Tikkun Nepal: a Jewish Opportunity

by Caylee Talpert

“Why volunteer in Nepal? Don’t you think you should be worrying about your own community first?” These are some of the questions typically faced by individuals who choose to volunteer in a developing country. On one hand, this line of thinking seems outdated and pre-globalization. The concept of tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world,” has become increasingly popular due to a global focus on social responsibility, and volunteering in the developing world has become more normalized.

However, throwing out the words “tikkum olam” is not enough, especially once you pack your bags, put your life on hold, and set off to live in a mud house in an impoverished Nepali town. This is exactly what 20 young Jewish volunteers do in each group sent out as part of the organization Tevel B’Tzedek (TbT). In remote villages, volunteers wake up at 6 a.m. each morning to farm, lead women’s groups, or run children and youth activities. They do this for a local population that, if not for TbT, would have never heard of a Jew or been able to locate Israel on a map.

Kosheela Rai is a typical woman who lives along the river in the Dhading region of Nepal. She wakes up at 5 a.m. each morning to work at the stone quarry on the riverbank and spends her entire day cutting stones with her bare hands and a simple chisel for 11 rupees per bucket (about half a shekel). Her plastic shack is located on the bank of the river which serves as her toilet, water source, and source of income. Because of her husband’s poor health, Kosheela has become the breadwinner of the family. The husband, however, spends a large share of their money on roksie, a Nepali alcohol that the local men drink each night. Though Kosheela is illiterate, her two young children are able to go to school. Unfortunately, it is unlikely they will complete their education, since it is normal to marry at the age of fourteen and to begin having children soon thereafter.

The story of Kosheela’s family is in no way unique among the people TbT works with, and clearly portrays the extent of the poverty the volunteers witness on a daily basis. Perhaps this poverty is the first answer to the question, “Why is TbT here?”

Although there are certainly many needy people in our own communities, the poverty in this remote village exists on a different spectrum. The suffering among these types of communities may not be directly a Jewish problem, but perhaps it is a Jewish opportunity.

Since Golda Meir established MASHAV in the 1950s as part of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs that assists in international development, both Israel and numerous Jewish organizations worldwide have been sharing technologies, skills, and inventions with the developing world. TbT brings a new dimension to this relationship by sending young, enthusiastic volunteers from around the world to help the people in remote Nepali villages.

Initially, many young people become interested while looking for a cheap and meaningful way to travel the world. With so many Israelis taking trips to this part of the world each year, Nepal seemed an obvious location for Micha Odenheimer, the founder of TbT, to begin his organization. The volunteers bring with them Jewish lessons in how to organize, innovate, and implement new ideas, assisting with agricultural projects and teaching the locals simple methods that the kibbutzniks and farmers in the group bring from home. Volunteers develop a newfound appreciation for running water, toilets, toilet paper, and bug/rat/gecko-free living areas, but also a wealth of memories with an unimaginably diverse group of young, motivated Jews.

In their time volunteering, TbT participants celebrate Shabbats and festivals together in a remote country and learn that one can be happy living a simple life. Perhaps most importantly, volunteers have the opportunity to meet and gain strength from the incredible residents of the communities they volunteer with. These residents, despite strenuous workloads, make time to attend meetings and participate in activities in an unrelenting attempt to improve their families’ lives. In many respects, not only are the volunteers fulfilling the precept of being a “light unto nations,” but that light also reflects back, leaving both sides illuminated far beyond their initial expectations.

Caylee Talpert made aliyah from South Africa in 2008. She holds a Bachelors of Commerce from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa and a M.A. in Israeli politics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is currently volunteering in a rural village in Nepal.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.