The rabbi of Nepal

The rabbi of Nepal

Why an Orthodox Jew from L.A. has spent nine years galvanizing hundreds of volunteers to help Nepalese villagers out of poverty

Micha Odenheimer is sitting in a restaurant in the Mahaneh Yehudah market in Jerusalem in late April of 2015.

He’s having one last good meal before taking off for Nepal the next day. He was last in Kathmandu barely two weeks earlier, in mid-April, just before the earthquake earlier that month that killed more than 8,000 people.

As head of the Jerusalem-based NGO Tevel b’Tzedek, which brings young Israeli volunteers to Nepalese villages to support long-term change, Micha regards Nepal as a second home.

A young woman waves at Micha and approaches his table. “What’s the situation in Mahadav Besi?” she asks.

She is, it turns out, a former Tevel volunteer, and Mahadav Besi is the village where she worked.

“It hasn’t been totaled,” Micha replies carefully. “But it’s been pretty hard hit.”

She covers her face in grief.

“We’ll be in there in the next few days,” Micha adds, consoling. “We’ll do what we can.”

Rubble left by the devastating earthquake in April 2015.
Rubble left by the devastating earthquake in April 2015.

Tevel’s goal is to help Nepali villagers enter the modern world without losing their sense of community and traditions. The highest level of charity, according to Maimonides, is to help someone become self-sufficient, and that’s how Tevel works. Tevel’s local Nepali staff of nearly 50 people, headed by a Nepali with a Ph.D. in agronomy from Ben-Gurion University, teaches farmers how to create irrigation systems and market their produce, and it empowers women to become village leaders. Israeli and Jewish volunteers work together with the local staff. One Tevel volunteer, working with his Nepali counterpart, adopted the model of an Israeli youth movement and created a Nepali equivalent, with a thousand members.

Micha addresses volunteers.
Micha addresses volunteers.

“We want to help villagers feed themselves and more,” says Micha. “That way people won’t move to the Kathmandu slums, where they lose their sense of community and the little they have. And with much of the country now devastated by the earthquake, that’s even more important. If people leave the villages, then less food will be grown. Our work was already a matter of life and death for the villages; now that’s true for the rest of the country as well.”

Running a Third World aid organization is hardly an expected career option for an Orthodox-ordained rabbi. But there is nothing conventional about Micha Odenheimer.

Micha, 58, grew up in the Orthodox community of Los Angeles. His father was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and most of his yeshiva classmates were children of survivors. “I never thought of the Jews as white,” he says. “Twenty-five years earlier we were being murdered in Europe because the Nazis said we were a mixture of Negroid and Mongoloid races. And now we’re suddenly white? When I was in sixth grade they distributed a census form in school, and I refused to check the ‘Caucasian’ box.”

As a young rabbinical student in New York, Micha gravitated to the circle around the late chasidic singer Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. “Shlomo taught that in our time we need three tikkunim, three changes in Judaism: in relations between parents and children, between men and women, and between Jews and non-Jews.”

Shlomo urged Jews to make their peace with Germans and Poles and others who had wounded them. “If I had two souls, one would hate the Germans,” Shlomo liked to say. “But I can’t waste my only soul on hatred.”

Most of all, Shlomo taught by example. His synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was a drop-in center for the neighborhood’s homeless. “When Shlomo would go to Israel he left me in charge of the synagogue,” Micha recalls. “Shlomo would leave me money with the names of homeless people, telling me how much each one received.” On Sundays, Shlomo would bring his guitar to Riverside Park and sing for the men living on benches.

Journey into the Third World

Micha internalized Shlomo’s deep love for the Jewish people along with his love for humanity. And that convergence led Micha to his journey into the Third World.

It began with a 1990 trip to Ethiopia. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews had come down to Addis Ababa from their mountain villages, waiting to be flown to Israel. Micha, who had moved to Israel the year before, was on assignment from several Israeli and American Jewish newspapers.

He fell in love with Ethiopia’s Jews. They were poor, black, rural, illiterate — defying the conventional Western notion of Jewishness. Here were the Jews Micha unknowingly had been searching for his entire life. “They stretched our boundaries of Jewish identity,” Micha says.

But Micha also fell in love with Ethiopia. “People had nothing, but they preserved tradition and community, the magic of what it means to be human. But I also encountered tremendous suffering and vulnerability to evil. I befriended some street kids in Addis: One moment they’re laughing and playing, the next moment they’re hiding from the army that would swoop down and drag them off to the front.”

In May 1991 Micha returned to Ethiopia. It was his fourth trip there that year. The country was torn by civil war, the rebels were closing in on Addis Ababa, and Israeli planes were landing in the capital to bring the Jews home. As the last plane was filling with Jews, Micha had to decide: Does he fly back to Israel or stay behind and report on the fall of the regime? Micha stayed, spending a month in the chaotic capital, getting shot at and also embraced as an Israeli by Christians who called him “zamet,” our family.

That was Micha’s first indication that his infatuation as a Jew with the Third World was reciprocated — that even as much of the West was turning against the Jewish state, there was deep respect and affection for Israel in unexpected places.

Back in Israel, Micha wrote about the absorption problems of Ethiopian immigrants. The very mistakes that had been made with Jewish immigrants from Arab countries in the 1950s were being repeated now by a paternalistic system that ignored the cultural strengths of the Ethiopian Jews. Young Ethiopian Jews were being shunted into trade tracks, effectively denied an academic education. “I’d thought that once Israel brought the Ethiopian Jews it would somehow all work out,” Micha says. “But something was going very wrong.”

In response, Micha founded the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews to act as the community’s lobby. “I’d known Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia,” he says. “They were proud and independent. But government policies were treating them like an urban underclass. I ran IAEJ out of anger.”

The IAEJ repeatedly took the government to court on housing and employment issues, but its greatest victory was in reversing the Education Ministry’s policy on trade schools, opening up an academic track for young Ethiopian Israelis. Along with large numbers of high school dropouts, the community now also was producing thousands of college graduates.

Micha’s goal at the IAEJ was to turn over the organization to those emerging Ethiopian leaders. And five years after founding the IAEJ, he did precisely that. It’s rare in the NGO world for a founder of an organization to relinquish control to an indigenous leadership. The move enhanced Micha’s credibility, especially among Ethiopians.

In 1998 Micha returned to Ethiopia, this time on a rescue mission. An Israeli backpacker had told Micha that he’d discovered a community of 2,000 Jews in the remote region of Quara on the Sudanese border, left behind by the Israeli rescue. No one even knew they were there.

Micha, along with a young Israeli and an Ethiopian doctor, set out for Quara. The region was so inaccessible that they had to travel by tractor, because a jeep couldn’t navigate the riverbeds. “You go to Gondar and take a right for 500 kilometers,” Micha says, laughing.

Micha found the Jews. Most suffered from malaria and skin diseases. There was no government authority there, only tribal rule. The nearest phone was 100 kilometers away.

Micha learned that there had been a feud among the Jews of Upper Quara and Lower Quara. The Jews of Upper Quara had been rescued — and told Israeli authorities that there were no other Jews left in the area.

Back in Israel, Micha campaigned to convince the government that in fact there were Jews still in Ethiopia. A year later, the last Jews of Quara were airlifted to Israel.

Connecting Israelis, Jews, to the most forlorn parts of the world

Micha’s restlessness brought him to some of the most dangerous places on the planet. Working as a journalist, he went to Somalia during the famine, to Myanmar during martial law, to Iraq just after the war.

But Micha wanted to do more than just write about the Third World; he dreamed of connecting Israelis, Jews, to the most forlorn parts of the planet, honoring the messianic vision of the prophets.

And he went to Nepal, to interview Maoist rebels fighting the government.

Nepal enchanted him. The power of the landscape, the simplicity and joy of its impoverished people, their affection for Israel. He met Israeli backpackers, young people recently out of the army. Mostly they were hanging out with other Israelis on the so-called “Hummus Trail,” with little interaction with the local population. “They were traveling through the East not only because it was cheap but because they wanted to understand the world,” Micha says. “I felt that many of them would want an opportunity to deepen their experience.”

Jews and Napalese working together.
Jews and Napalese working together.

And Micha felt that they had so much to give. “Young Israelis are hard working. They’re used to improvising — from the army, from living under threat. They have the skills of the First World and a taste for its good life, but they also can live without. They’re Western and not Western at the same time.”

Micha raised some money and recruited his first cohort, 16 young Israelis. But what exactly were they going to do in Nepal? He’d had an intuition, but no actual plan. Five weeks before the program was to begin, Micha flew to Kathmandu and arranged for his volunteers to work as interns in local NGOs.

Micha, third from left, with a group of Napalese and Jews.
Micha, third from left, with a group of Napalese and Jews.

That makeshift arrangement eventually was replaced with a systematic plan for tackling poverty. Micha hired his Nepali staff and recruited not only young Israeli volunteers but also young Nepali volunteers, who work together in the villages. “The goal is to make the villages places of opportunity,” Micha says. To transform a village, he adds, requires a program that lasts between three to five years.

Tevel’s Income Generation project in Dolakha supports 180 farmers with training and provides supplies for off-season vegetable cultivation.
Tevel’s Income Generation project in Dolakha supports 180 farmers with training and provides supplies for off-season vegetable cultivation.

Tevel now is working in 13 villages. Over the last eight years, it has graduated nearly 800 volunteers. Most of them are Israelis, but increasingly it attracts young American Jews too. Creating a meeting place between young Israeli and diaspora Jews is, for Micha, one of Tevel’s most important achievements. “We’re enabling Jewish connections based on shared Jewish values,” he says. “We’re producing future leaders of Israel and the Jewish people, with a real understanding of how the world works and a commitment to making it better.”

Young Israelis and American Jews bring different strengths to Tevel’s work, Micha says.

Israelis, he notes, have a genius for community. “Bring together a random group of young Israelis and immediately someone will start playing a guitar and someone else will start cooking. They’re very loving with each other, very intimate; they’re always massaging each other. For me, ‘start-up nation’ means the incredible Israeli ability to create community.” That’s precisely the quality Tevel is trying to strengthen among Nepali villagers.

Young American Jews, Micha notes, bring Tevel a sophistication about social justice issues Israelis lack. And, he adds, they also bring an openness to Judaism. “For American Jews, Judaism isn’t black and white, Orthodox or secular.”

Tevel works with young girls on the problems they face in their villages and provides them with a safe space to meet.
Tevel works with young girls on the problems they face in their villages and provides them with a safe space to meet.

Tevel reflects Micha’s commitment to deepening Jewish identity. On Friday night, volunteers gather in Tevel’s headquarters in Kathmandu to welcome Shabbat together and study Jewish texts on social justice. Sometimes those texts are taught by leading Israeli scholars visiting the region, like Moshe Halbertal and Melila Hellner-Eshed.

Tevel recently opened a project in Burundi, one of Africa’s poorest countries. Micha’s boyhood intuition — that Jews somehow belong among non-white peoples — has become a vision for the place of the Jewish people in a changing world.

In the year since the earthquake, Tevel’s commitment to Nepal has only deepened. It has more than doubled the number of households it’s working with — and in response to the emergency, it has cooperated with Israeli relief organizations, such as the Magen David Adom.

“The earthquake hit communities from which Tevel had already pulled out, after a successful four years of building leadership and capacity,” Micha said. “But with all the homes down in these villages, we felt we had no choice but to return. Tevel gave out materials for temporary housing, including tin roofs, to some 4000 households. The villagers emphasized their need for income to rebuild, so we launched generating projects ranging from commercial beekeeping to ginger production.”

Appropriately, Tevel now has brought its service corps idea to Nepalese villagers, who receive stipends for taking part in the two-year program. “We want them to become leaders moblizing their communities for transformative change,” Micha says.

This story is reprinted with permission from the Times of Israel

read more: