On Tikkun Olam

JInsider (March 2010)

A friend of ours, a very religious Jew who learns Talmud every day, happened to be travelling on business when he heard the news of the earthquake in Haiti. Immediately, he realised that as a Jew, he had to help, and somehow, he managed to get himself to Haiti very early on. He went to the tent city full of refugees in Port-au-Prince, discovered that there was no food shortage, but that there was no drinking water. Well, he was an enterprising guy, found out the nearest water purification plant was 15 miles away. He hired a lorry, hired a tank, went and got 3,000 gallons of purified water, which he brought to Port-au-Prince, giving water for 3,000 people.

Very soon, he realised the scale of the problem was much bigger than that, and he didn’t know how to get the resources to provide help on a larger scale. So with a brainwave, he got out his pocket computer and started blogging for the first time ever. And so, his description of what was happening on the ground and what was needed, went out across the web, and within days he had 200 people each volunteering to donate money to generate more water supply. By the time he left, four days later, he was providing water for 300,000 people.

That tells me about how a deeply religious Jew feels when he or she hears that people are suffering somewhere in the world. We have suffered so much as Jews that we can relate to other people’s suffering, and that is the kind of role model of Jewish values lived in action that I really admire.

In 2004, a New York Jewish woman, Mrs. Anne Heyman, was watching television and saw a documentary about Rwanda, 10 years after the massacre in which 800,000 Rwandans were murdered by machete mainly, in the space of 100 days. Now, of course, the programme was showing the plight of the orphans 10 years later.

Her first thought was orphans, that’s what we know about as Jews, children who survived the Holocaust and went as orphans to Israel. And so, she got on the phone to Chaim Peri, who created a youth village, Yemin Orde, for orphans of the Holocaust and later from Ethiopia. She said, “Chaim, you created a youth village. Do you think we could do that for the Rwandans?”

And then she got in touch with an amazing Israeli psychiatrist, psychologist, Reuven Feuerstein who does miracles with highly traumatised children, and a whole range of other Israelis and some American Jews.

Together, they created in Rwanda, a youth village exactly like the youth villages in Israel. It’s called the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, and it is providing a home for 750 Rwandan orphans, teaching them the most advanced agricultural techniques, teaching them advanced computer techniques, and above all, teaching them to be teachers of others so that they will send out ripples of help and of development to Rwanda. And there in the heart of Rwanda, thousands of miles away, literally and metaphorically, from American Jewry, and Israeli Jewry, that’s where those two Jews came together to create a little oasis of hope for young Rwandans. It’s an amazing project, and it is the Jewish spirit at its best, bringing a little fragment of heaven down here to Earth.