Jewish Volunteers Staying Stoic In Ravaged Nepal


A team of 40 Jewish volunteers in Nepal watched in horror on Tuesday as a second earthquake wrought more death and destruction on the country — and as more of their hard work was reduced to dust.

Since the April 25 quake that rocked the country and left more than 8,000 Nepalese dead, the Jewish team, part of a nonprofit that has been in the country for about a decade, had been helping to rebuild, often from scratch, some of the 4,500 structures damaged in the quake, including public buildings, schools and homes.

By midday Tuesday, the number of damaged buildings had risen to an estimated 7,000.

“I’m brushing off any feelings of dismay and moving forward to what needs to be done,” Nevo Shinaar told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview from Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital. Shinaar is a member of the Jerusalem-based Tevel b’Tzedek, which runs the volunteers’ program, and employs 50 local professionals to help their efforts.

Despite his positive attitude, Shinaar recognizes only too well from after the first quake the sinking feeling of visiting a village where Tevel has worked, only to see its efforts destroyed. “You’re shocked and depressed, and feel extremely helpless, because everything is damaged, people are out in the rain, and you’re looking at a place where you put in lots of work,” he said.

Tevel, which has volunteers from Israel and the diaspora, has been operating in some of Nepal’s poorest villages; the group works to improve homes, develop agriculture, irrigate land and confront illness by establishing sanitation. Suddenly, years of work lies in ruins — and its task is no longer to raise peoples’ quality of life to new levels, but rather to restore the quality of life they had a few weeks or a few days ago.

The town of Mahadev Besi, west of Kathmandu, for example, is known by volunteers as the “jewel in the crown” of Tevel b’Tzedek because it is where a low-caste community lived with hardly any income and no irrigation or sanitation. Volunteers channeled a river towards the village, built bathrooms, got residents growing crops, harvesting and selling. As a result of the first quake, residents lost homes, infrastructure and crops.

Only two Tevel volunteers who were in Nepal during the first quake have flown home. Leaving was “never an option” for Aviela Weitman, a 22-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla. Since the quake, she has been helping communities, including through a five-day posting in Managaun, also west of Kathmandu. With fellow volunteers, she went house to house assessing the damage, built temporary shelters and led activities for bored children who have no schools to attend. As of Tuesday afternoon, she was transporting tin to villagers for roofing.

One of the hardest things for Weitman is knowing that she’s never far from destruction. “It comes out of nowhere,” she told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview Tuesday of the randomness of the destruction. “You can walk down a street and everything is fine and life is going on as normal, but then you see a huge building that’s collapsed or an apartment leaning on its neighboring building.”

The young men and women of Tevel chose to help Nepal before the quake, but some Jewish volunteers are backpackers who simply found themselves in the thick of things. When Yonatan Golan arrived in Nepal, it was just another backpacking stop. After the quake, the 23-year-old medical student from Tel Aviv is making it his second home.

“Now, the organizations are starting to leave, having pulled people from the rubble and given initial aid,” he told me last week while I was reporting from Nepal. Golan was packing a taxi with such a large consignment of mineral water for refugees that the little car looked like it was going to collapse. “Now, I feel the obligation to help the people without homes — especially with the monsoon [season] expected in a few weeks.”

Israeli officials have told Israelis to leave Nepal, but Golan and a few dozen Israeli backpackers like him say that their connection with the Nepalese is too deep to depart without making a contribution. A few diaspora Jews are banding together with them; as Golan loaded the taxi in central Kathmandu, a 29-year-old woman from Melbourne, Chani Gurewicz, explained that she’s staying because “I’m not in this world to only experience the positive stuff.”

The Chabad House in Kathmandu, a haven for traumatized Israelis in the days after the first quake, took up this role again on Tuesday. But mainly it has become something else entirely — a hive of activity for efforts to help the Nepalese.

“Tzedakah [charity] is not just for Jews,” said Chabad Rabbi Chezky Lifshitz, a few moments before welcoming a representative from a local village, who had come to ask for sacks of rice. Rabbi Lifshitz said he’ll be happy to oblige — and has distributed a ton of rice via this man and others.

He is now trying to source thousands of tents that can get homeless families through monsoon season — and raise funds to buy them. Even the synagogue at the Chabad House has been overtaken by his self-assigned aid mission — to walk from the bima to the ark you need to dodge boxes of medicine, syringes and other supplies.

It wasn’t only the homeless who felt they had nowhere to go after the first quake. Nepalese whose houses survived were afraid to go back indoors. The official Israeli medical and rescue mission, which returned home this week, played a major part in giving people the confidence they needed to do so. Little did they know what awaited Nepal almost as soon as they got back to Tel Aviv.

Talking before leaving Kathmandu, Elad Edri, the operations officer of Israel’s Home Front Command, said: “People are in shock and not capable of thinking they can move back to their homes, and they need experts who tell them it’s OK.”

It was the Israeli mission’s military field hospital, with its 24-hour drama, that received most of the attention in the days after the first quake. But as its medics went about treating 1,427 patients, Home Front Command engineers and psychologists were some of the Nepalese government’s main foreign partners in getting the country to function again. They were assessing buildings and helping authorities to figure out a way of getting people to feel safe again. One contribution is a pamphlet on post-disaster resilience — translated from Hebrew.

Five assessment teams formed, partnering Israeli engineers with local officials. By the time the Israeli mission departed Nepal this week, Israeli engineers had assessed 295 public buildings.

Narayan Khadka, Nepal’s urban development minister, visited the Israeli delegation to bid farewell. “Let me express our sincere gratitude to the government of Israel and to the people of Israel for helping us in times of very critical hours for Nepal,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated shortly after the second quake that an Israeli mission may return. “A few minutes ago I told the Nepalese ambassador that we are prepared to the best of our abilities to help them even now,” he said on Tuesday. “Would that you are not needed, but should it be necessary you know — and the world is learning — that you can be counted on.”

As the situation in Nepal got worse this week, volunteers had a hard time finding cause to be positive. But despite seeing more of its efforts destroyed, and a huge workload for the coming months mounting up, Tevel found some small cause for comfort. Communities where they have worked appear, to them, to be bouncing back better than other poor villages. Shinaar commented: “What we have seen kind of validated our work, in the sense that it shows that our community-development efforts over the years increased resilience and brought people together, yielding fruit.”

And how will they manage their new challenge? Part of the answer lies in increased manpower, and reinforcements are on their way. “Our past volunteers have not stopped calling,” said Shinaar, “saying they’re ready to come and help.”