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One Night in Katmandu

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The tables are made, pots with steaming stews boil on gas stoves, packs of Matzot are opened -- Seder approaches. However, this is a Seder with a twist. Most members of the Jewish faith worldwide will spend one of their holiest evenings of the year with their families. For the dozens of volunteers and guests gathering in the Tibetan neighborhood in Kathmandu, Nepal, the Seder is an opportunity to create an alternative space to examine concepts like liberty and social justice in a different way altogether.

After all, it's not every year that the opportunity to celebrate Passover at the foothills of the Himalayas presents itself.

As the evening begins, Rabbi Micha Odenhiemer, who will orchestrate the festivities as he does every year, addresses the guests with a message that encapsulates Passover's overlying theme of emancipation with relation to the country this Seder is held in. He reminds them that the Haggadah, the traditional Hebrew tale of the exodus from Egypt, is one that holds a promise to usher people from slavery into freedom. In fact, he asserts, that is exactly why all of us have gathered in Nepal in the first place.

Almost immediately, questions arise from those gathered in the small yard, engulfed in the darkness brought on by Kathmandu's rampant blackouts. One after another, the young volunteers that comprise the majority of the Seder's participants, ponder over their work in Nepal, their cultural and political beliefs in the context of their experiences in the country, even the way the evening is orchestrated or the way the people choose to remember their ethos' and myths. "How can we keep telling a story that celebrates freedom, when our own freedom is bought at the price of other people's suffering?" asks a long haired volunteer, still visibly shaken from a visit to one of the local brick factories; a smoldering, over-polluted complex of factories at the edge of the Kathmandu valley, where underage, under privileged locals slave away at manufacturing the clay bricks that are crucial to every building endeavor in the country. Another volunteer, a fair haired, softly spoken girl, asks the question that is ever prevalent in the minds of every person involved in the development sector worldwide -- how can we know if we are doing more good than harm in our work?

There are no easy answers, but it is the very existence of such a discussion that is cherished and encouraged throughout the evening.

For this Seder, is as much a monument to an unwavering belief that creating positive change in the world is possible, as it is to the holy rituals of the Jewish faith; Over seven years ago, Odenhiemer founded "Tevel" (Then known as "Tevel b'Tzedek" in Hebrew, literally translated from the Hebrew Psalms as "the world in justice") an Israeli-Jewish Development NGO that works in Nepal to promote social justice. The inception of the organization was inspired by one of Judaism's most central edicts, that of "Tikun Olam", according to which the Jewish people have a social and moral responsibility to contribute to making our world into a better place for all of humanity. In fact, it was this interpretation of that edict and the dream of reconnecting young Jewish people worldwide to the original, socially relevant, meaning of their religious and cultural heritage, which led to the birth of "Tevel." Since it was formed, the organization has seen hundreds of Israeli and international volunteers, as well as their Nepali counterparts, participate in its programs -- enlivened through a uniquely executed holistic model that aims to engage local women, youth, agricultural endeavorers and educational institutions.

The current cycle of these volunteers, some of whom will spend four months in Nepal, others ten, sit around the candle-lit tables, their sun burnt faces glisten above their finest clothes -- a far cry from the hard day's work they put in to prepare the Passover meal and remove every last relic of dreaded Hametz (non-kosher baked goods) from the premises. The meal is a modest one, certainly by western standards, as all present remain thoughtfully aware of the deprivation of the majority of the population in the country they are warmheartedly hosted in.

In a way, these volunteers create a family of sorts, a home away from home. In their experiences in the field, they are faced with ethical dilemmas, physical hardships, and professional challenges that force them to overcome many internal boundaries they never knew existed. In the context of what is known in Hebrew as the "Holiday of Freedom," they find an opportunity to rest and recuperate, as a community that works to serve other communities, as well as to process and internalize their experiences within the larger context of the holiday.

For Passover is not merely a celebration of the triumphant emancipation of the Hebrew slaves of old, it is also a time for contemplation of the basic human phenomena that seem to recur time and time again throughout history: The enslavement of one people by another, the price through which freedom is obtained and even the obscure difference between internal and external freedoms.

In fact, it is the latter that keeps popping out throughout the evening in various heated debates and discussions, through viewpoints that question the freedoms that we as individuals have in the outer world, but also of our ability to free ourselves from our self-imposed and sometimes subconscious patterns. Odenhimer pauses quietly from behind his Haggadah; these distinctions were always recognized by him and his staff as the key for a truly sustainable and thorough approach to community development work.

Within the NGO's jargon, these are called the "Two Lighthouses;" the first, more visible one, is the development lighthouse. It encompasses the professional challenges, the work on the ground, the interaction between foreign and Nepali values, and the genuine and ongoing attempt to enhance the ability of local, often threatened, communities to withstand the surging tsunami wave of globalization that is sweeping through Nepal and the rest of the "majority" (i.e. developing) world. The second, more abstract, lighthouse is the personal development one. For Tevel aims to affect its volunteers as much as the volunteers strive to impact the Nepali communities wherein they work; the very experience of encountering something like Nepali society and the ongoing attempts to contribute to its organic and value-respective growth, could benefit these volunteers as members of their own societies, upon their return home.

One might dare say that it could even benefit them as members of a global community, and its evolution that we seem to be living through.

The evening progresses, the plagues are recounted, as the ongoing discussions and exchanges of ideas center on everything from theology to political and social issues. The moon rises, full as in all Jewish holidays, and a man stands up, wishing to speak. He is not Nepali, says the guest, though many of the locals mistake him to be one. His name is Jorge Cárdenas, the Bolivian Ambassador to India. He reflects upon the issues raised, and shares the dream and aspirations of his own country -- to move away from a piggish, uber-capitalist agenda, to focus again on the well being and advancement of the people, his own countrymen, as well as that of other nations and societies. He beams with optimism, and expresses his amazement with the way life seems to find ways to create opportunities for cooperation and shared experiences with others that, like yourself, understand the necessity of reclaiming a wider sense of human solidarity.

As he speaks, Odenhiemer and the volunteers gaze at him intently. They are silent, but they are visibly moved. In a night that seeks to remind all of us of the importance of our quest for freedom, in a modest dinner at the outskirts of one Asia's poorest capitals, another bridge of empathy is formed. It is not a matter of religion or ethnicity, but of a sense of solidarity between men and women.

It is these bridges, these improbable encounters, which make nights like this all the more meaningful.