Harvey Stein
Unforgettable digital stories

After the Pandemic, Will We Choose Tikkun Olam?

Many of you are familiar with the mythological description of tikkun olam (”repairing” or “healing the world”) of the 16th century rabbi, Yitzhak Luria, who lived in Tsfat, in Northern Israel: at the creation of the World, the vessels full of holy light were too fragile to contain the powerful light – so they shattered, scattering thousands of holy sparks throughout the world. And it is our mission to gather these sparks, to bring them together again – and when we do, we are healing the world, making it whole.

Here in Jerusalem, my family is lucky to have a yard. In Corona times lately, when we have been prohibited from going more than a hundred meters from our home, I’d just go into the yard: and I’m still astounded by how clean and blue the skies have looked, how crisp the clouds seem. With humans stuck at home, cars grounded, factories idle, we’re definitely experiencing a temporary tikkun olam related to climate change: and yes, in fact, global carbon emissions have fallen.

The completed 8.5 megawatt field in Rwanda (courtesy Yosef Abramowitz)

I’m now in the middle of shooting my feature documentary “Green Rebel- the Adventures of Kaptain Sunshine”, on the American-Israeli solar energy visionary, Yossi Abramowitz. Abramowitz’s company, with iron resolve, in 2011, built the first commercial scale solar field in Israel that was connected to our national grid. Then four years later, his first African solar field, in Rwanda, helped bring electricity to some of the six hundred million Africans without electricity.

I feel very lucky that I was able to squeeze in my first shooting trip to Africa, the first week of February (when only 2-3 people in Ben Gurion airport were wearing masks). I was accompanying Abramowitz on a visit to the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, where his field was built (and where some of the profits from electricity sale go back to the Village). The Village was founded in 2008, by a Jewish woman, Anne Heyman, as a home for orphans of Rwanda’s own genocide (in about four months in 1994, up to a million Rwandans were killed, about ten percent of its total population).

Yes, healing, gathering the sparks, is possible in every direction. I was amazed when I interviewed one of the young instructors there – he was an alumnus from Agahozo’s first year of students, and is now an IT instructor there. He told me, “I want to do tikkun olam, to help others – I want to ‘pay it forward’ ”. And then he smiled big and said (and remember, he’s an orphan from a genocide), “And, I want to have a family too!” He knew exactly what tikkun olam was – and that it always involves making the future better than the past.

Los Angeles skyline (courtesy Dave Reichert cc)

To date, there are almost four million confirmed cases of Corona worldwide, and about a quarter of a million deaths. Some governments and leaders are taking advantage of the pandemic, and the associated fear epidemic, to tighten control. And at the same time, some leaders and thinkers globally are challenging us to use the crisis to change direction on a planetary level. Electricity generated by fossil fuels accounts for 25% of harmful emissions in the world. And, outside of a war, fighting climate change is one of the few issues large enough to substantially retool an economy.

(Speaking of retooling economies and societies, besides a Green New Deal that systematically creates massive numbers of jobs in green industries, we might as well mention other ideas also spoken about now, like policies that reduce income disparity, possibly introducing a UBI – universal basic income, and of course universal access to quality health care.)

I was amazed at many things during my visit to Rwanda – Abramowitz told me that this Fall, Rwanda will retire its last dirty-fuel-burning power plant, and all electricity in the country will then be produced by solar or hydroelectric plants. Maybe this is how that first solar field was built – Abramowitz’s vision and the progressive vision of the Rwanda government coincided, his and their goals and dreams came together.

Bringing together the sparks: governments, politicians, and individual humans can choose to connect, to appreciate and help each other. I love watching the videos, taken in my old home town of New York, of people gathering on their balconies at 7:00 p.m., to applaud the health care workers and others on the streets below, who worked so hard during the day.

And similarly, in my other home country, Israel, there is an amazing movement to recognize the thousands of Arab-Israeli health care professionals working incredibly hard at this time. Clearly, media is a potentially powerful key to positive change these days (and it can of course also be used to keep life rotten). The video in the link above has been viewed by 1.5 million Israelis, one sixth of our population. Now the big question is, can a 55-second video actually motivate change on a systemic level?

Yeah, society’s leaders these days can model bringing out the best in people. Or – I don’t want to mention any names in either country 😉 – they can model the glaring, cynical instinct of “takin care of me first” (“getting back to business” as soon as possible – with the obvious goal of returning to those obscene corporate profits and shareholder dividends.)

Yossi’s company is now very hard at work building its second African field, in Burundi (Rwanda’s neighbor, with the same tribal makeup). Electricity is central to so many things needed for a healthy society. In many Burundian homes, all cooking, heating, and lighting comes from burning wood and charcoal in the home. And the subsequent “indoor air pollution” causes more than 10,000 deaths in Burundi (mostly children) every year. And, there may be no trees left in Burundi by 2040, because of the huge numbers of trees cut down yearly.

Bringing together the sparks within me, and the sparks within you. Bringing two “enemies” together for dialogue is exactly this. And making common ground with someone to work on a social or political problem – is bringing the sparks together too.

With Zambian bishop Scott Mwanza

When Abramowitz meets with local African politicians and business leaders, he tells me many are surprised – they expect a business pitch (like they often get from the Chinese energy companies working in Africa), and instead they first get a picture of shared spiritual, green goals.

The sparks are not Jewish (or Christian, or Moslem) sparks. The sparks are human. In Rwanda’s Genocide Museum, in the capital city of Kigali, there is an entire room full of photos of Holocaust times, with explanations in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language. Then in the next room, are images from mass killings in Cambodia, the Balkans and elsewhere. All are equal when faced with murderous violence.

As an impact filmmaker, I create films specifically to help catalyze positive change in communities (hopefully the sparks in the film will spark/combine with your own). With “Green Rebel”, the first year after release next Spring, we plan to have at least a hundred impact screenings in houses of worship, NGO’s, environmental conferences, and elsewhere. The screenings will hopefully be followed by inspired and inspiring discussions, and even “action plans” for local green initiatives. And during Corona times, we are presenting ZOOM meetings for groups interested to take a look at some of our in-progress clips.

Josiane Ishimwe, Science Club Coordinator at Agahozo Shalom, with student-designed solar lamp

Several students in the Agahozo Shalom Science Club, inspired by the solar field at the Village, created a small solar powered lamp, for family use. A large plastic cup contains a filament, connected to a small solar panel about the size of a piece of paper. It’s their yearly “tikkun olam” project – they will construct several of these lamps, and give them to families outside the Youth Village fence – many of whom at night have no choice but to use gas-burning lanterns for light.

Which ways will our societies turn in the next months? Will it be business as usual? Will it be more toasts in the halls of power to continued cronyism? Will our skies get brown again, as we hop into our cars and jets as always? Our children are watching closely – what will they learn from our and our leaders’ actions?

About the Author
Harvey Stein is a filmmaker and video journalist, originally from New York City, now living most of the year in Jerusalem. His current feature documentary project is "Green Rebel", about the Israeli-American solar energy visionary, Yossi Abramowitz, who is bringing commercial solar fields to African nations . His last feature film was "A Third Way - Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors", about the unique Rabbi Menachem Froman and his protégés, both Israelis and Palestinians. Harvey believes that digital media can be a crucial force for positive change in these tough times. You're welcome to follow his work and contact him for any reason.
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