What Jews and Israelis Can Bring to International Development Work

Micha Odenheimer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Micha Odenheimer

For the first time, this Monday, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America will be hosting a mini-conference on tikkun olam, organized by the Reut Institute and the Alliance for Global Good. The conference is about the potential Jewish contribution to ending global poverty.

Despite the joke that refers to "two kinds of Jews - those who believe in tikkun olam and those who speak Hebrew," there will be a strong Israeli representation at the conference. There seems to be some interest in developing a partnership between Diaspora Jews and Israel, one that is focused on fighting extreme poverty, but that can also help define and strengthen Jewish peoplehood.

As the founder of an organization that has brought more than 500 Israelis and Diaspora Jews together to work directly with poor communities in Nepal over the past six years, has partnered with IsraAID to the same end in Haiti since the devastating earthquake there, and is poised to begin work in Africa, I wholeheartedly endorse this idea.

For too long, the Jewish people have been weakened by a split that divided them into Jews (like those in the early Reform movement ) dedicated to universal social justice, and Jews (primarily Orthodox ) whose concern was the survival of their religion and culture.

It is time we realized that this divide is no longer relevant. By partnering with others to create a more just and beautiful world based on a consciously Jewish platform that is inclusive of Israel, we can heal the split many of our young people feel between their particularistic Jewish identity and their longing to take part in making a better world. Now is the time to apply the potencies of the Jewish social justice tradition to the most urgent challenges of suffering and poverty.

The history of development work has been fraught with failure - as well as some shining successes; it is work that must be done with wisdom and focused intent. From my own work I've gained some insights that I would like to share:

First and foremost, we have to work with commitment and integrity to make our work truly effective. The Global South (the developing world ) cannot be seen as simply an "instrumental arena" for strengthening Jewish peoplehood. Jewish and Israeli programs must seek to make the most effective contribution to eliminating poverty and suffering, but the benefit for the Jewish people can come only as a side effect of that true and sincere effort. In Tevel b'Tzedek, we have decided that strengthening rural villages through work in agriculture, health and sanitation, education, women's empowerment and youth is key to stopping the flood of migrants to urban slums. We create sustainable long-term projects by developing local staff and integrating our volunteers in their work; other organizations will have other strategies. If our work with the poor is real and thoughtful, then our Jewish young people will be moved and inspired. If not, they won't.

Technology is huge - but "software" is even more important. Technology will work only if people in villages and slums gain confidence in their own abilities. We have found that Israel and the world Jewish community have incredible "software" - ways to motivate and organize young people and communities - that may be even more important than the "hardware" of technology. One example is the spirit and structure of our youth movements. In Nepal and Haiti, our volunteers have combined the best of the Israeli and Jewish youth movement spirit with inspired local youth activism to change hundreds of lives. Our Jewish passion and warmth, and the spirit that allows us to share our knowledge with communities over periods of days or even months at a time are the real secret to our potential contribution.

Seeing the big picture is critical. Eliminating poverty means fighting for a more just economic system, one, for example, in which American farmers are not subsidized to the tune of billions of dollars while free-trade agreements prevent developing countries from protecting their industries. Advocating on issues such as these must accompany work in the field.

Humility is the byword. The days when we in the "First World" could approach the "Third World" as if we had all the answers are over forever. We have to replace that attitude with the consciousness that we are all in this together - and that we are also struggling to learn and develop. Raising the bar on the basic conditions we see as acceptable for human beings will make us all more secure - and will generate new kinds of knowledge and creativity that will benefit us all.

We Jews have something special to give. We have to have confidence in our potential contribution - which includes our experience and history. The developing world today is an incredible patchwork of tribes and ethnicities - all struggling to preserve the strength that comes from tradition, while connecting to the modern global world. It may seem strange for us, with all our anxieties over continuity, to hear it, but we Jews are perceived by many of these tribes as a model of a people who have done just that.

There is no question in my mind that if the Jewish people raises its voice in a demand for a new global ethic, in which it is no longer acceptable to have children dying from preventable diseases, stunted by malnutrition, or excluded from access to knowledge - our outcry will be heard, will hearten and will inspire.

Micha Odenheimer is a rabbi, a writer and the founding director of Tevel b'Tzedek, an Israeli NGO dedicated to creating a Jewish-Israeli platform for working with the extreme poor in the Global South.