Extreme Tikkun Olam: Sometimes repairing the world calls on us to leave the familiar behind

The photos Lucy Steinitz sends back from her work-related travels are not picture postcards of dazzling architecture or lush landscapes. They are photos of gaunt African women dying of AIDS and of children orphaned by the disease. The only white woman in the photographs, Steinitz until recently was the founding national coordinator of Catholic AIDS Action, now the largest non-governmental group addressing HIV/AIDS in Namibia.

How did a Jewish woman raised in Washington Heights, N.Y., end up in Windhoek, Namibia, directing a Christian-based organization? Steinitz’s journey was fueled by both a search for adventure and a commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world [see sidebar above]. According to a Namibian government study, and assuming current HIV rates, within the next two decades one out of three Namibian children can expect to lose at least one parent by the age of 15.

The only child of survivors, Steinitz, 52, says the lesson of the Holocaust is that “you cannot sit by apathetically when you know genocide or horrific tragedy or injustice is occurring…. It’s up to us to do our moral duty.” To Steinitz, the AIDS crisis in Africa is similar in its devastation—and in the lack of world response—to the Holocaust.

Though Steinitz’s story is hardly typical, she and other Jewish women who have placed tikkun olam at the pinnacle of their life goals have traveled to developing countries to do good for others, alleviate pain and rescue people in need. Whether they have worked with Jewish or secular organizations, their Jewish values have determined the direction of their hands-on tzedakah. Few consider themselves heroes or role models, stressing that by overcoming their fears they have enriched their own lives.

According to Danny Siegel, founder of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, the Hebrew verb l’taken (to fix) is the same whether it refers to a table or the whole world. “People think you have to do something huge or big for tikkun olam. Piece by piece will do.” The stories of these women, then, might qualify as “extreme tikkun olam”: Through their devotion, several pieces of the world that might otherwise have been neglected have begun to be repaired.

Moving to Africa began as a solution to a midlife crisis, Steinitz says, but it quickly evolved into a mission. After 13 years as chief executive officer of Jewish Family Services of Central Maryland (“Even the best job becomes repetitious after so long”), Steinitz and her husband, Bernd Kiekebusch, decided to take a “huge leap of faith,” settling on a year in Africa. Then Steinitz’s mother was suddenly killed in a tragic car accident. Without any familial ties to keep them in the United States, they extended their stay indefinitely.

“We found out life’s meaning in Namibia,” Steinitz says. “Here I feel that even one person can make an indelible difference in the lives of others. After years of trying to practice tikkun olam among my own people, I’m now trying to do the same with a much broader constituency.”

By networking, Steinitz found a fledgling organization for juvenile delinquents and street children in Namibia; Kiekebusch got a job computerizing personnel systems for a government ministry. Their children, Elsita and Sergio, were 11 and nine. The family had already had a taste of Africa when, in 1994, they worked for three months in Zimbabwe as part of the first group of the American Jewish World Service Volunteer Corps.”We lived simply, in a barely furnished flat where more things were broken than working,” she recalls. “Our children played with sticks and strings and little pebbles instead of fancy toys. We—and they—didn’t mind that there was no TV, no pizza. It was one grand adventure.”

Steinitz fell in love with Namibia immediately. But the youth organization didn’t keep her busy enough. She pioneered UNICEF’s first study on orphan children in Namibia, which in turn led to the publication of a book, More Than the Loss of a Parent, and a nationally distributed resource manual. “This was a brand-new country, independent only since 1990,” she notes. “People didn’t know their rights or how to advocate for themselves—the very things they would have been punished for under colonial rule and apartheid.”

Then she met Sister Raphaela Haendler, a German physician, nun and activist who knew firsthand about the ravages of HIV/AIDS in East Africa and predicted that it would soon engulf Namibia as well.Haendler thought the Catholic Church should respond as a moral responsibility; Steinitz volunteered to help. Once the bishops’ council approved her participation (because of her Jewish background), Steinitz went to work launching massive activities for awareness, prevention, care and advocacy, voluntary testing and counseling.

The organization’s Christian perspective has helped reach the strongly religious Namibian population. “Working for the Jewish community helped me recognize that faith can be an important motivation,” she says. “I encouraged people to look into their own traditions for inspiration and insight. I never once experienced anti-Semitism. That I’m a foreigner and white was harder to overcome.”

Steinitz is now senior technical officer for Faith Based Organizations at Family Health International, where she continues to work with Catholic AIDS Action and other AIDS-related projects, including several she initiated.

Despite the comforts of home that she has given up (washer, dryer, dishwasher, air conditioning), Steinitz stresses that “this is not sacrifice. I’m having the time of my life.” The things she does miss range from the spiritual to the superficial—a “vibrant, egalitarian Jewish community,” a richer Jewish education for her children, old friends, culture, books, matzo and kosher-for-Passover products, and Trident cinnamon gum, which she brings back “in stacks” from visits to the United States. The one synagogue in Windhoek, which the family attends, is Orthodox and is made up of about 20 families. Steinitz says that both of her children have retained some of their American identity. Elsita is now studying environmental biology at Swarthmore College; Sergio is Namibia’s national junior champion in archery and is lead guitarist with a local heavy metal band. Her husband is now dean of engineering and information technology at Polytechnic of Namibia.

Her work is punctuated with heartbreaking moments, since the AIDS epidemic has left many thousands of children as heads of households. In November 2004, her volunteer work with the Stephen Lewis Foundation took her to Uganda, where she visited a home in which a 16-year-old girl has been caring for five younger siblings since 1999. A new baked-brick house has replaced the family’s straw hut, but there’s no furniture; they sit, eat (what little they have) and sleep on the floor.

Steinitzsums up her reaction: “Wow, wow, wow!” It’s no wonder she has no plans to leave Namibia. “We feel a calling to stay here,” she says.

Barbara Ribakove Gordon’s calling during the past 23 years has been the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. Her childhood aspiration—to be an actor—may not have come to fruition, but she has been at center stage in the dramatic saga of Ethiopian Jewry.

The founder of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), Ribakove Gordon, 72, has trekked on foot and mule through the rugged Semien Mountains to make contact with isolated Jewish villages. She has traveled to Ethiopia more than 30 times, sent 18 missions and helped process 14,000 Ethiopian Jews during the historic Operation Solomon airlift to Israel, which she calls “36 hours of miracles, unequaled except to giving birth.”

NACOEJ currently offers educational programs in Israel and provides food, education, employment and religious facilities to 15,000 Jews still in Ethiopia who have left their homes and remain clustered around the Israeli consulate in Gondar and the embassy in Addis Ababa, awaiting their visas (Israel has capped the rate at 300 per month, but starting June 1 the rate is expected to increase to 600 per month).

Born in Brooklyn into an assimilated family with strong social justice values, Ribakove Gordon learned a transformative lesson when her father, a U.S. government employee, moved the family to Germany in 1949 to work with the military government. “The ravages of war were still evident,” she recalls. “Nobody was attacking us, but what happened to the Jews was coming to light more and more. At the age of 16, I saw my first atrocity film. That reinforced what I had been taught: that you couldn’t walk away from Jews in danger.”

Back in the States, she studied theater but realized she was happier writing and became a magazine editor. She married, had a son, divorced, became religiously observant.In 1980 she traveled to Romania under the auspices of the Center for Eastern European Jewry to investigate the fate of Jews who had wanted to leave. The next year, a friend from the Romanian mission asked if she’d volunteer to go to Ethiopia. “I said, Sure, sure; where is Ethiopia?’ It changed my life entirely.”

In the ’80s, Ethiopia was ruled by an oppressive communist regime (which has since been replaced by a Democratic government). Though the practice of Judaism was allowed, the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) were being persecuted for trying to escape to Israel. Learning Hebrew was forbidden, and famine and disease were rampant. Those who were caught escaping were imprisoned and tortured. With a group of 11 others, Ribakove Gordon defied Ethiopian government orders not to contact Jewish villages. “We spent three days and two nights crossing the mountains,” she recalls. “When we got to the village, I was exhausted. The people didn’t look like Jews. The synagogue was a hut made of stone, totally empty inside. We had the feeling that we’d come so far—but for what? They were as strange to us as we were to them.”

Via an interpreter who could speak English, Hebrew and Amharic, Ethiopia’s offical language, the American group asked to see the Torah. “They brought the Torah from an elder’s home. It didn’t look like a Torah. It was not a scroll but a book. It was not in Hebrew but Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language. We were staring at it, and finally somebody asked, What parashah [portion] are you reading?’ They were reading Noah. We were also reading Noah. That was the moment that wiped out all the differences, and the barriers in place absolutely melted away.”

Ribakove Gordon returned to New York and “was persuaded” to begin an organization to fight on behalf of the Beta Israel. The first few years, her work was completely voluntary. She worked as an editor by day and on Ethiopia by night. But the massive famine in Ethiopia in 1984 spurred her to take a six-month leave. “I learned how much more I could do from nine to five, than from five to midnight.” Since then, she has been the organization’s director. “Our missions brought medicines, doctors, supplies. But all they wanted from us was, Help us go to Jerusalem.’ How can you be a Jew and not respond to that?”

She recalls an Ethiopian bureaucrat once asking her: “Why do you care about those poor people? They are the poorest of the poor in the poorest country in the world.” She answered: “Because Jews are all one family.”

“I’d love to be on the last plane accompanying the last Jews out,” she says. Retire? “What would be the point? I’d only become a full-time volunteer for NACOEJ.”

Carrie Lee Teicher, 25, spent two years with the Peace Corps working in West Africa, in Mali’s only HIV/AIDS clinic. Last summer, she volunteered in India with the American Jewish World Service. Teicher, who says that activism “runs in the family” and that tikkun olam is the core of her Jewish identity, describes her experiences as the “polar opposite” of her Westchester upbringing and her Barnard College education.

“It’s one thing to read and study about poverty and another to go to barren millet fields and live with people with no access to food because there are no roads,” says Teicher, who is completing her graduate studies in public health at Columbia University.

The lack of Jewish community or ritual in Mali led her to deepen her moral and ethical connection to Judaism. She even wrote her own Passover Haggadah reflecting her impressions. Being a Jewish American woman in Mali, a Muslim country, during 9/11 and the outbreak of war in Iraq was “on paper not the safest place, but I personally never felt danger,” she says. “If I didn’t go out at night, it was more because I was concerned the batteries on my flashlight would die.” The urban educated in Mali supported the Palestinian cause, but, Teicher says, they treated her as an individual outside their anti-Semitic stereotypes. To the people of rural Mali, Jews were a biblical tribe from ancient times, “like Amalekites or Canaanites.”

In Bhavnagar, India, Teicher confronted not only unmitigated poverty but also human exploitation. She worked at a blood bank, researched HIV rates and staffed a women’s welfare center that provided the only health care in a nearby ship-breaking yard that has been cited by international organizations as the world’s worst place to live and work. Thousands of migrant workers take battleships and cruise ships apart by hand. “I didn’t realize how harsh it would be,” she says. “Being able to live without electricity, running water or flush toilets is no great task, but I never got used to the poverty or the degradation.”

Still, when asked what she has gained from her overseas experiences, she answers: “The world.”

You do not know what you are cheating yourself out of when you let your fears stop you from taking leaps into the unknown,” says Alexandra Saperstein, 32, who volunteered with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria from 1998 to 2000. “There are parts of yourself you would never discover,” she says. “The resources within and around you will show up.”

Saperstein, now a psychotherapist in California, lists some of her fears: loneliness, homesickness, illness. “I had the flu four times the first year, but the first time, three babushkas with pots of stew and chestnut oil to rub in my knees were at my door almost immediately. People realize you don’t have a family, so they take care of you.” Although she missed central heating, long hot showers and other comforts, “people have a deeper sense of what’s important. They live in a way we have a lot to learn from.” One of the most difficult aspects of her stay was the outbreak of the war in Kosovo on Bulgaria’s doorstep.

“I was horrified at the Bulgarians’ indifference,” she says, recalling several anti-American incidents directed at her. “They were angrier at the U.S. than at the genocide that was happening.” Saperstein has written a book (she hopes it will find a publisher) about her experiences and taking risks to follow a dream.

Born in Los Angeles to a Reform family, Saperstein says the tzedakah box is one of her earliest memories. Volunteering, always critical to her home and synagogue life, became a “huge part” of her identity. “We don’t live just for ourselves,” she says. To explore her Judaism, she enrolled in the World Union of Jewish Studies’ postgraduate program in Arad, Israel. “I met people of different religious and geographic backgrounds, Jewish and Palestinian. It made me realize how little I knew about the rest of the world.” When she returned home, she applied to the Peace Corps “to explore my sense of self and the world.”

She did most of her service teaching English and literature at a high school in Dryanovo, a small town in the central Balkans, but says she quickly came to be-lieve that it was more important to encourage the kids to feel empowered—to overcome their prejudices and learn about their own possibilities—than to help them become fluent in English. Her secondary project, Camp Glow, challenged their assumptions and prejudices; expanded their horizons through trips to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Macedonia; and increased community activism and self-esteem.

Saperstein has since been a recruiter for the Peace Corps, and she promotes international community activism through various volunteer positions. “I don’t want to become complacent,” she says. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own lives, to say I’m too tired’ by the end of the day. There’s always more we can and need to do. There are so many people in need that it’s an obligation to volunteer, not a choice.”

Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, author and speaker. Visit her website, www.rahelsjewishindia.com


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