My friend, Rabbi Ron Aigen, who died suddenly in May 2016 at the age of 68, left behind two powerful living memorials: his wife and children who miss him dearly, and Dorshei Emet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montreal that he led for 40 years. Now, his loved ones are preparing a most fitting memorial for him in a most unlikely place: Nepal.
In January 2014, Rabbi Aigen and his wife, Carmela, arrived in Kathmandu to spend a month volunteering for an Israeli NGO called Tevel b’Tzedek, which means “the world with justice.” Carmela recently told me that, as passionate Zionists who were frustrated by Israel’s current government, “We wanted to show our love of Israel, but in a different way. We wanted to show Israel as a force for good in the world, beyond politics.”
The Jerusalem-based organization was a perfect match. Tevel b’Tzedek brings Jews from around the world, but mostly young Israelis, to Nepal, Burundi and other countries, to participate in long-term programs led by local experts, which transform impoverished villages into places of opportunity, initiative and economic growth.
Founded in 2007 by Micha Odenheimer – a journalist, social activist and lobbyist for Ethiopian Jews in Israel – the program has brought 1,200 Israelis to a dozen villages and helped an estimated 40,000 people survive and thrive. As writer Yossi Klein Halevi noted in a profile of Odenheimer, whom he labeled “The Rabbi of Nepal,” when the devastating earthquake hit in 2015, “Unlike other NGOs around the world, Tevel b’Tzedek didn’t need to send a rescue team to Nepal … Tevel b’Tzedek was already there.”
“We want to help villagers feed themselves and more,” Odenheimer explains. “That way, people won’t move to slums, where they lose their sense of community and the little they have.” To him, young Israelis are perfect for this task: “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.”
On his first day of volunteering in Nepal, Rabbi Aigen taught an impressively diverse group about spirituality. As Carmela recalls, “It’s hard to know if Reconstructionism made the secular or the religious Israelis more skeptical.”
When Rabbi Aigen returned to their hotel room dejected, Carmela repeated what he had often said to her when she had the occasional bad day during her illustrious career teaching thousands of Montreal kids at the Akiva school (including two of my children): “If you even made one dent, in one heart, that’s a lot.”
In his too-short, yet rich, fulfilling life, Rabbi Ron Aigen – as well as his extraordinary wife – made many dents in so many hearts. Their life together was one big, wonderful, challenging, Jewish-Zionist-Reconstructionist smash-up derby.
To honour his memory, Tevel b’Tzedek is naming its volunteer headquarters in Kathmandu the Ron Aigen House. In that space, Jews from all over the world, from across the denominational spectrum, with a wide range of political beliefs, will live together, learn together and improve the world together. It will be kosher and pluralistic, a place to be eminently pragmatic, yet incredibly idealistic.
It will honour Rabbi Ron Aigen’s rich legacy of caring for strangers, while building Jewish pride; of loving Israel, critically but patriotically; and of embracing Judaism as a civilization. Rabbi Aigen appreciated Judaism as a spiritual system, a framework of values, an anchor of identity, a fabulous story and a platform not just for dreaming up a better world, but rolling up your sleeves, taking some risks and making the world a better place.