KATHMANDU, Nepal — Shira Langer was heading into a lazy day. Typically, Saturday’s find the 31-year-old senior staffer in the Israeli organization Tevel b’Tzedek’s Nepal office heading over to the Thamel tourist zone, to give in laundry and maybe take a vinyasa class at a favorite yoga studio. Or, she and any of the other staffers who happen to be in Kathmandu for the weekend might just stick around the local bakery in their Swayambhu neighborhood, sipping spicy Nepali tea. After all, it’s the Sabbath, a day of rest.
But this Shabbat was not like that. It was a nightmare. More than 7,000 people were killed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal just before noon on April 25th, and the death toll continues to climb. Kathmandu, an overcrowded city of an estimated 2.5 million people, with shaky infrastructure and weak public services at the best of times, has been all but brought to its knees. Its narrow, potholed streets filled these past days with the newly homeless huddling together, as the rain cruelly began to pour down. The injured are camping out around the overwhelmed hospitals.
Across the country – one of Asia’s poorest – tens of thousands have lost their homes. Remote villages, many of them still inaccessible, are feared to have been completely buried, and avalanches were triggered on Mount Everest, killing climbers there. Aftershocks and tremors continue, terrifying Nepalis and reaching all the way into neighboring China and India.
Meanwhile, iconic UNESCO World Heritage sites and popular tourist attractions – some dating back more than 1,700 years – have been reduced to piles of rubble: Ancient Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries have all collapsed.
A 260-person strong Israeli military search and rescue crew is in Nepal to help locate survivors in the rubble and has set up a medical field hospital for locals. The small international airport has reopened, but it’s chaotic: Thousands of other foreign tourists, are still trying to figure out how to get out of the country – even as international aid organizations and expat Nepalis desperate to return home are trying to get in.
Back in Jerusalem, at Tevel’s headquarters, the phone is ringing constantly, as concerned parents of the volunteers, from across Israel and the United States, want to know what is happening. Some want their children out of there. But Langer and the other Tevel staffers and volunteers say they have no intention of leaving. They had come to Nepal initially to help. And now there is a lot more to be done.
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A week ago, it all looked so different.
The circular, clockwise movement around the base of the ancient Buddhist temples and shrines at Swayambhu begins before dawn. Monks slide prayer beads through their fingers and mingle among morning joggers in tracksuits, yogis doing laughter exercises and devotees arriving with offerings of flower petals, coconut pieces and chickens. Minivans and motorcyclists – horns blaring – swerve through the Kathmandu morning scene, leaving clouds of black exhaust in their wake.
One man carefully lays out the dozen bunches of parsley he has brought in from the village on a sheet of plastic and crouches down to wait for customers. If he sells them all today, he could make 200 Nepalese rupees – $2. Passersby unfold grimy five rupee notes (five cents) to buy incense and butter candles at the spice store nearby.
Boney, flea-ridden mutts roam the 365 stairs leading up the east side of the site to the fifth-century white stupa above, barking madly one moment and lying motionless the next. Monkeys leap from the statues to the icons to the electric wires, and into the trees.
In the suburb below that bears the temples’ name is a neighborhood of narrow lanes leading to guesthouses for Buddhist pilgrims, orphanages, meditation centers, Ayurvedic pharmacies – and one particularly big house with a little rainbow-colored “Welcome” sign scotch-taped to the door.
Out in the courtyard, Anat Brandes, 22, from Kfar Sava – just recently out of her two years’ army service training Bedouin soldiers – is strumming some Simon and Garfunkel on her guitar, alongside Michael Green, a 23-year-old New Yorker between college and medical school. Noi Zifroni, 21, from Hod Hasharon, and Ofir Ariel, 23, from the Golan, are hanging out, too, humming along.
Inside, Arielle Gordon, a 20-year-old Brandeis senior from Upstate New York, wanders into the kitchen, where Hadas Leket and Lior Zrihen, two 22-year-olds from Modi’in, are chopping up vegetables and getting the tehina paste mixed just right, for an Israeli-style salad.
Upstairs, in the library – no shoes allowed – Shai Wollheim, a 23 year old former paratrooper from Jerusalem, and Shulamit Kruger, 22, from Zichron Yaakov – who both grew up in modern Orthodox homes – are preparing a group discussion they are going to lead later, on Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s attitude towards happiness.
This is – this was – Tevel’s Kathmandu headquarters. Or, as it is also known, “the big house.” This is where the NGO volunteers in Nepal would come, in between their stints in the field – for rest, relaxation and a little Yiddishkeit among the monks, pollution, monkeys and buddhas.
Tevel’s story began a decade ago. That’s when Rabbi Micha Odenheimer took his kids out of school for a few months and went on a family trip to India. And that was when, for the first time, he encountered the so-called Hummus Trail.
An estimated 50,000 young Israelis depart from Ben-Gurion Airport every year and head out on their “big trip” to far-off lands. Through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India and Nepal they traipse – typically as one big happy family of faded army unit T-shirts.
They all hit Dharamshala, chill out in Goa, eat the best cheap pad thai in Ko Samui, and hike around the Annapurna – making pit stops at the same Chabad Houses along the way. But they seem to miss out on some stuff, too.
“It got me thinking,” says Odenheimer, a youthful 56-year-old with earnest questions, a mischievous smile, big, lopsided knitted skullcap and a storytelling style that commonly leaves others either lost or inspired – or both at once.
Born in Berkeley, California, and a product of both Yale University and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s circle, Odenheimer is an open-minded, easygoing, live-and-let-live kind of guy. With messy hair and an even messier wardrobe of crumpled jeans and T-shirts, he seems to have no eye for the negative in others – and zero interest in jumping on the bandwagon of Israeli backpacker bashing.
Nepalese people affected by the recent earthquake queue to receive food from a non governmental organization in Kathmandu, Nepal, April 27, 2015. (Credit: AP)
Sure, many of the Israeli travelers – typically just finished their military service – can be overly enthusiastic about their newly rediscovered freedoms. Yes, they can be dismissive of rules and disregarding of both local customs and other travelers. True, they are known to be stingy, and, indeed, many are loud or downright rude – as the various stereotypes go. It’s not like Odenheimer missed any of this. But he also, as is his way, observed some other, more appealing, qualities.
“I’m a big fan of Israeli youth. There are a lot of fantastic kids out there,” he says. His sense was that many of them were interested in the countries they were traveling through beyond getting stoned at beach parties and paying six cents for dinner.
“It seemed to me the problem was that they had no real way to sink their teeth into what they were seeing,” he adds. “And so I got thinking of starting a program that would give their travels a new dimension.”
Odenheimer wanted, he explains, to both awaken within these travelers an awareness of the need for global social and economic justice, and to relate that to where they were coming from. “I wanted to teach something about the ethical traditions at the heart of the Torah,” he says, “and to help youngsters connect those values of Judaism to the universal.
“What if the Israeli jaunt through the Third World could be harnessed to transform the thinking of the new generation?” he asks. “Could it spark an Israel that was not only a high-tech power, but also a place where original and important ideas arose to address the great ethical dilemmas raised by globalization and poverty?”
Tevel B’zedek volunteers in Nepal, April 25, 2015. (Credit: Elena Tevel)
By Passover 2007, with some money cobbled together from foundations and private individuals, Odenheimer had set about recruiting a group of volunteers for a pilot program to test his dreams out.
His target group was Israeli backpackers heading out to Southeast Asia. But he invited American Jews as well. Or anyone, really, who wanted to do a month of volunteer work with, as he calls it, a Jewish heart. It was a mini-Peace Corps, minus the 140 country offices but with Shlomo Carlebach tunes.
Odenheimer called his new organization Tevel b’Tzedek, a turn of phrase found in Psalms: “The world with righteousness.”
Several month ago, on a chilly Tu Bishvat evening in Jerusalem, the latest set of volunteers met up as a group for the first time. They nibbled on dry fruit, went around in a circle introducing themselves – stumbling over their newly learned first Nepali words, “My name is” – and talked expectations.
“Can we choose what village we want to live in?” Zifroni wants to know. “What about if we want to skip some of the ‘Jewish classes’?” someone ventures. Will there be toilets? Electricity? Kosher food? What about vegan options? Will their WhatsApp work in the rural areas?
“Let’s start giving some thought to what vulnerability and poverty mean,” suggests Noga Shafer-Raviv, 29, Tevel’s director of community development, who has offered up her student apartment for the get-together. “There are always those who arrive in the villages and say, ‘Look! That kid is happier than my nieces and nephews in Ramat Hasharon with their PlayStations. Let’s think about that a little more deeply.” “It’s true,” says volunteer Ariel, unaware how prophetic his words will be: “One natural disaster and they lose everything.”
“The Jews as a light to the nations. Let’s think about that, too,” throws out Lee Frankenthal-Kariv, 27, a pregnant medical student and Tevel’s recruitment coordinator. “Is there such a thing? Do we, as Jews, have a mission? And to who?” There is silence. “Let’s start that conversation.”
Odenheimer’s pilot program – once a simple operation in which volunteers were recruited, placed with local NGOs, and later got together for some ad hoc Judaism classes – has, over the years, evolved into a much more serious organization. It has a substantial Jewish studies component, a development model focused on four different areas – women, education, youth and agriculture – and three different volunteer tracks.
There is a popular one-month program, geared mainly toward backpackers who might happen to already be in Nepal and want to try something different. There is a small 10-month program, run in Nepal and, as of this year, also in Burundi, Africa (Tevel’s first expansion out of Asia), called The Fellowship, which recruits volunteers with more professional experience. And then there is the flagship four-month program, run twice a year, which is the one these volunteers in Jerusalem are about to commence.
Langer is a former four-month volunteer who stayed on with the organization: first as an instructor, then as head of recruitment, and today as head of the Israeli staff in the Kathmandu office. It’s not an uncommon trajectory. All but one of the permanent 13 Israeli Tevel staff were once volunteers themselves, including the two leaders of the new Burundi operation.
Tevel B’zedek volunteers at the 'big house’ in Kathmandu. (Credit: Danna Harman)
The eldest of six children from an Orthodox Jerusalem family and with a black belt in karate, Langer would be the first to say it’s hard to characterize a typical Tevel volunteer. Yes, they are mostly between 20 and 25, either post-army Israelis or American Jews right out of college, with backgrounds in youth movements or experience with volunteering. And yes, most are Ashkenazim, middle to upper class and, to varying degrees, English-Hebrew bilingual.
But, still, the mix is notable. There are settlers and kibbutzniks; modern Orthodox, totally secular and only half Jewish; straight and gay; men and women. A Brazilian signed up last year, as did a South African, an Australian and several Europeans, as well as, just once, a Druze woman from Haifa.
Tevel isn’t interested in where its volunteers are from, says Langer. What matters, besides basic cultural sensitivities and an interest in getting involved in aid, is an ability – no matter what their background – to take on responsibility and work as part of a community.
Emergency rescue workers carry a victim on a stretcher after Dharara tower collapsed on April 25, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Credit: Getty Images)
“This is a basic value of our organization: the belief that change happens through a community,” she says, stressing that it relates both to the Nepali communities the volunteers join, and the Israeli and Jewish ones they create together in Nepal and hopefully will also recreate when they return home.
For the longer-term volunteers, the building of community begins with a month-long orientation in the “big house” – crammed with everything from rudimentary Nepali language and culture classes, and theoretical seminars on social justice, globalization, economics, human rights and poverty. This is all taught, if Odenheimer can manage it, within the context of Judaism. And then, just as the volunteers start complaining that they cannot bear another minute of sitting cross-legged and barefoot in a library talking about the Jewish angle on the origins of poverty, they are divided into smaller teams and sent out to the villages.
Marissa and Michael, two Tevel B’zedek volunteers in the Ramechhap District. (Credit: Danna Harman)
Tevel works primarily within four different villages, all within several hours walking distance of each other in the Ramechhap District – as well as in a crowded, trash-strewn Kathmandu slum called Kalimati. “Tevel is small. Some NGOs are working in 10-20 districts, and we are in one or two. But in terms of intensity, we are very strong,” says Bishnu Chapagain, the co-leader of Tevel. “We go and actually live in these rural, marginalized communities – that makes a big difference – and we try to be attuned to what is needed and focused.”
People search through the rubble at the earthquake damaged Durbar Square in Kathmandu on April 28, 2015. (Credit: AFP)
Chapagain, 50, entered the Tevel story in 2009. That was the year Odenheimer was looking for a Nepalese partner, as required by Nepal’s NGO laws. And in Israel in those days, all searches for anything Nepal-related quickly led to Chapagain.
He grew up in the rural Chitwan District, in a poor Hindu home. His mother worked in the fields and was totally illiterate, while his absent father was away in India, working as a watchman in order to send money home to his wife and six children. As a child, Chapagain was sent out to tend to his family’s buffalo, and only went to school for the first time at age 9.
Rescuers use stretchers to carry the injured at Everest Base Camp Everest Base Camp, Nepal, April 25, 2015. (Credit: AP)
The path he traveled between those Chitwan days to receiving his summa cum laude PhD in Plant Science from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev some 30 years later is one paved with smarts and drive: He excelled in high school; worked his way into and through agriculture college; got a job as an agronomist with the government; and, a decade later, was accepted to an Israeli Foreign Ministry two-month training program in Israel.
One course led to another and one acceptance to the next, and soon, Chapagain was getting his masters in agriculture and biotech at Ben-Gurion University. It didn’t end there. A full 11 years after he arrived for the Foreign Ministry course, he had not only a PhD with honors and 22 publications in international agriculture journals in hand, but he’d also become the de facto leader of what was then a 17,000-strong Nepalese community in Israel, most of them working as farm laborers, caregivers or staff in Eilat hotels.
Israel had long become a second home to him. “From my first day at the airport, I felt welcome,” he recalls. “Being a country of immigrants, Israelis are used to interacting with people from all over the world, many of whom don’t speak Hebrew. People would sometimes ask me, ‘Where are you from, Yemen?’ I would say, ‘No, I’m from Nepal.’ And they would say ‘Sababa, [great], want to come to our seder?’”
When Odenheimer suggested that Chapagain return to Nepal and join him in running Tevel from there, the latter’s interest was piqued. He loved Israel, but knew – and if he didn’t, his wife certainly did – that it was time to return to his real home. He bade farewell to Be’er Sheva and became the head of Tevel’s local sister NGO, Nyayik Sansar (which means Tevel b’Tzedek in Nepalese), based in Kathmandu. And with him came a whole new level of development and professionalism – especially in the agricultural arena, which is closely connected to all of Tevel’s work.
“Our idea is to go into a village for five or six years and work holistically, in an integrated and participatory way, to transform the place into somewhere villagers will be able to stay,” explains Chapagain.
Helping to create viable economic options in these rural areas is no small task. The phenomenon of villagers forced to leave, for long stretches at a time, and work as cheap labor in Kathmandu, or further afield in Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Malaysia, is increasing all the time.
The Tevel staff repeat, like a mantra, that the volunteers are there to do sustainable work. “It’s a real balancing act,” says Odenheimer. “Drawing out the volunteers’ desire to innovate and contribute, and making use of their skills – but at the same time making sure Tevel’s long-term plans are the basic road map.”
The volunteers don’t stand in front of classrooms and teach, but they do organize workshops for teachers, presenting new educational methods. They don’t introduce flashy agricultural equipment, either, preferring to establish demo farms to showcase effective, simple agricultural techniques.
They work, at all times, together with the 45-strong Nepali staff who know the language, culture and needs of the population better and remain as a constant in the field. But then again, they are also much more than free, helping hands.
“Working in rural areas is not easy,” admits Odenheimer, “so while sometimes we are able to work systematically, other times we just have to flow with whatever is happening. Israelis are good at that. They are not spoilt, or set in their ways, and they just get stuck in, working on what needs to be done,” he adds.
“I wanted to be part of an Israeli organization, because I like the can-do style and I like the way they give you real responsibilities,” says Dorit Stein, 23, a volunteer from San Diego. She says the first indication that she had made the right choice came with the Tevel email about arrival arrangements in Nepal. “It said something like, ‘Arrive in Kathmandu, go to the tourist area and ask around for where we are,’” recalls Stein. “An American program would be like, ‘Send us your exact flight details. We will be standing by the information desk at the airport with a sign at 10:15 A.M.’ But we can handle the Israeli way.”
Ramechhap District is way, way off the beaten tourist track. There are no teahouses every 200 yards here, offering Lay’s potato chips and ethnic beaded bracelets. There are no Sherpa porters schlepping bags, and no guesthouses promising 24-hour hot water and Wi-Fi. There are no trekkers snapping photos of sunrises and no children putting out their hands and asking for chocolate or money.
Instead, there are small plots of land with traditional mud- and stone homes, around which are gathered chickens, a goat or two, and maybe even a cow or buffalo if a particular family has been lucky. Passersby greet each other with the traditional “Namaste,” pressing their hands together in a prayer-like gesture. Strangers are stopped and asked where they are going, if they have eaten, and then, inevitably, if they would like some hot, milky sweet tea.
After a month in Nepal – and a mere 10 days before the April 25 earthquake – the volunteers are finally setting out by minivan into this rural world, where 85 percent of the country’s approximately 27 million inhabitants live.
The traffic-clogged roads lead out of Kathmandu to bumpy, emptier dirt tracks, and then to footbridges swinging over rivers and to more rocky paths, traversed by open jeep. Finally, all vehicles are left behind for single-file tracks through the hills.
Spirits are high. Those vomiting – either from stomach bugs or the bumpy ride – do so with little fanfare (“I’m great, just great,” insists a pale Brandes, cheerfully getting back on the jeep). And when there are stops at local markets for dal bhat – the rice and lentil dish served in Nepal for two, if not three, meals a day – the volunteers happily scoop it up, Nepali style, with their right hands and push it into their mouths.
Marissa Herzog, 24, from Sudbury, Massachusetts, is explaining to the Israelis the meaning of the word brunch. “It’s lunch and breakfast combined,” she repeats to a nodding Reut Hershlikovitz, 20, from Kedumim in the West Bank, and her friend Reut Langer, 21 from Jerusalem. The two Reuts, who both keep kosher, have given the dal bhat a miss and are biting into their hard-boiled eggs.
The conversation moves on to Nepali eating customs, various volunteers’ stomach problems, water purification pill brands, and back to brunch.
“Amazing!” exclaims Evan McCants-Goldman, 23, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, upon arrival in Saadi, one of the villages where volunteers will be living. Sachar Kaplan, 22, from the Galilee, starts playing tag with a few of the village kids. Keren Or Regev, 37, from Kibbutz Dorot in southern Israel, sits aside, writing in her journal.
There is a reality-TV vibe to the scene – a mix of “Big Brother” and “Survivor” – with the volunteers seemingly grappling with the newness of their situation, yet at the same time trying to present some sort of image to the group, and themselves, of who they are.
“Yesterday, I was talking about the Palestinians and the army, and the usual things that we always talked about before coming here,” says Brandes, on dishes duty, standing over a water pipe with her flashlight. “Of course it occurs to me that maybe I should be home taking care of our own problems,” she admits, “but, to be honest, I so wanted to disconnect for a while.”
Like Shira Langer, Nevo Shinaar is a former Tevel volunteer-turned-staffer who doesn’t fit any particular stereotype. The slim 31-year-old art dealer and media studies student from Kfar Vradim, in northern Israel, is someone more easily imagined sipping wine at a storytelling evening in Tel Aviv with his Philosophy PhD boyfriend, than sweating his way across a Ramechhap mountain along with a guy who voted for Bibi.
The whole post-army “Hummus trail” thing never appealed to Shinaar – not that he did the army thing itself, having been released on medical grounds. Nonetheless, feeling the need for something more meaningful in his life, Shinaar joined the inaugural Tevel 10-month fellowship last year. More notably, he signed on for an extra year when it was over, becoming the Israeli coordinator for the new fellowship recruits.
This week, after the earthquake, he was one of the staffers keeping everyone’s spirits up. “What, leave Nepal now?” he asks, incredulously. “We are part of a family here. You don’t leave your family in times of crisis. You work harder.”
Sometimes, explained Shinaar two weeks earlier, one can see some measurable results on the ground: women’s groups empowered; farms growing stronger; school teachers gaining confidence; teenagers getting more involved in the youth activities. But for the most part, the real changes will happen, hopefully, over time, long after any particular crop of volunteers is gone.
However, what is easier to track – and what makes Tevel the start of a true journey, Shinaar believes – are the changes that take place among the volunteers themselves individually, and between them, as a community.
“Without overstating the point, I think this is the new Zionism,” he says. “This is about coming together with other Jews, from different backgrounds and from all over the world – and doing good, important work together.
“Everyone is benefitting here,” he continues. “The villages we work in benefit from our efforts and, alongside that, we go through an experience that is transformative and humbling. Our own society – Israeli and Jewish – will hopefully gain from this added perspective when we all go home.
But that return home feels, for the current volunteers – even now, after the earthquake – very far off in the future.
All of Tevel’s 44 current Israeli and American volunteers – as well as the organization’s Israeli and Nepali staff – were confirmed as safe and physically unhurt in the earthquake. Those most affected were the small team based in the Kalimati slum, who found themselves scrambling to find safety and each other in the chaos.
Unable to stay put in their house there, the Kalimati team of six – Green, Gordon, Wollheim, Kruger, Zifroni and Regev – walked through the devastated city to the Israeli embassy, where, together with the Israeli staff based in Kathmandu, they pitched tents on the compound grounds – it being too dangerous to remain inside buildings yet. On Tuesday, they all moved back to Swayambhu, setting up camp in a large field near the empty “big house” until the buildings are deemed safe by teams of experts.
The next few weeks and months, of course, will be far more chaotic and very different from what anyone expected. The volunteers will likely be asked, at least at first, to switch gears – from development work to emergency aid. “What we are trying to do at the moment is assess where help is most needed, and refocus,” says Odenheimer, who was back in Jerusalem when the quake struck and flew back to Nepal this week.
The plan, which keeps changing, is – for the moment – for the volunteers in Kathmandu to pitch in and help at the Israeli field hospital and potentially also be sent out to help with distribution of emergency supplies: from water purification, blankets, tents, tarps and food, to satellite phones, generators and solar chargers. Meanwhile, the volunteers in Ramechhap, which was damaged less, were waiting for the roads to be safe enough for them to travel back to Kathmandu, where, at least temporarily, they could also help with aid efforts there.
Then will come the more serious rebuilding efforts. Tevel, working together with the Israeli Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) disaster relief program, was coordinating teams of Israeli experts – including engineers and post-trauma specialists – to help lead volunteer efforts in Nepal. Kalimati, for one, said Odenheimer, would need much help. And the volunteers who were already on the ground and familiar with the slum would be able to do things such as coordinate the youth and women’s groups’ rehabilitation work, and help set up outdoor learning spaces for the schoolchildren whose classrooms have collapsed in the quake.
“And, in addition,” adds Odenheimer, “we will be returning to Mahadev Besi.”
Before Ramechhap, there was Mahadev Besi. Tevel volunteers worked in that village in Dhading District for four years, building up the agriculture sector, introducing fish farming, and creating women’s and youth groups. And then, when they felt their job was done and the locals were strong enough to take it from there, the volunteers pulled out and switched to a new district.
Mahadev Besi was among the badly hit areas in Nepal. Chapagain, who was visiting his hometown of Chitwan when the earthquake hit, made his way to the Dhading District on Monday to assess the damage and to try and find old friends. It took him more than 10 hours to arrive, as he was thwarted by massive traffic jams created by landslides blocking the roads.
The situation, he reported, was not good: houses were flattened, fields were overturned and dead animals were strewn everywhere. Early reports were that most of the villagers Tevel had long worked with had survived, but it was too early to know for sure.
A month before the earthquake, Saila Badhur Rai, 56, and Bakhat Badhur Rai, 69, farmers in matching green flip-flops and Dhaka topi hats, sat around in their Mahadev Besi rice field, reminiscing about the early days, seven years ago, when the Tevel volunteers first showed up. “We were afraid of foreigners when they first arrived,” they say. “But then we liked them.”
“We built this pond together,” they say, pointing in one direction. “We put up bamboo fences there, to stop the buffalo from trampling on this field,” they add, pointing in another direction. “Even when our community would not show up to their activities, they would work alone. We were impressed,” they agree.
The farmers are not exactly sure where all the volunteers went when they left Mahadev Besi. Names like Orit and Almog mean little here, and Tevel – not wanting to be mistaken for a missionary organization – doesn’t accentuate its Jewish or Israeli identity in the villages.
While the farmers don’t seem to have given much – or any – thought to where the youngsters came from, to whence they returned or, for that matter, what motivated them to come here to begin with, they do know that it changed their lives.
“Oh yes, it was good,” says Bakhat, who spent most of his life hiring himself out as a day laborer in other villages or hauling rocks from the quarry for 500 rupees ($5) a truckload. Then the Tevel volunteers came along, built a demo farm in his village, and did training and organizing. Emboldened by their encouragement, Bakhat started to cultivate his own small plots of onion and peas. Soon, selling his small surplus in the market, he was making three times more money than he ever had before. This year, he and his third cousin Saila won second prize at the district’s agricultural competition for their crop of onions.
“Sometimes the volunteers call me on my mobile phone and ask how I am doing,” says Saila, crouching down and scratching the earth with a twig. Between the volunteers’ limited Nepali, the unreliable mobile reception in Mahadev Besi and farmers’ frequent lack of phone credit (which blocks incoming calls), those conversations are usually pretty short. But, word of the prize has been passed on. “The volunteers were very happy,” smiles Bakhat.
The women’s group in Mahadev Besi – which still, until this week, met regularly – is asked about the biggest lessons the volunteers imparted. The answers tumble over one other. Today, they know how to work together as a collective, they say – one that lends out money to members in times of need. They are better informed about personal feminine hygiene, and also about the importance of school for their children. School attendance here has risen by an estimated 30 percent.
Also, they are more confident: neither afraid of foreigners, or of reaching out when they need things from the government. And, finally, thanks to the demo farms, more of their husbands are in the village farming, instead of trying to make ends meet far away.
And what, in turn, did they teach the foreigners? A representative of the group – wrapped, like most of the women here, in a red sari, with her dark hair oiled and pulled back into a ponytail, and a traditional red tikka between her eyes – stands up. They taught the volunteers how to cut high grass, which is important, she begins. They also showed them some traditional Nepali dance steps, and how to carry heavy bags of manure on their heads. And, the women conclude, tilting their heads side to side in agreement, they instructed them in the art of drinking homemade rice beer.
The women are asked what they think the former volunteers are doing these days. They shrug and sit silently. No one has a clue. Finally, a woman with nose rings and red-beaded necklaces strung around her wrinkly neck stands up and provides an answer: “Maybe they are practicing the skills we taught them.”
Do you think those skills are useful to them? “Oh, sure,” the ladies all chime in, brightly. “They are maybe doing Nepali dance moves right now,” they say, heads shaking side to side in agreement, “somewhere in their far-away place.”
The idea that the 750 Tevel alumni and counting might be, as per Odenheimer’s dream, making their own countries better, more just places – thanks to lessons learned here – does not really cross their minds.
Nor would the women probably have guessed that today – a month later, and in the wake of the earthquake – many of those former volunteers would be trying to get back to Nepal to join with the current volunteers, heading out to help them. Or that soon, despite the terror and the fear, they might all – Israeli, American and Nepalis as one community – find it in them to do a little dance of life, together.