In the hillside farming village of Mahadev Besi, west of Kathmandu, half a dozen middle-aged Jews from Jerusalem sit cross-legged on the floor of a bamboo shed, listening to the local women. Most of us are members of the board of Tevel b’Tzedek, an Israeli organization that sends young volunteers to combat poverty in Nepal.
The women of the village are young and old, wrapped in colorful saris and shawls. That’s the first thing you notice in Nepal, the colors. Here is one of the most beautiful countries in the world — the snowy Himalayan vistas, the dramatic green valleys, the faces of the people — but also one of the very poorest.
The buses and trucks belching fumes on the garbage-strewn streets of the capital are decorated bright orange, blue, yellow and red, as if to offer an optical antidote to the dim economic horizons. In villages like this one, men are conspicuously absent. Some spend long periods away from home as construction workers, building skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi.
Thousands of young Israelis, on their extended post-army ramble, spend a month or three in Nepal, trekking, marveling at Hindu and Buddhist temples, happily draining four cups at the biggest Passover Seder on planet Earth, courtesy of Chabad. That’s the stereotype of the Israeli backpacker, and it’s okay, as far as it goes. They’ve been wholly owned by the Israel Defence Forces for at least two years, and now it’s time to relieve the pressure. But what happens next?
Seven years ago, an adventurous Israeli innovator named Micha Odenheimer founded Tevel b’Tzedek, which means “the earth, in justice.” His idea was simply this: Create a situation where young Israelis go to destinations like Nepal to understand global poverty, and make a small but meaningful contribution toward improving the lives of the world’s poorest people. Odenheimer majored in English at Yale University and was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi by Shlomo Carlebach. After making aliyah in 1987, he traveled often to Ethiopia and set up the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. As a roving freelance journalist, he was drawn to other developing countries — Laos, Somalia, Haiti, Bangladesh, Iraq.
The Tevel volunteers are mostly in their 20s and they comprise secular and religious Israelis who have completed their army service, as well as college graduates from the United States. Most come to Nepal for four months. In the beginning, the volunteers focused on the slums of Kathmandu, doing what they could to keep Nepali kids away from drugs and prostitution. Later on the emphasis shifted to rural poverty. “We want to make life there sustainable,” Odenheimer told me, “so people will be able to support themselves and not be compelled to move to the slums of the big city.”
Before Tevel became involved, the villagers of Mahadev Besi made a meager living by pounding rocks into gravel used for paving roads. Their land was fertile, but poorly utilized. Sanitary facilities didn’t exist, not even squat toilets. Now, as Tevel completes its four-year intervention, Israeli-made drip irrigation nourishes the tidy fields of a model farm, designed for emulation by other villages.
Crops are grown in rotation throughout the village, and a surplus is sold at market. Methane gas derived from human and animal waste provides cooking fuel.