Rabbi Ron Aigen, spiritual leader of the Reconstructionist Congregation Dorshei Emet, and his wife, Carmela, returned last month from a three-week trip to Nepal, not only inspired, but also determined to create Canadian-Jewish involvement with an Israeli NGO they worked with there.
Rabbi Aigen and his spouse, who directs Jewish studies at the Akiva School, were in Nepal as volunteers for Tevel b’Tzedek (Earth in Justice), an Israeli NGO whose chief mission is to help marginalized people in developing world countries such as Nepal and Haiti.
The work is done by volunteer Israelis and Diaspora Jews in keeping with Judaic precepts of tikkun olam. While the Aigens found the trip physically rigorous at times, they said it was also a revelation and an immensely fulfilling spiritual journey.
“I think it was the first time we were really outside our comfort zone,” said Rabbi Aigen, known as “Rabbi Ron” to all. He took the trip at the start of a three-month sabbatical from his shul.
“I can’t say enough about it,” Carmela Aigen said. “It shows how Israel is doing wonderful, wonderful things.”
Rabbi Aigen spent a large part of his time interacting with Israeli Tevel volunteers in their 20s and 30s, who were mostly secular, using Jewish texts and animating conversations related to “putting their Jewish heritage into practice” through Tevel and thus deepening their Jewish identities.
Some of those discussions were “transformative,” Rabbi Aigen said.
Carmela, meanwhile, made use of her many years of experience in an early childhood education (ECE) centre, visiting schools in Kalamati, an impoverished neighbourhood of the capital, Kathmandu, reading to children and lending her expertise to teachers and Tevel volunteers in putting programs into place
The couple were profoundly moved by the warmth and sense of deep spirituality they saw in Tibetans, traits rooted in their deep Buddhist faith, which never seems to flag despite their abject poverty and often slum-like living conditions.
“It was spiritual just to let us live like them,” Carmela said.
While Nepal has few if any native Jews, it’s a popular destination for Israelis who are awestruck by its majestic beauty. The country’s rugged terrain also makes it an ideal destination for Israeli backpackers.
In fact, as the Aigens and Tevel’s website tevelbtzedek.org note, Tevel was formed when founding Tevel director Micha Odenheimer first visited Nepal in 2005. He was struck by the poverty and initiated discussions with Jewish and Israeli backpackers there about the need to create an organizarion to help developing countries within a Jewish context.
Tevel took its name from a Nepali-based NGO, Nyayik Sansar, which also means “Earth in Justice” and also does volunteer work. Tevel and Nyayik Sansar volunteers work together in Nepal, Rabbi Aigen noted, in areas such as ECE, women’s issues and health, youth empowerment, agriculture and media.
The Jewish and Israeli connections in Nepal do not end there. Kathmandu has a Chabad House, which is used by visiting Israeli and Jewish tourists, and Rabbi Aigen helped lead services there. The couple also ate almost every day at an Israeli-owned vegetarian restaurant in the capital city.
The Aigens said a highlight of their trip was a rigorous trek to the remote mountain area of Ramechaap, where Tevel has projects in the village of Hiledavi. Getting there involved a 4-1/2-hour car ride, crossing a 200-metre rope foot bridge, hiking two hours on a steep, narrow mountain trail, crossing another rope bridge and a two-hour, nerve-jarring jeep ride up a 1,000-metre steep incline.
In Hiledavi, Carmela met with teachers, while Rabbi Aigen met with Tevel volunteers who were developing demo-farms incorporating Israeli drip irrigation technology that would allow their crops to be more diverse.
“We are really encouraging other Canadians to get involved,” Rabbi Aigen said. “It gives real meaning of the universal importance of Jewish values.”