Changing the World One Bit at a Time – an Interview with Micha Odenheimer

If anyone crying out "charity begins at home" (From the Talmudic עניי עירך קודמים) would actually try to take care those in need around him, we would probably not have so much misery in the world. Unfortunately this is not the case. I am not denying the simple logic of this sentence – we are indeed immediately responsible and committed to those close to us. The sad fact is this sentence is often used not as an imperative to take responsibility, but as an indictment of what we don’t like in others.

But maybe all this is irrelevant regarding Micah Odenheimer, as he has already shown his care and assistance both near and far. I met him a few months ago as part of a talk I gave to the Tevel b’Tzedek organization, which Odenheimer founded and heads. When I spoke to him about the wonderful institute he set up I understood how sensitive and deep is the thinking behind it. It is not a simple mission of helping the weak overseas, which often is not only patronizing, but simply ineffective. Tevel b’Tzedek, devote their time and energy to help the underprivileged independent. As the cliché goes, they do not hand out fish but teach how to build fishing rods. That they do in the name of Judaism and of the values of the Jewish tradition. I asked him to be interviewed for this blog and I was glad he agreed.

Odenheimer was born in Berkeley, California and is a graduate of Yale University. In 1984 and was ordained as a rabbi, and was a close disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. In 1988 he immigrated to Israel, and since works, writes, teaches and lectures widely on social justice. As a journalist Micah covered topics of poverty, globalization and human rights in many countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Burma, Haiti, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia. He wrote for different newspapers, among these the Washington Post, The Guardian, London Times, The Jerusalem Rapport and Ha’aretz. He founded the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, one of the main organizations that assist Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, and still serves as a member of the Management Board. In 2006 he founded the Tevel b’Tzedek to encourage young Jews to take an active role in the fight for social justice globally.

Why and how did you found Tevel b’Tzedek?

I founded Tevel b’Tzedek out of a desire that had been brewing in me for a long time to find a way to connect Israelis, Jews and Judaism to what I saw as the greatest ethical challenge of our time—the marginalization and impoverishment of large parts of humanity in the age of globalization. I was exposed to the “two thirds world” for the first time when I travelled to Ethiopia in 1990 as a journalist to cover the story of the Ethiopian Jewish “Aliya”. I fell in love with Ethiopia, with the immediacy and magic that was alive there, but also was shocked by the vulnerability of the poor—the vast majority—vulnerability to disease, to hunger, to oppressive regimes. One piece of bad luck—almost inevitable—and people could lose everything, could lose so much.

I was there a lot during the course of the year 90-91, and had a kind of epiphany during Operation Solomon. The rebels had surrounded Addis Ababa, were waiting to enter. I had to decide whether to leave on the last plane of Operation Solomon or stay to cover the rebel entry, I was scared but felt I cared about Ethiopia, not just the Jews, so I stayed. So I started covering all kinds of stories after that—Somalia, Haiti, Burma, India, Nepal, even Iraq. It was at a time when globalization was in its fast track, after the end of communism, so everywhere I was seeing the results of neo-liberal economic globalization on the poor—the majority.

Micha being blessdI thought a lot about what Judaism’s social justice message was, and it pained me that Israel and Jews as Jews were not very involved with questions of social and economic justice on a global level, even though we were at the center of the global economy. It seemed to me that economic and social justice were at the center of Judaism’s concern, but were being largely ignored. In 2005 I went on a trip to India for 2 and a ½ months with my family; I witnessed the “humus trail”—all the Israelis in India and Nepal—and thought wow, maybe the love of Israelis for travel in the developing world could be leveraged in to something deeper. That’s when I began to think about creating something like Tevel b’Tzedek.

Who are the volunteers? Can you describe the typical Tevel volunteer?

Now we have three volunteer tracks. Our classic is a four month program, one month study and preparation, three months in the field. We do this twice a year. We carefully vet the candidates for this program—we always have many more than we can take. About 2/3’s of the 22 people we accept each cohort are post army, ages 20 to 25, and one third are post BA or MA, and in their late 20’s or early 30’s. ¼ to 1/3 are Orthodox Jews, although there are less of these now than there were earlier, and we want to get those numbers up again.

Many have backgrounds in youth movements, but it’s hard to stereotype. Many of the participants are from the left, but we also have settlers and people from the right. I would say that the profile for the four monthers is that they are idealistic, adventurous, and determined. We now also have one month programs, mostly for backpackers on their post army trip, and a ten month program, in both Nepal and Burundi, mostly but not exclusively for people post-BA. In this program, which we call the Fellowship, we have an equal number of "internationals"—Israelis and others—and locals, meaning Nepalese and Burundians, of equivalent education and experience to the internationals.

Where are the volunteers sent? And what do they actually do?

During the first few cohorts of 4 month volunteers, we provided the orientation period, which I a one month period of study, including study of Nepali language, Nepali culture, Judaism and Social Justice, globalization, economics and poverty, as well as some limited guidance in how to work in various fields. Now we have far more extensive preparation in what we are actually going to do. Then the volunteers were placed as interns in different local NGO’s, mostly in Kathmandu.

As our experience in Nepal grew, we began to develop our own model of work. We realized that we could do much more if, as an organization with boots on the ground, we could work towards long term goals. We saw that the poverty in the big city mostly emanated from the crisis of the villages—that many villages in Nepal and across the developing world were no longer capable of growing enough food to feed themselves for an entire year, because of population growth, degradation of the soil because of erosion and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, loss of traditional knowledge etc. People in the villages also knew that there were health and educational services in the city to which they had no access. But the basic issue is food. People started to get drawn out of the rural villages to the city, often to really bad situations. Food was something might be able to do something about.

We hired Dr. Bishnu Chapagain, an agronomist with a PhD in Plant Science from Ben Gurion University—he spent 11 years in Israel. He became the head of a growing Nepali staff, now about 35 in number, along with 6 Israeli staff. And we began to work in rural village areas, with an integrated, participatory approach—working in agriculture, education, with youth and with women. We base our work on agriculture, but are ultimate goal is to build up and strengthen the community and its leadership, because without strong, committed community groups, any resources we bring in to the area may be coopted by the strong families.

When we go to a village area, we stay there for 3 to 5 years, until we feel we have really had a transformational effect. We build youth groups—we actually have a youth movement that is active in all the areas we have worked in, and a women’s movement as well. All this is introduction to what the Tevel volunteers do. According to their experience, expertise, and desire they are assigned to work in agriculture, youth, education or women. They basically work together with the Nepali staff, planning strategy, activities, workshops, campaigns, building capacity, using their knowledge and experience together with the staff, which knows the language and culture of course, much better than the volunteers.

But the volunteers bring valuable knowledge—some are graduates of agriculture, education or social work programs, others have experience with youth movement, others bring experience in arts, photography, computers, engineering, etc. It’s a real balancing act, drawing out their contribution and their desire to innovate but at the same time making sure that our long term plans are the basic road map. The volunteers, for example, may teach teachers new educational methodologies, but we don’t have them standing in front of a classroom, unless it’s a demonstration or an after-school activity—we want to build the capacity and strength of the local teachers, not replace them.

In agriculture they work together with our agriculture staff—we now have six agronomists in addition to Bishnu—to create teaching farms and, together with the staff, to teach effective agricultural techniques. We also have a project in the city slums, working from the other end—with migrants from the village, helping them build community. We have a day care center, a youth center working with the youth movement, work with several schools, and with women’s group on health and microsavings.

I think we have developed a cutting edge methodology for development of communities. Its intensive and long term, and avoids many of what I see as the deadly mistakes of development—the idea that there is a quick fix, the notion that the business model, ignoring community, will do the trick, the giving of material resources without really deep understanding of context.

With our one year program, which takes people after BA or MA in a relevant field, creates a team of ten Israelis and other Jews, along with ten Nepalese or Burundians (we have just started working in a rural village area in Burundi, Africa). So each international has a national partner and they work together on the long term goals we have set.

This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Judaism? Why is it being done in the name of Jewish tradition?  And wouldn’t the local population prefer it if what was being done was not in the name of Judaism?

Tevel was founded out of the belief that the vision of creating a just society is at the very spine of Judaism, and that we have a responsibility to be part of making this vision a reality in the world as a whole. In this we are following figures such as the Baal Shem Tov, who said that we have “arvut” with the nations of the world in the seven mitzvoth of Noach—which include justice—Rav Kook, Rav Ashlag, who speaks of Jewish global responsibility in the age of globalization, Heschel, Buber and others. To me if Jews and Israel are global in every other respect—in terms of what we eat and consume, how we invest our money, what companies we own, who tends to the needs of our aged and demented, who we sell arms to, and so forth, and in just one area—ethics—we are only “local”, עניי עירך, we are in the process of losing our soul.

Also, a lot of young Jews are turned off to Judaism because they see Judaism as turned inwards, unconcerned with the future of humanity, even though there are so many clear and urgent issues humanity has to address. Judaism contains this universal vision within it; to maintain its integrity, it must find expression within contemporary reality. I think that as a tradition, our desire to integrate the physical and the spiritual, not to devalue this world, is the mainstream. Of course, with much humility and the knowledge that many other groups, religions, peoples, also have much to contribute. As my teacher Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said: “We are building a house for humanity. We are building one wall, the Tibetans are building a wall, the Indians are building a wall, everyone is doing their own unique part.”

In terms of the villagers themselves, they learn that we are Jews, and Israelis but for them we are also just westerners, most of them have not even heard of Judaism, and we don’t preach Judaism to them, of course. But I have seen that our involvement in our own identity resonates deeply with the Nepali staff and perhaps with the villagers as well. Nepal, like nearly everywhere in the 2/3rds world, is a mosaic of tribes and ethnic groups. All of them, to varying extents, wish to still draw strength from a feeling of rootedness in their own tribe and heritage and also feel an overwhelming need to connect with the knowledge and power of the larger global context. They see our double commitment, to our own heritage and to shared issues of poverty and environment as an inspiration.

Continuing on this theme, how do connect "Tevel" to developments in Judaism today? Is this a new path in Judaism? A continuation of the Prophetic vision? An alternative to keeping the mitzvoth? Or what?

I think I have already said that at a time when the Jewish people are so empowered economically and culturally, are really in many ways at the center of globalization, if Judaism puts its head in the sand and evades the huge ethical challenges humankind faces, we are in danger of losing our soul. I see a deep need for young Jews to integrate their Jewish and global identities and to feel that these are not in conflict. I also see a need to revive the Jewish vision of social and economic justice that is at the very heart of the Torah and the prophets and which is also present in the Talmud, in the great sensitivity with which it understands human interrelations, social and economic.

As I have already said, I see Tevel as reclaiming the stance of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Rav Yehuda Ashlag, Hillel Zeitlin, Shimon Federbush as well as Heschel, Buber and many others who were both deeply Jewish and also believed that the ultimate mission of Judaism was connected to promoting the wellbeing and redemption of humanity and the world as a whole. As Yirmiyahu said (in the name of G-d) about Tzedek u’Mishpat “Ki zeh ladaat oti”.

I come from an Orthodox background and my teachers were Orthodox, and I identify very strongly with the mastery of tradition, the commitment and the spirituality that I encountered among the great Orthodox teachers I have known. At the same time, I don’t entirely identity with Orthodoxy because I see Orthodoxy today as the notion that Judaism means Halacha. Thus meta-Halachic questions, especially questions that do not have to do with personal status or ritual observance, get ignored as if they are beyond the purview of contemporary Halacha.

I don’t think this is something totally new in Judaism, and certainly don’t see it in place of ritual practices or spirituality, or Torah study. But I do think Tevel and what it represents opens up a new horizon, and allows us to see the potency of the Biblical and Prophetic vision, of the Jewish vision. To take on the challenge of hunger and poverty in the global world makes Judaism more real, brings it down to earth—which I think also may have the capacity to pull more love and light down from heaven into our orbit as well.

Rav Kook (the father) says in Orot HaTechiya that Mashiach ben Yosef is the ingathering of the exiles, and Mashiach ben David is universalism, the next stage. Perhaps Tevel is a part of that next stage. Where it is going to go in the end? I am not really sure yet!

What is the connection between Tevel’s activities and the powers that be that are facing globalization, or at least the connection to understanding these powers?

I started travelling in the two thirds world just as globalization started to really speed up, with the fall of the Soviet Union. To me, the fact that the whole world is connected through this one economic system, that a bunch of commodities speculators in Chicago can make the price of food go up for struggling families in Kathmandu means that we all have responsibility for each other in a clearer way than ever before. I also think that it is has spiritual implications—to grasp human society—and nature as well, as we affect it through our economic activity—as a single whole, a single system, which we are constantly influencing and being influenced by.

We study globalization in Tevel, and we also have to think hard about our role in light of globalization. What does it mean for us to intervene in a village, even with the best intentions? What is our vision for rural villages? Is it legitimate for us to have a vision for rural villages? How do we assign power to our Nepali partners, to the villagers themselves? How does that meaning change when the village itself is in the process of breaking apart through migration to the cities or to the Gulf States in any case? What is the meaning of ethnicity in the age of globalization? All these are questions that come up all the time for Tevel. For me it is of great importance that volunteers come out of Tevel not just with the experience of having done something good and having a great experience, and not even just with having learned to bridge seemingly immense cultural gaps, but also with a new perspective that can penetrate the smoke and mirrors that makes the world seem as if it is just “happening” naturally rather than being shaped by political and economic forces which we can affect and change.

You were a close disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Is there a connection between the influence he had on you and Tevel b’Tzedek?

I would hope that yes, there is some connection, and that he would be proud of what I am doing. Shlomo said many times that Judaism and the Jewish world need to fix three things in this era: the relationship between men and women, between parents and children and between Jews and non-Jews. Even though he was a huge advocate of Judaism, a true believer in the greatness of the tradition, a witness for the huge power and spiritual achievements of both Hasidic and Litvish figures. it was a given for him that there were also holy people in other religions.

I would like to think that the same thing that attracted me to Shlomo also attracted me to the work I do now—that there is a special hashra’at hechina among the poorest populations living on the “margins” of modernity, in the “afar”. Shlomo also used to say “When human beings want a bridge to be built, they look for the person who knows the most about building bridges. When G-d wants a bridge built, s/he looks for the person who really really wants to build the bridge.” Shlomo gave me a lot of confidence in the power of desire, of the spirit, and I think that has given me the inspiration to do things I might not normally have done. Shlomo was also kind of anarchic, he did what he believed in. I hope I have learned that from him at least to some extent.

If we are already talking about Shlomo, do you think his legacy is being preserved properly today? What do you think would be good to "add on" in order to better walk the path he set out?

For me the biggest pull of Shlomo (besides his presence) was not his music, although I loved singing and davening with him, but his Torah. He was, in my opinion, an amazing interpreter of Hasidism. They say that the difference between the Ari and the Baal Shem Tov was that the Ari revealed the dynamic that was happening in the heavens, the process of the unfolding of the sefirot within the higher worlds and so on. The Baal Shem Tov showed how all this was happening within the soul of a person through his or her avodat hashem, prayer, meditation, etc. Shlomo, to me, added another dimension: he showed that even in the mundaneness of everyday life, in the midst of the “secular”, a depth dimension with a life of its own could be located, identified, could break our hearts.

Shlomo was a huge Talmid chacham and a hadshan who was able to explain profound concepts with seemingly simple metaphorical stories from all of our daily lives. His Torah, despite all kinds of books that lift quotes from his much longer talks and organize them around themes like the holidays or parshat hashavua, has not yet seen the light of day. Tens of thousands of hours of video and audio tape are being preserved, which is wonderful. But it’s crucial that the full transcripts be made available. I hope that in the end, his Torah will be received with the appreciation that his music is received today.

What is your vision for Tevel b’Tzedek? Where would you like to be in another 10 or 20 years?

There are a few directions in which I hope Tevel b’Tzedek will continue to develop over the next cade or two. I would hope that we would continue to develop and perfect our methodology for transforming rural villages into places of food, hope, knowledge and community—and that we also continue to work on building community in urban areas as well. Secondly, I hope we also begin to work as advocates, using our alumni and others, or a better world—not just showing an example but also pushing for macro level changes. And thirdly, I hope we manage to get some of the most creative Jewish minds, including rabbis, philosophers, writers, artists—involved in the struggle for a more just and beautiful world, involved in understanding how the depth of the Jewish tradition can light our way towards a new future for humanity.

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