged villages.

A year prior, this group of philanthropists had pooled their dollars to support both physical and human capital in the Gondar region of Ethiopia. They enabled the building of new schoolhouses and wells in four villages; sanitation education and training to maintain the wells; and scholarships for female nursing and midwifing students from the region.

As Jewish community professionals who share a passion for forging meaningful experiences between philanthropists and showing them the impact of their efforts, Ethiopia was a compelling destination for this unique group. It is a country that combines three powerful narratives – a Jewish experience and exodus; intensive humanitarian and medical needs; and a rich history, physical beauty and biodiversity.

These interconnected narratives can be most daunting, as each surfaces existential questions. What motivates one to embark on these journeys? What will the journeyer discover along the way. Each evening, we gathered for reflective conversation and sought to ensure that our experience would not remain in Ethiopia only – but would transcend the travel experience and generate a ripple effect into other aspects of philanthropy and life.

A number of themes emerged through these conversations. Four compelled us most.

1. The power and potential of the individual: Our Sages teach that we are not obligated to complete the work of repairing the world, but we must pursue the task. This was a challenging concept for us and our group. How could we possibly make a difference in the face of such seemingly intractable problems and poverty?

Over the course of the trip, we met incredible people. Individuals like Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC medical director in Ethiopia, who harnesses an amazing network to treat ostensibly insurmountable medical cases and who has dedicated his life to making a difference in the world. Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia Belaynesh Zevadia, the first Ethiopian-Israeli to serve in Israel’s diplomatic corps, and now proudly returned to her country of birth. And Zimna Birhani, one of the first Ethiopians to go to Israel in 1955 and return to Ethiopia as a key leader in the exodus of Ethiopian Jewry. Zimna and Belyanesh led their people toward the fulfillment of a several thousand-year-old dream – and fortified them when the reality did not always match the dream. We were inspired by their tenacity and strength.

We also spent time with nine young women studying nursing and midwifing at Gondar Medical College-all from villages, each the first in their family to pursue an education beyond third grade, and each filled with hope and excitement at the idea of going back to their villages to improve and sustain lives. We met many other individuals who looked at the same challenges that we initially saw as too big to address and became the change-agents. Encountering them, we felt at once empowered and humbled.

2. Becoming the other: In advance of the trip and on the trip itself, our group engaged in a number of discussions about turning the tables and looking for opportunities to see the world through the eyes of the people impacted by the consortium’s grant. How did they see us coming into their villages? What motivates, inspires, and delights them? How can they be in the drivers’ seats of their destinies?

We learned about modalities of question-asking and listening and tried to look for opportunities to engage in authentic discussion and learning, without preconceived notions. We played rousing games of Pictionary with the children which transcended language barriers. We left feeling that there were more opportunities we could have pursued for direct, candid and mutual exchange. Ultimately we talked about the importance of donning the mindset and narrative of those whose lives we seek to impact as much as possible in our giving – whether for seniors who may feel isolated in our community or farmers in Ethiopia.

3. Sustainability: Our group investigated sustainable practices – particularly underscoring the need to invest in individuals and organizations which have a deep and localized cultural understanding and context for the regions and peoples being served like the JDC does in Ethiopia. We agreed that sustainability takes on different manifestations for different people and entities – governments, NGOs and individuals. We explored promising practices that could guide sustainable funding models, particularly in the international development arena. An action item from the trip is to draw from a multitude of resources to put together such a list of standards and advocate for its adoption by San Diego funders who care about making a strategic, meaningful impact globally.

4. Deconstructing the Jewish vs. general dichotomy: Up until recently, Ethiopia was a fascinating example of a place where Jewish and Israel-based organizations serve both the Jewish and general community.  This surfaced questions of prioritization of needs and resources. As is often the case, the issues and questions that we think are new are actually generations old. The Talmud in Gittin says “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead for the sake of peace.” These words could apply today as they did thousands of years ago. We struggled with these issues and realized that there are no singular answers – and yet we take action as we wrestle through the questions. Another action item from our trip is to learn more about the Ethiopian Israeli experience through on ground interactions in Israel and related philanthropic opportunities.

Returning from any trip or immersive experience that takes us out of our comfort zone can be a rocky one. We, together with the group, tried to prepare for our return home from the start. Will we choose to cope with the stark contrasts between village life and our city life? Will we contemplate their happiness in relation to our happiness? How will we share the experience with others? Will we choose to make changes in our lives, our philanthropy, our behavior?

The impact and outcomes of our journey are still unknown. We hope and plan for this experience to have a transformative impact – but also know the realities of daily life pull us in and are hard to resist. Our hope is for our group to act as a support system and peer coaches, reminding each other about the important questions we explored in Ethiopia, recounting the narratives of those we met, finding our own voices and narratives in theirs, ensuring the journey continues.

We’ll see where the road takes us next, but we know it’s not a road we can avoid and that searching for a shortcut undermines the call of Ethiopia and those whose lives we touched.

Gideon Herscher is Director of Development and International Partnerships for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Charlene Seidle is Executive Vice President of the Leichtag Foundation and a senior consultant to the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego.