February 5, 2009, Updated September 12, 2012

Yarden Tenenbaum and Uri Amit, founders of Leaders for Tikkun Olam, in Tamil Nadu, south India.

When 10 Israeli and Diaspora Jews aged 21 to 30 get together on an eco-farm just outside of Tel Aviv this month on their first step to making the world a better place, one of the skills they’ll learn is juggling.

But that’s only natural for the Leaders for Tikkun Olam (LTO), aimed at balancing Jewish values and a desire to make a difference. In July, the group will move to India to assist Indian villagers, projecting a different image of Israel both there and around the world.

The “International Jewish Service corps” project in Israel and India, supported by the Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency’s Masa program, is the brainchild of the Adam LeAdam – International Human Aid NGO, founded by former Jewish Agency emissaries Uri Amit and Yarden Tenenbaum, about a year ago. They believe the NGO can not only revolutionize the lives of Indian villagers in the Sadhana Forest region, but create future leaders to pursue similar projects.

“I think that the whole idea of starting a Jewish/Israeli Peace Corps was somehow inside us years ago,” Amit tells ISRAEL21c. Relying on their experience as Israeli emissaries and in volunteer work in the developing world, “we realized there might be an option, a vision to combine both things – to say there is a call for young, Jewish Israeli leaders to make a change both in Israel itself, but to [also] bring it to the outside world.”

The target is to create an eco-farm in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, southeast India, where local agriculture was essentially destroyed by villagers using methods that polluted water and soil. Working with Indian NGOs, the Center for Culture and Development in India, and the Sadhana Forest, “we are trying to find a solution by creating an eco-park training center to teach ecological agriculture, that doesn’t use pesticides or create pollution,” explains Tenenbaum.

A mini-kibbutz in India

But the 10-member team will do even more when they take their “mini-kibbutz” from the Tel Aviv suburbs to India after first studying biology, organic farming and other subjects.

Using the juggling as an ice-breaker, they’ll also interact with 11 villages, teaching English, finding out what their problems are, interacting with youth and creating future leaders to create a ripple effect of change, even with members of the “untouchable” caste.

“We’re not coming on a white horse to save the world, but rather to… answer their needs,” says Tenenbaum. In so doing, they hope to change the way Israelis are perceived in India and offer a new option to those who previously only sought a hedonistic adventure.

“We realized that many Israelis know Indian people simply as service providers, and hardly have been exposed to real Indian culture. On the other hand, the Indian people think most Israelis are backpackers in Goa – the ugly Israelis. We’re trying to create something else, something positive,” says Amit.

“The main problem is that they don’t know about the possibility of doing something else in India besides just enjoying themselves,” adds Tenenbaum. “If we give them the opportunity to do something meaningful, people will do it.”

The LTO blends the importance of strengthening one’s Jewish roots with the concept of Tikkun Olam (helping the world). “People are forced to choose whether they are dealing with their Jewish identity and asking themselves what their relationship to Israel is, or following their ideas of Tikkun Olam which sometimes have nothing to do with Judaism,” says Amit. “We are trying to merge those ideas together.”

Open to backpackers who want to help

Once back in Israel, the volunteers will be writing up proposals for volunteer projects in Israel or their own communities, with support from the NGO. The farm in India will also be open to backpackers who want to stop in to help.

“We think Israelis have a lot to offer, a lot of good characteristics that people don’t always see: initiative, a willingness to give. They don’t just talk about it, they find a way to do it. And one of our goals is to show the world something good that comes out of Israel, not just what they see on TV,” says Tenenbaum.

The pair hope to “make the issue of volunteering a trendy one,” and are currently spreading the word in India, on various Web sites, through Hillel offices and on college campuses in Israel and abroad.

While most of the first team has been finalized, some spots still remain, and other projects – which already include delegations sent to help in Africa, where further expansion is possible – are in the pipeline. While an operating budget for the first team has already been secured, Amit and Tenenbaum are actively seeking further financial support for an NGO they believe will do wonders both for those it helps and those who do the helping.

“They say that if you save one soul, you’ve saved an entire world,” says Amit. “But in this case, you’re not only saving another soul, but also your own. It’s a triangle that includes the people you affect, yourself and the world that sees you as a model.”

Most importantly, however, the ability to create a different image of Israel while providing hands-on help to those who need it is incredibly satisfying. “I see myself as an Israeli and a Jew wherever I go,” says Tenenbaum. “I’ve visited several countries in the world, and every time I see myself as an emissary. And when I do something that can help others… and by doing so get something back for myself, for me it’s a wonderful sensation.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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