Righting the World on the Roof of Asia: Tevel b’Tzedek in Nepal

Tevel b’Tzedeck working with a women’s group in Mahadev Besi; photo courtesy Tevel b’Tzedeck.

by Noga Zivan

It is a source of ongoing debate within the Jewish NGO community as to how far we should be focusing our efforts on supporting our own people, whatever our understanding of that phrase means, and how much we should be looking to take responsibility for the wider world around us. During a recent sojourn in Kathmandu, Nepal, however, I got the opportunity to get to know one Jewish NGO which sees these things as far from contradictory.

Established in 2007, Tevel b’Tzedeck (The Earth – In Justice) is an Israel based nonprofit organization promoting social and environmental justice, whose mission is to create a community of Israeli and Diaspora Jews engaging in the urgent issues of global poverty, marginalization and environmental devastation from a place of deep commitment to the Jewish people and its ethical and spiritual traditions. Volunteers going through the b’Tzedek programme are encouraged to build their own capacities and those of their peers, creating new, socially-aware and motivated leaderships for their home communities while helping poor and marginalized communities to develop their way out of poverty.

I encountered the organization while working for a non-Jewish NGO in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Still recovering from a decade-long civil war which left over 15,000 people dead and an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people internally displaced, Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its economy is heavily reliant on agriculture, much of it at subsistence level, and on the remittances sent home by economic migrants from their jobs in the Middle East, sometimes Israel, but more often the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Tevel b’Tzedeck works in three centers in Nepal, helping communities to develop their way out of poverty. The first of these is the Kalimati neighborhood, near Kathmandu’s central vegetable market, the second is Mahadev Besi in the Dhading district on the road to Pokhara, and the third in the hilly Dholka region, near the border with Tibet. Each of these centers receives a team of volunteers to support permanent local staff in carrying out a range of development activities.

Two hours to the west of Kathmandu, in the village of Mahadev Besi, I met a group of volunteers who were just settling in to their new home and meeting the community with which they would be working for the next three months. The village in which they were posted was made up of members of Nepal’s Rai community (for more details about the Rai, see here). 19 years ago, massive flooding in the area changed the water systems from which the Rai of this village made their living as fishermen. Their traditional source of income gone, the community turned to quarrying stone from the river for road building. Now the usable stone was almost all gone, and machinery was increasingly being brought in to do the laborious work of breaking up what remained. Tevel b’Tzedek began working in the village to help the community to transition their livelihood from quarrying to agriculture. The seven volunteers posted here joined three local staff members in running youth and women’s groups, supporting agricultural improvement work and running theNGO’s model farm. During their stay, they were working not only with the settled Rai community, but also with the itinerant stone-cutters who have made their homes by the river.

I had the opportunity to visit the group at the end of their first week in the village. They had plenty of stories to tell; of mice and cockroaches, of developing new cooking ovens to supplement the existing Nepali stoves and of learning to use the sanitary facilities created by their predecessors outside their two-floored wooden house. They were a keen, motivated and skilled lot, including teachers, youth leaders and people with agricultural experience. All had received a month’s in-country training, including basic Nepali teaching. There was no question that living in the village would be an incredible cultural experience for them, and for the community in which they lived. We spent a pleasant day with them, looking around the village and sharing a home-cooked meal. Finally, before the dark could catch us on the road, we headed home on the back of a Tata truck heading into the city. Seated on a bag of rice, I have certainly had less comfortable and, debatably, less safe journeys on board Nepal’s chronically overcrowded public bus network!

Two weeks after this initial visit, I joined Or Ram, the Volunteer Program Guide for Tevel b’Tzedek in Nepal, on a visit to Kathmandu’s Kalimati neighborhood, where another group of 7 volunteers were posted. Located next to the city’s main vegetable market, as well as its main rubbish collection point, Kalimati is a crowded neighborhood housing many thousands of migrant workers who came to Kathmandu to escape the civil war and to find work. In this neighborhood, separated by the municipal rubbish dump only by a tributary of the unbelievably polluted, yet still somehow sacred, Baghmati River, the NGO runs a day-care centre, women’s group and youth movement. The volunteers also work in the local school, running a nature and homework club, and were in the process of establishing computer courses for local residents.

The interesting thing about Tevel b’Tzedeck is that it had no doubts at all about whether it was right for these (mainly) young Israelis and Diaspora Jews to come here, to the roof of the world, to help these distant communities. As a skeptical colleague, who initially insisted that the volunteers would have been better placed remaining at home to resolve some of Israel’s own social issues admitted towards the end of our visit;

“It is amazing what you do here. What you learn here. And when you go back, you are stronger as people, and as volunteers, so you can make better contributions to your communities than you ever could before.”

The number of the NGO’s staff who themselves began as volunteers bears this out. It does not have to be a question of ‘us’ or ‘them’. When we give our young leaders a chance to try their strength, to face challenges and to develop themselves and others, both ‘we’ and ‘they’ are the winners.

Dr. Noga Zivan is a charity management professional currently serving as Strategic Development Fellow with Renewable World, based at their offices in South Asia and East Africa. Check out her blog at nogazivan.wordpress.com.