This story comes to us from Tevel B'Tzedek, an Israeli NGO that aims to create Israeli and Jewish leadership passionately engaged in Tikkun Olam—fixing the world—locally and globally.
Martin Schubert and Alisa Poplavskaya had no idea what to expect when they traveled in February through Nepal. It had been a few years since their last stay in 2013, when the couple took part in the inaugural class of the Tevel Fellowship, through the Israeli NGO Tevel b’Tzedek. That was also two years before an earthquake devastated the country, killing nearly 9,000 people, destroying much of the country’s infrastructure, and leaving millions of survivors homeless.
In a way, it was on account of a different natural disaster in an entirely different region of the world that Martin landed in Nepal in the first place. In Haiti, in the aftermath of an earthquake that wracked that tiny island country in 2010, he took particular note of the presence of Israeli aid organizations and workers.
“I was very impressed by the approach that these organizations had,” he said by telephone from Katmandu. “They were explicitly Jewish and doing tikkun olam to help people in the world who are not Jewish. I grew up in Germany—a place where, until recently, the Jewish community is not so outgoing to the other communities, and is concerned very much with itself.”
“This idea—to have identity but to be open to the world—very much impresses me,” he went on. “In the same way that there are Birthright programs, there should be Earthright programs that combine community identity with universal will to make change in the world.”
If anything describes the couples’ modus operandi, it’s that.
ROI Community members, they were both raised with complicated Jewish identities, relatively speaking, in countries known in the past century more for their hostility to Jews than their hospitality. Both are products of mixed-faith marriages; Martin’s mother was Jewish, as was Alisa’s father. They both had some Jewish exposure as children—Shabbat meals at Martin’s and instruction to say the Sh’ma prayer before exams, for example, for him; Sunday school and stories about Jewish life from a beloved great-grandmother for her. It was sufficient to pique and pursue their interests in the Jewish part of themselves.
Alisa, who works as an educator and artist, grew up in the town of Mykolaiv in Ukraine (famous as the birthplace of the Lubavitcher rebbe) and understood that to be part of a Jewish community, she had to seek out places and create opportunities for connection. She attended Bnai Akiva-sponsored summer camp and got involved with Jewish Agency programs for youth. Wanting to improve her Hebrew language skills, she joined Na’ale, an initiative that brings Jewish teens interested in aliyah to Israel for high school with the possible expectation that their parents will follow. Her parents did not, in fact, want to emigrate and when her mother gave birth to a baby boy back in Ukraine, Alisa, until then an only child, returned to be close with her new sibling.
Still, the move home did not dim her enthusiasm about Jewish engagement. She attended International Solomon University in Kiev and was active in Hillel. After graduation, she found work as a TV journalist and became simultaneously involved with Project Kesher, a Jewish women’s empowerment initiative focused on states of the former Soviet Union. The next year, she applied to Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies, where she studied Talmud, Tanach and Kabbalah and integrated her lessons into abstract painting. There, she also met and fell in love with Martin.
Between the two of them, they lived in Vienna, Bratislava and then Berlin before applying to the Tevel Fellowship, where they worked in rural villages on empowerment, women’s issues, education and media coordination. After the program they returned together to Germany and focused on their careers; Martin is a journalist, trainer and life coach and Alisa leads group workshops with women, children and couples aimed at cultivating empowerment, mindful relationships and gratitude.
Yet even as they did so, part of their thoughts kept returning to Nepal and the emotionally and physically taxing work that Tevel Fellows undertake.
“Volunteers are expected to help the community, to live in this intercultural environment, a lot is expected of what they’ll do for others, and so it’s good to do something for them, help people live,” she said. Compelled by that conviction, they offered to return this year to Nepal to conduct workshops and programs such as they do at home in Berlin with Tevel volunteers at four different sites.
They met with success.
“We went with an open heart,” said Alisa. In addition to the optional workshops they ran, the couple made themselves available as sounding boards for Tevel staff and volunteers who wanted an outsider to listen to their thoughts and struggles. As Martin conducted one-on-one coaching with Tevel participants from Nepal, Israel, America, Argentina and South Africa, Alisa met with teams devoted to education, youth and women’s empowerment and, in the evening, conducted gratefulness workshops with 24 volunteers.
Before the earthquake, maybe half a dozen women would come in an effort to find mutual support. Now Tevel volunteers are finding four times that number are taking part. “Women are seeking support, knowledge, community, atmosphere, coming and acting together,” she said. “In the evening I would conduct a gratefulness workshop—two hours—for everyone and I found it very beautiful to see how people opened up.” Indeed, both Martin and Alisa are expert at finding, even in harsh circumstances, reasons for gratitude.
Mahadev Besi was a thriving community when they visited it in 2013. Four years on, they were shocked by what they saw.
“Most everything was destroyed,” said Martin. “It’s dusty, it seems like the sun never comes up, and you could see aggressiveness, harshness in the faces. That is hard to see, how a community is suffering. On the other hand, I was very impressed by the Fellows there because they really work. They have the harshest conditions of all the stations and they were harmonious with each other. Sometimes in the harsh outside conditions, people become closer together and warmer. There is darkness, but also a bit of light.”
They visited the village they had lived in as Fellows—Dahu, in the remote Ramechhap district. When they lived there, water scarcity was not a problem. Now, it is a critical issue and though the government plans to build a pump to carry water to the village from a nearby river, completion will take three years. The toll that this lack has on the lives of villager-friends was striking. The father of a family from whom Tevel had rented the house where they had lived no longer can work in the nearby fields. He has to leave home and family and go to Kathmandu for construction work.
But “Nepalis are not like Westerners—they don’t show their suffering—and I’m afraid to see in their faces and in their lives that things have become much harder for them,” said Martin. “In Nepal, we can say they never complain. A lot of time you see women carrying very heavy loads but still they walk past and say ‘Namaste,’ and smile at you.”
Indeed, the reception they received from old friends was warm. It was welcoming.
“We had so many invitations to stay with people,” said Martin. “We had to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to eat with you;’ ‘We’re going to stay with you,’ and this was so special that so far from home, in the foothills of the Himalayas, that they know us and we feel part of a family. This is something for which I am very, very grateful.”
He continued: “Nepal will never leave our hearts.”
The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.