The Alumni Conundrum

Despite the current political situation in Burundi, Tevel is continuing to work with small scale farmers there; as seen here, farmers are using seeds from last year's successful potato project to plant this year's potato crop. Photo courtesy Tevel b'Tzedek.
Despite the current political situation in Burundi, Tevel is continuing to work with small scale farmers there; as seen here, farmers are using seeds from last year’s successful potato project to plant this year’s potato crop. Photo courtesy Tevel b’Tzedek.

By Rabbi Micha Odenheimer

[This is the sixth installment in a series that highlights the community case studies featured in the Alumni Playbook, an online resource from the Schusterman Family Foundation designed to help community initiators build robust alumni networks. To learn more about Tevel b’Tzedek, visit their Playbook case study and join the Tevel team for an exclusive webinar about their efforts to build a robust network of service-minded changemakers on Wednesday, January 27 at 9:30 AM EST.]

From its inception, Tevel b’Tzedek has had two goals – or two “lighthouses,” in Tevel parlance. One goal is to transform communities living in poverty through the strengthening of their capacity and knowledge, their community, and their leadership, so that impoverished villages become places of opportunity and hope. The other goal, no less important, is to create a cadre of young Israelis and Jews who combine a passion for global “tikkun” – creating a more just and beautiful world – with a commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. This, of course, is a philosophy that our alumni are not only part of, but embody.

In pursuing our first goal – transforming poor communities – we have managed to hone our methodology over the last eight years. Of course, we are learning all the time, and the needs of the people we serve are often urgent and immense. Right now, we are assisting in the recovery of 25,000 Nepalis in extremely poor communities whose homes were rendered unlivable by the recent earthquake – as well as hundreds of residents of Burundi, a country that is not only the hungriest in Africa, but one undergoing a political meltdown that has made threat of massive ethnic conflict all too real. Challenges like these mean that learning and perfecting our methods will presumably continue for a while, at least until Mashiach comes. But we have developed a “Torah,” an approach, that we are constantly testing in the field and that we believe is cutting edge, not just in terms of Israeli or Jewish organizations, but in the field of development as a whole.

In pursuing our second goal, we have also made great strides – particularly the the initial immersive experience of participants in our learning-service programs. Here, too, we have painstakingly developed an effective methodology, this one helping us create a service experience for young people who do not necessarily have relevant expertise and are operating amidst a foreign culture and language, often in extreme conditions. Especially challenging is that, while we believe that only focused and intensive long-term work for three to five years can transform a community, our service programs range from one to ten months. As a result, we are always fine-tuning our well-developed approach that allows volunteers to work closely with local staff or with their Nepali or Burundian peers, enriching their experiences and empowering them to become leaders.

But we can’t speak with the same confidence when it comes to alumni. Much depends on our expectations: if the goal of alumni activity is to keep alumni organized and involved as a group with an ongoing, developing collective identity rooted in Tevel b’Tzedek, then we have only partially succeeded. If, however, the goal of alumni activity is to help spawn and nurture a generation deeply involved in tikkun olam in Israel and abroad, then we have seen tremendous success. I want to share with you some of our greatest successes and some of the challenges we have faced, as well as our current strategy and our hopes for the future.

Challenges

In our alumni work, our organization has faced a number of obstacles, both internal and external:

  • Focus: Our work in Nepal, Haiti and Burundi involves an enormous organizational effort and a great number of complexities. So much is at stake in the lives of the participants and those we serve – sometimes it is literally a matter of life and death – that the organization’s energy tends to focus on their immediate and ongoing struggles, crises and opportunities.
  • Geography and Immersion: Our programs are so immersive, that – borrowing a phrase from the writer Hakim Bey – we call them Temporary Autonomous Zones. For participants, they are a world unto themselves, far removed geographically, linguistically, technologically, culturally and socially from “normal” life. Immersive experiences create strong bonds, on the one hand, but are also extremely context-dependent: although deep friendships (even marriages – eight couples and counting have met on Tevel trips!) are made and kept, it is difficult to translate and reignite an intense and immersive social experience when back on home turf. Eighty percent of our alumni start or continue their education after the program; thus, they are dispersed throughout Israel and around the world, and usually have full schedules that include school, work and local volunteerism.
  • Funding: Tevel has only sporadically received funding for alumni activities – aside from a generous two-year grant from Schusterman Family Foundation, funding for alumni activity has been difficult to garner. Because of the urgency of the situations in Nepal, Haiti and Burundi, it has been difficult to allocate enough of our general funding or to fundraise aggressively enough to support extensive alumni activities.
  • Ownership: We have seen an interesting curve in terms of alumni-initiated activity. The first Tevel cohorts, from back when the organization was still young and much less professional in terms of our development work in Nepal, took much greater initiative in creating alumni activities once they returned to their home communities. As the organization has grown and professionalized, alumni feel less responsibility and ownership and are less likely to initiate alumni activity on their own. However, one caveat: at a moment of truth, in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, hundreds of alumni participated in fundraising events organized by dozens of their fellow alumni.

Successes

I have dwelled for a moment on obstacles and areas for improvement because they are no less important for learning than successes, and because I feel that we lack a clear, established methodology regarding alumni – which is, in my mind, where we have fallen shortest. Yet, there have also been outstanding successes, taking into account our general goal of creating and encouraging leadership in the field of Israeli and Jewish tikkun olam.

From the organization’s point of view, our alumni’s most important contribution is that they are the organization. Almost every one of our staff positions, in Israel, Nepal and Burundi, are manned by alumni of our programs. Our five-year involvement in Haiti was initiated and fueled by alumni: they pushed us to enter Haiti after the earthquake, and more than 30 alumni volunteered for us in the refugee camps in Port au Prince and in Haitian villages. From the moment the earthquake struck Nepal this past April, alumni began organizing events to raise money for Tevel’s relief and rehabilitation work – including multiple events in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheva and elsewhere – along with Internet crowd-funding campaigns that netted hundreds of thousands of shekel.

Since its first year, Tevel has supported – with the help of small grants, capacity building and volunteer recruitment – a number of significant projects initiated by alumni. These include an ecological farm in the Galil, a union for Nepali, Indian and Filipino caregivers in Israel, a volunteering and educational program that helps Israelis work for the rights of Thai agriculture workers and a worker’s rights program for security guards at educational facilities in Jerusalem. Dozens of alumni have participated in these programs. Each of these projects, however, is now independent of Tevel.

Indisputably, Tevel alumni have played a key role in catalyzing a renaissance of Israeli involvement in tikkun olam in the developing world. Here, the role of the mothership is less clearly defined:

  • Tevel proposed the idea of a Master’s Program in International Development to Hebrew University, and Tevel alumnus Aya Navon played a crucial role in building its curriculum and methodology. The Glocal Community Development Program is now in its fifth year, and many of the program’s graduates are Tevel alumni.
  • Tevel alumni hold leadership positions in IsraAID (Deputy Director and Global Partnerships Director), an Israeli disaster relief organization, and in the Pears Program for Global Innovation (Deputy Director).
  • Tevel served as the inspiration and model for the Jewish Agency’s TEN volunteering program, with Tevel graduates serving as madrichim (guides) to groups in the field.
  • Numerous Tevel graduates are studying international development in Israel, Europe and the United States.

In our service learning programs in the developing world, we emphasize the exploration of ideas, Jewish texts and thinking that is both critical and inspirational. We regularly bring outstanding lecturers in the fields of Jewish studies, community development and human rights from Israel to Nepal. We also celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays – including Tikkun Leil Shavuot and Tu B’Shvat – and have held numerous formal and informal events for our participants. Here in Israel, we have conducted post-volunteering reorientations to Israeli society with some of Israel’s best thinkers. Recently, we held a Shabbat lunch in the Machane Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem, together with Eritrean asylum seekers. But our efforts have been too sporadic, and there is need for a more organized curriculum of post-service activities.

Conclusions: Tevel-Israel

While we are justly proud of our alumni accomplishments so far, we also believe that we have not remotely begun to tap in to the full potential of our alumni’s ability to contribute to Israeli society. In pondering the alumni conundrum, Tevel is now trying a new approach: focusing more organizational effort on developing “Tevel-Israel,” a slate of Tevel-led activities that address social and environmental issues within Israel. Tevel will take more ownership of these projects than it did our earlier alumni projects, which we helped seed and grow, allowing us to develop a new unique work model in Israel. Although alumni will largely staff and run these projects, participation would not be restricted to alumni. Focusing on the urgent and crucial work to be done in Israeli society, rather than on developing alumni identity may, paradoxically, present a highly effective method of galvanizing alumni activity. Seeing the organization acting with conviction in Israel and integrating and applying the values we demonstrate in our global work to Israeli challenges may also have an educational impact on alumni.

We plan to extend this new approach – in which the organization takes the lead, rather than simply supporting alumni initiatives – to the educational sphere, as well. We plan on designing educational workshops for service program returnees that explore Tevel’s key themes, particularly the integration of Judaism with social and environmental justice, into the contemporary Israeli context. These workshops, as those we have organized before, will feature some of the best Israeli thinkers in the areas of Judaism, activism and social justice.

In the wake of the earthquake in Nepal, Tevel has doubled the scope of our work in that country. Perhaps surprisingly, this has only stoked the organization’s desire to work methodically and effectively with alumni. With the world so fragile, and yet so filled with opportunity for positive transformation, we have finally come to understand that our most precious resource – our alumni – must be utilized and cultivated right here at home.

Interested in learning more about alumni engagement? Check out the Alumni Playbook, a hands-on toolkit designed to help community initiators learn from successful alumni programs and provide them with conceptual guidance, practical advice and tactical support as they plan, shape and implement alumni strategies.

Rabbi Micha Odenheimer is the Founding Director of Tevel b’Tzedek.