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In Nepal, a taste of the World to Come

A casual chat in an earthquake-ravaged village illuminates the transformative impact of development work

Tikkun Olam guru Danny Siegel calls them “revelatory moments” — instants of time that affirm your life’s work. They come in the form of a passing comment, casual conversation or simple human interaction. Yet despite their fleeting nature, they are incredibly powerful, bordering on the spiritual. They remind you who you are and why you do what you do. They demonstrate that change is possible.

These moments are the lifeblood of an activist. Without them, the overwhelming scope of suffering, the structural challenges impeding progress and the slow pace of change can be too much to bear. Like a much-needed sip of water during a grueling marathon, these moments reeenergize for the long road ahead.

For Micha Odenheimer, Founder and Director of the Israeli NGO Tevel b’Tzedek, this was one of those moments.

I had joined Micha at a meeting with a dozen women in the Ramechap district of Nepal, a rural area approximately 5 hours away from the capital city of Kathmandu. The women are members of an agriculture group — one of 65 such groups, totaling more than 2,400 farmers, run by Tevel b’Tzedek staff and volunteers in Nepal — providing skills training, building community and cultivating local leadership.

The odds are stacked against these women. They live in remote villages with minimal electricity and without access to basic sanitation, clean water and paved roads. Many are illiterate. Most of their husbands have left the village in pursuit of migrant work, leaving the women with the physical and emotional burdens of tending to their families and maintaining their small farms.

It has been a bad year. The April 2015 earthquakes, which left more than 8,000 Nepali dead, have compounded the ongoing challenges these women face. Most of their homes have suffered irreparable, structural damage. A full year later, the women still have not received the government’s promised reconstruction funds, leaving them in temporary shelters next to their abandoned, fissured homes.

Yet, these women came across as strong and resilient. If all they had done in the aftermath of the quakes was cobble back their lives, it would have been understandable. But, these women chose to learn new skills and challenge themselves. When we met, they spoke with joy and pride about the new agricultural techniques they had mastered, such as bee-keeping and mushroom cultivation. Even their descriptions of the earthquakes were tempered with a sense of humor, in a remarkable display of grit.

I asked the women many questions. This was my first time in Nepal. I had come on a site visit to see the work of some of OLAM‘s coalition partners, including Tevel b’Tzedek, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and others, and I had many knowledge gaps to fill.

Micha, in contrast, had amassed a deep understanding of the villages and their challenges. Having spent a little over two-and-a-half of the past nine years in Nepal, he had grown Tevel b’Tzedek from a small volunteer program, bringing together young Israelis and their Jewish peers, to an impressive international development operation, employing more than 60 Nepali professional staff — agronomists, masters-certified educators, etc. — and directly impacting 25,000 people a year. For Micha, conversations like these had become second nature. That’s why what happened next left such an impression.

In response to the question whether they had ever left Ramechap, several women explained that, in the past, they had spent six months of the year working and living in a brick factory in a neighboring city. The conditions were horrendous. Their health suffered from the ubiquitous smoke and dust. But it was the only way to feed themselves when the agricultural yield was insufficient.

“But not this year,” they smiled.

“Why?” Micha interrupted, his interest clearly piqued. It would have been logical for the women to go to the city this year, of all years, since the earthquakes had dried up the natural water sources so critical for food growth.

“We heard about the trainings — opportunities in the village — so we decided to stay.”

It was a passing comment, a snippet of a much larger conversation. The women didn’t dwell on it. I also didn’t ascribe it much significance. But to Micha, that moment held cosmic weight.

“It was a taste of Olam HaBa [the World to Come],” he revealed hours later.

“You mean you earned a share in the World to Come?” I playfully inquired, thinking Micha was employing a figure of speech to convey a sense that he and his staff had done something good.

“No, I mean it was an actual taste. A glimpse into the possible,” he corrected.

When Tevel b’Tzedek first began working in the villages, Micha set a lofty goal: To create opportunities to enable people to stay in the villages, rather than migrating abroad or to urban centers. Limited agricultural productivity, made worse by the ravages of climate change, had led millions of Nepalis to leave their homes in the hopes of a better future elsewhere. Instead of experiencing increased prosperity, however, many of these migrants suffered from homelessness, cultural displacement and extreme poverty.

I have no doubt that there have been times over the past few years when Micha and his team have questioned the possibility of achieving this goal. The pull towards migration is so strong and Tevel b’Tzedek, for all its impressive work, is still just a tiny drop in the ocean. Perhaps, all Tevel b’Tzedek could do was aid those left behind.

Yet, here were these women as living proof that change is possible and that Tevel b’Tzedek makes a difference. For Micha — and, in turn, for the Tevel b’Tzedek staff and volunteers who subsequently heard this account from him — these women’s choices were profoundly affirming.

In the nonprofit sector, we sometimes dismiss “revelatory moments” such as these. They rarely make their way into annual reports or donor proposals. Their ephemeral nature lacks the tangibility of concrete milestones and hard facts. But we would be remiss if we were to neglect their power. It is precisely these moments that keep people going when the task is daunting and the road long.

In less than two weeks, Jews worldwide will celebrate Shavuot, a festival commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Sinaitic revelation was magnificent, accompanied by thunder, lightning, fire and smoke. It was the kind of revelation that happens once in the lifetime of a people.

But Jewish tradition recognizes another type of revelation, one that is simpler and is possible in the day-to-day. When the prophet Elijah was at wit’s end, frustrated by his inability to reform the errant ways of the Jewish people, God taught him the important lesson that the Divine is not to be found in “the wind…or earthquake…or fire,” but in the “still small voice.” Indeed, revelation is not always a sound-and-light show. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a passing comment of a woman who is now able to stay in her village for the first time.

Moved to take action? Check out opportunities to volunteer with Tevel b’Tzedek (currently accepting applications) and other global Jewish service organizations on OLAM’s Take Action page.      

About the Author
Dyonna Ginsburg is the Executive Director of OLAM, a collaborative venture and joint platform for promoting global Jewish service. Prior to OLAM, Dyonna served as Director of Education and Service Learning at The Jewish Agency; Executive Director of Bema'aglei Tzedek, an Israeli social change NGO; and co-founder of Siach, a global network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals. A frequent lecturer, she was named "one of Israel's 50 most inspiring women" by Nashim magazine in 2015.
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