A World Falling Apart

Israel was there’ to repair’

There was a joke going around:
“0.1/% of the world’s population is Israeli
30% of the international medical team in Nepal was Israeli.
Will the UN condemn Israel’s “disproportionate response”?”


The true nature of today’s ‘War against the Jews’ was aptly expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May at the 5th Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism when he said, “Contemporary anti-Semitism doesn’t just slander, vilify and target Jewish people; it first and foremost targets the Jewish state.”

Despite the unrelenting global abuse heaped on Israel, its blue and white flag with its centred ‘Star of David’ is usually the first foreign flag to proudly flap in the wind wherever there is a major crisis in the world. Invariably amongst the ‘army’ of humanitarian volunteers from Israel, one will find former Southern Africans.


When a devastating earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, the Israel Defense Forces quickly assembled and sent one of the largest aid teams of any country to the stricken area. Its field hospital included 60 beds and an obstetrics department. IDF medical personnel treated 1,427 victims, including 90 life-saving surgeries, six caesarean sections and two natural births.

At a ceremony marking the official closing of the hospital, the country’s Urban Development Minister, Narayan Khadka, said, “Let me express our sincere gratitude to the government and to the people of Israel for helping us in these critical times for Nepal.”

Only two hours east of the epicentre of the earthquake, near Kathmandu was a South African Olah, 23-year-old Keren Futeran, daughter of Owen and Lisa Futeran from Ra’anana. A graduate of Herzlia School in Cape Town and the Bnei Akiva MTA programme, Keren made Aliyah in 2010. Following a year of Sherut Leumi at Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, Keren served in the IDF as an officer where she helped manage a course run jointly with Misrad Hachinuch (Ministry of Education) for soldiers to be posted to schools as chayalim/chayalot.

It was while serving as a volunteer on the Tevel B’Tzedek programme at the village of Mannegow in Nepal, when disaster struck.


A Shocking, Shaking Shabbat

The aim of Tevel B’Tzedek, says founder Rabbi Micha Odenheimer “is to connect Israel and Jews to the challenge of extreme poverty in the developing world. Tevel ‘arrived’ in Nepal eight years ago and never left and expanded to Haiti and Burundi.” At the time of the earthquake, the Israeli and Jewish volunteers and staff were fifty in number. Suddenly their mission had a different focus.

A journalist, rabbi, and social entrepreneur, Rabbi Odenheimer addressed his assembled volunteers in Kathmandu: “It’s a totally new situation. We always told you that Tevel has two ‘lighthouses’ or goals – transforming impoverished villages, and creating Israeli and Jewish global social justice leadership. Right now, the second lighthouse is suspended. With the monsoon season coming, we have to put everything we have into relief. Anyone who wants to go home at this point, we understand completely. Anyone who wants to stay put, has to recommit in this new situation.”

When Keren’s group arrived in the Mannegau prior to the earthquake, “The entire village was there to greet us. We were given flower necklaces and a petal on the forehead as well as a Nepali name related to our Hebrew names. My name was Lali Maya – a Ray of Love.”

The concept of a youth movement is generally foreign to Nepalese, so it was touching “to learn from a local youth group leader that the first youth movement established in Nepal was inspired by Israeli participants on earlier programmes.”

Keren volunteered in the Woman Empowerment Programme dealing with issues of health, nutrition, birth control and human rights. On Shabbat, “we usually had a special meal, walked around the village, enjoyed the beauty and serenity and generally relaxed.”

Saturday the 25th April was not destined to be a day of rest!

“At around 12 noon we were sitting together when the house started to shake. We all ran outside and lay on the ground, not fully understanding what was going on. It carried on for what seemed like ages but was only a minute.”

Keren’s house was on the highest hill in the village.

“As soon as the shaking stopped, we looked around and saw immediately two houses that had collapsed in the village and then further afield, rows of dust where houses had crumbled in the valley below.

“The boys in our group ran to the collapsed houses to help the injured, while the rest of us started gathering the people outside and leading them to a field away from their unsafe houses. We tried to keep them calm, made sure they were okay and that everyone was accounted for.”

“All the while the ground kept on shaking because of the aftershocks which carried on for days. It was strange how one got used to it.”

The scale of the earthquake only really became apparent when one of Keren’s colleagues displayed a map indicating the epicenter of the earthquake on his satellite phone. “When we saw that it was closer to Katmandu than to us, and saw the damage around us, we realized that what we had experienced was a huge natural disaster and that we had been spared the worst of it.”

Amazingly, there were no serious injuries in the village despite the catastrophic condition of the houses and “we set about the task of erecting tents.”

For the next week, “we stayed to comfort the people, play with the children and helped with whatever else needed to be done – such as building shelters for animals, moving furniture and belongings, clearing rubble, and taking the kids on trips to free the adults for the important work that they needed to do. Everything was conducted energetically and in good spirits, despite news of the extent of the damage, concern about our fellow Israelis in the country, and knowing how stressed our parents must have been.”


Tough Farewell

After a week, “our organization decided that it was time to return to Kathmandu. We had done all we could in Mannegau and besides, there was insufficient food for the villagers, never mind the extra mouths of the volunteers. “

The villagers held an emotional farewell ceremony. “My Nepali mother cried and hugged me; I gave her a present and said how I will miss her and her cooking.”

In was quite a sight arriving in devastated Kathmandu and walking into an IDF base to be surrounded by hundreds of Israelis from soldiers to medical personnel. I felt relief for the first time. It was one of the most memorable moments I’ve ever experienced.”

While Keren’s programme had officially ended, “we decided to stay and join in the relief efforts. I volunteered at the IDF field hospital together with soldiers, doctors and volunteers from around the world. I was mostly in the children’s ward and worked with a 16 year-old Nepali boy who helped translate into English.”

The days were filled hearing sad stories. Keren accounts of a girl who was brought into the IDF hospital after her brother found her in the rubble five days after the earthquake. “Half her body was paralyzed from a head injury. Day by day she started eating, talking and even smiling, and when the Israeli neurologist came to check her, she moved the side of her body that they had previously thought would be paralyzed for the rest of her life. It was a very special moment.”

Keren left Nepal with a heavy heart. “There was still so much to do and our organisation, Tevel b’Tzedek is doing amazing work. I really hope to find myself back there soon.”