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Bishnu Chapagain, a Nepali agronomist who studied and worked in Israel for more than a decade, earning his doctorate from Ben-Gurion University, oversees Tevel’s agricultural activities. Chapagain also directs Tevel’s Nepali staff of 30 salaried employees, augmented by Nepali volunteers who provide an essential bridge to the local population.
After our visit to Mahadev Besi, we made a three-day trip to the mountainous region of Ramechhap, in central Nepal. Access was difficult (fording a river by bus, bouncing by jeep on cliffhanger dirt roads) and accommodations were spartan (limited electricity, no heat or plumbing). We visited four villages and met 30 or so Jewish volunteers living on site. We watched them work with Nepali children, helping to reduce truancy by cleverly creating extra-curricular programs for the kids before school hours.
In the sense that rescuing a single village is analogous to the rabbinic adage about saving a single life, Tevel b’Tzedek is making a world of difference in Nepal. At the same time, Nepal has changed the volunteers, too. A central pillar of Tevel’s agenda is Jewish learning: Odenheimer and guest educators from abroad teach the volunteers in classes based on secular writings as well as on traditional texts — biblical, talmudic, hasidic — that embody Jewish values of social justice.
Over a Sabbath cholent lunch — vegetarian, prepared by the volunteers — at Tevel’s headquarters in Kathmandu, Odenheimer taught a shiur, a lesson that swung from Deuteronomy to the 16th-century Maharal of Prague, the talmudist and mystic who fashioned the fabled Golem. Judaism holds that all people are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. What does this mean? The image of God, the Maharal wrote, “is a supernal light that shines on human beings, and this light is the light of the world to come.” “I’m not so much into the world to come,” one young woman said, “but I know what you mean.” What Odenheimer meant, of course — indeed what Tevel b’Tzedek is all about — is that Nepalis, so foreign to Jews in so many ways, are bound to us by a shared humanity.
It is famously written in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 71a): “The poor of your city and the poor of another city, your poor come first.” There are many poor people in Israel, and the question often arises: Why devote energy and resources to the poor of Nepal? Certainly, doing good works in Nepal — and in Haiti, where Tevel was active in earthquake relief, and in Burundi, where Tevel will launch a project this year — makes for good public relations for Israel at a time when it needs it badly. But the benefit to Israel is much deeper than that, a truth that came to me as I sat in Mahadev Besi, listening to the women.
One by one, in their rainbow of saris, they stood up to speak. Their voices were strong, impassioned, their cadences quick, rhythmic and poetic. I didn’t understand a word, and the simultaneous translation into English by a member of the Nepali staff was difficult to follow. But their faces told the story. These women had overcome inhibitions and passivity and now felt empowered to speak out about their needs and hopes for the future.
The Tevel volunteers, by fostering self-confidence and building community leadership, have empowered themselves as well. When they return home, they will apply their personal transformation, each in his or her own way, to the creation of a better and more just society.
Stuart Schoffman is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. His translations from Hebrew include books by A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Meir Shalev.