Opportunity of a LIFE-time

LIFE: an innovative Tikun Olam program for Jewish and Israeli young adults is just about to launch their initial cohort. We last wrote about them in August; here with a program update is Rachel Neiman.

Helping the developing world is perhaps the biggest challenge of the new century and, at this point in history, one of the most disheartening. Despite decades of effort on the part of governments, organizations and individuals, in the long run many aid programs have perhaps done more harm than good. To paraphrase the old adage: most aid efforts have focused on giving people a fish, rather than teaching them to fish. And while the Israeli government, through aid arm MASHAV, has long been helping the developing world learn to fish, Israeli and Jewish non-government organizations (NGOs) have mainly focused on Israel, its immediate neighbors, and the Jewish community.

Time for a change, says Yonatan Glaser, founder and director of educational NGO B’Tzedek. “Up until now, efforts to revitalize Jewish institutions have been very inward focused. I think you’ve got to be worthy to appear worthy. I think that’s where young Jewish and Israeli people are today: they want to build their own identities, a community and a communal life. Paradoxically these can be strengthened by going overseas. By being outwardly focused we will do some of that inward revitalization.”

B’Tzedek has partnered with another Israeli NGO, Brit Olam, to create LIFE, a nine-month learning program for college graduates from the Jewish world and their Israeli peers (aged 21-30) that will train participants in effective social action which can change policy by sending them to the developing world.

Early this November, starting with an initial one month training period in Israel that will include looking at case studies of community, rural and urban development and social change, the first group of LIFE interns will depart for internships in Hyderabad, India for four months, after which they will return to Israel for a second four-month internship. So far, 12 people have registered and a few more slots are still open. A shorter option, ending in the spring, also exists.

The period in India will begin an in-country orientation at Hyderabad. Glaser tells ISRAEL21c: “During that time the group will be together in that city. We will cover practical issues like safety, food, health and program issues like introduction to the local NGOs, staff roles, and policy context of the internship positions.”

Subsequently, group members will transition into internship positions, ranging from policy and program-development based positions in the headquarters of organizations, to more program delivery oriented positions in small villages. Internships will be for the full working week with occasional breaks for group seminars, weekend programs and short trips to become acquainted with other places.

“One of the reasons for starting in India is because India has this mixture of high tech and tradition,” explains Glaser. “There is an infrastructure that speaks the kind of language we’re speaking and is enthusiastic about the service learning model.”

Self-esteem and civic responsibility

Service learning combines service to the community with student learning to improve both student and community. As students participate in their community service projects to actively meet the needs of communities, they develop practical skills, self-esteem, and a sense of civic responsibility.

The ultimate goal, Glaser says, is for participants to develop their vision of social justice and their leadership abilities, adding that the program also requires participants to pay attention to their inner selves. This will include time for personal reflection, meditation and sessions with the Israeli Training Center for Mind-Body Skills. The Israeli Center is connected to the Washington-based Center for Mind-Body Medicine, a non-profit educational organization which works to create a more compassionate, open-minded, and effective model of health care and health education.

Glaser explains that the workshops train people “in well-known methods of stress control that enable participants to become more self-aware of, and able to manage, their emotional reactions to stressful situations.” The group will also engage in learning about Jewish values, “as the basis for a rich and rightful inner life which is, after all, the basis for how we carry ourselves externally.”

LIFE’s overseas partner in India is a major NGO, the Byrraju Foundation, which is funded by the Satyam group, a high-tech concern. Glaser explains that the foundation serves over one million people and provides a basket of 40 services in 200 villages.

The organization works in a number of fields from livelihood (job training, cottage industries),to rural tourism (mapping infrastructure or devising a marketing strategy), women’s empowerment, school education (teaching English as part of a portfolio of skills) health issues (delivering ECGs to small villages, for example), farming, and water – a major issue in these villages.

Says Glaser: “One of the things I’m very excited about is that the participants will get insight into how to develop and deliver a program so that it’s appropriate to the end-user – for example, how to present HIV in a culturally sensitive way. We’ll be giving them training in intercultural relations, right through to what programs the government and NGOs are putting into place.”

The last week in India will be an intensive seminar and meetings with key figures in the social services, social change and government in the region in which participants have been living and working.

Once back in Israel, the group will study Hebrew at an intensive language study program. This period begins with a two-week re-entry and orientation period. The mornings will be taken up with an intensive ulpan (Hebrew study program) and the afternoons with (first week) unpacking the Indian period and planning for a community event for program partners and (second week) preparing for the Israeli internships and starting the ongoing learning program that includes lectures, meetings and participant-programmed activities.

“People will join LIFE for diverse reasons: for career development, for Jewish and personal growth, for the global social justice dimension, for the intense experience with Jews from other parts of the Jewish world,” says Glaser. “We think that all these reasons are fine and believe that the unique combination of these elements make LIFE a peerless opportunity.”

Glaser hopes that by next year, LIFE groups will intern in Africa as well as India. “We are at an advanced stage of discussions with NGOs in Africa and fully expect to partner with them. For us, the goals are a safe and successful placement in which you are able to add value to the local community and have a rich learning experience. These are the primary conditions for LIFE to succeed.”

image caption: “You’ve got to be worthy, to appear worthy.” LIFE aims to train Israeli and Jewish participants in effective social action in the developing world.

Reprinted with the permission of ISRAEL21c at www.israel21c.org.

You can read more about LIFE on B’Tzedek.