Have you heard of the Hummus Trail? Each year, thousands of Israeli youth complete their army service and embark on their own adventure, often hiking the ‘Hummus Trail’ where the most remote villages in South Asia and South America offer menus in Hebrew. And when some of these former backpackers end up in my classroom to study community development around the globe, I get a front row seat into the aftereffects of their wanderlust. I see them digging deeply into their lives, trying to understand their values and choices, and reflecting on how this all defines their own space in this skeptical and beautiful world. Often, their travels have translated into more activism, landing them squarely in the category of global citizen.
One organization here in Israel that has led the way in encouraging these conversations about our responsibility to far flung communities, to individuals we have never met, is Tevel b’Tzedek. On a trip to Nepal in 2006, Rabbi Micha Odenheimer realized that he had a built-in target audience of young Israeli backpackers trekking the ‘Hummus Trail’. Why not begin a program that could address the challenges facing a country like Nepal, the poorest in Asia, while at the same time having these backpackers from Israel, as well as from other Jewish communities around the world, become engaged with the topic of global poverty solutions and its link to Jewish values? So it was that Tevel b’Tzedek, translated loosely from Hebrew as “the world with justice”, was launched the following year.
Since its original cohort of volunteers in 2007, Tevel b’Tzedek hasn’t stopped posing the same challenging questions that set it upon its original journey. It is constantly weighing its dual mission of encouraging global responsibility through the prism of Jewish tradition and of advancing development for impoverished communities.
This balancing effort has been ongoing – especially as Tevel b’Tzedek has not only spent twelve years in Nepal, but has also led projects for years in Haiti and Burundi, and is now expanding into Zambia. With all the complexities their work entails, it is not surprising that Tevel b’Tzedek’s current director, Yonatan Bram, not only brings years of experience in the field to his work, but is also completing a masters in anthropology with a focus on the ethics of international development.
Early on, Tevel b’Tzedek understood the need to work alongside a cadre of local leaders in order to advance sustainable, community-based solutions with particular emphasis on agricultural productivity. By 2009, the organization had established Tevel Nepal, led by Bishnu Chapagain, who has a Ph.D. in agronomy from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Helping villagers produce enough food to feed themselves, more difficult than ever due to climate change, enables them to stay in their ancestral homes and not be part of the mass migration abroad or to over-crowded urban centers. Tevel b’Tzedek’s work also addresses a variety of other issues facing vulnerable communities, including education, health and sanitation, and youth and women’s empowerment.
Its longstanding collaboration on the ground has led to local adaptations of everything from the Israel Scouts’ youth movement and post-high school year of community service, to the adoption of beehive farming and drip irrigation practices that were first developed in Israel.
In 2015, a series of earthquakes hit Nepal, killing over 9,000 people and destroying thousands of homes. Building on the years of goodwill created with local villages and the Nepali government, Tevel b’Tzedek was well-positioned to partner with the many Israeli and Jewish organizations that came to help, including the American Joint Distribution Committee, Magen David Adom, IsraAID, Natan and the Israel Center for Psycho-trauma. Tevel B’Tzedek’s local Nepali staff and its international volunteers were on the ground, quickly adapting their work to include rescue and trauma relief.
In the face of such disaster, it also became clear that for the foreseeable future, Tevel b’Tzedek’s collaborative efforts would have to focus on immediate needs such as medical treatment, temporary shelters, psycho-social support, sanitation and food distribution, along with longer-term rehabilitation plans. And now, four years since the earthquake, as many communities have recovered and efforts are more sustainable, Tevel b’Tzedek is once again re-configuring, expanding its service learning opportunities for youth coming from abroad.
And back in the classroom? As part of learning to be global citizens, we pore over these case studies. We look at the disaster response and the long-term recovery in Nepal and other countries that have suffered from environmental and humanitarian crises. How do communities recover and build resilience? What should be the role of international volunteers? Thankfully, the discussion is not just theoretical.
Through our relationship between the Glocal MA program at Hebrew University and organizations like Tevel b’Tzedek, we have had students from all over the globe, including Nepal, and many of their alumni have passed through our program. We also regularly place our students on internships with Tevel b’Tzedek, and they have come back to teach us about their evaluation research on topics such as expansion of their eco-tourism program and the impact of their post-earthquake, psychosocial support for women. You can find Tevel b’Tzedek alumni, numbering over 1,000, not just at the University but often leading efforts of the growing community in Israel and abroad that is addressing the topic of international development.
So here’s the thing. We don’t need to be twentysomething to join this growing community of global activists. We can do it at any age — even if we look around and find ourselves low on sleep and laundry detergent, stuck with a mortgage and lacking a sense of unforeseen possibilities. Last fall, my friend Naomi Schacter, a mom of five with a full-time job, took her vacation days and post-army son and left for Nepal. Naomi and her son Micha joined Tevel b’Tzedek’s ten-day trek to Mount Everest’s base camp, which included visits to their community partners and villages. Afterward, Micha spontaneously decided to postpone his planned backpacking trip, signing up to stay and volunteer with Tevel b’Tzedek instead.
We all have the potential, and arguably the obligation, to imagine ourselves as real global citizens, to think and act globally. Who knows where the trail will lead? So I should note that there is another trek coming up this October — and it has no age limitations. Last year’s backpackers ranged in age from 24 to 73. I’m just saying…