Natalie Portman Pitches Jewish-Funded Youth Village in Rwanda

The Jewish people’s public relations effort will enjoy a bonanza this summer: In August, a youth village is slated to open in Rwanda for 500 children orphaned by the 1994 genocide there.

The youth village is being built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, financed by American Jewish donors, run according to the educational philosophy employed in Israeli youth villages that absorbed Holocaust orphans during the state’s early years, and staffed by Israeli counselors who immigrated from Ethiopia.

It is hard to imagine a better story – and therefore, a massive media blitz will accompany its launch.
The hottest Jewish film star in the world these days, Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, is currently filming a special clip about the new village, which will be screened in another few weeks on America’s best-rated and most influential talk show: Oprah Winfrey.

Naturally, such a high-powered launch is being accompanied by the deepest secrecy. When Israeli representatives of the Joint and the New York Jewish Federation, which is also involved in the project, were asked about it, they responded along the following lines: “We really don’t know what’s happening in Africa; everything is being done via New York.”

This secrecy has caused some confusion: When Portman was spotted in the Addis Ababa airport en route to Rwanda, organizations that are working to bring the Falash Mura [descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity] to Israel hastened to claim that the actress was there to support their cause. A report to that effect was even published in Sunday’s Yedioth Ahronoth. But the Joint – which has also long been active in this cause, but is now winding down – quickly issued a denial.

Amir Shaviv, the Joint’s assistant executive vice president for special operations, said that Portman simply missed her connection to Rwanda, and therefore had to stay in Addis Ababa for two days until she could get another flight. The Joint then filled the time by taking her on a tour of some of its projects that are aimed at helping the general Ethiopian population.

As part of the effort to keep the Rwanda project under wraps until its launch, pictures of Portman in Africa have been declared off-limits until her film is screened on Oprah.

Aside from being a public relations boon, the project illustrates a new trend in Jewish life: engaging in tikkun olam [repairing the world] via projects in developing countries.

Another example is the pride with which the Joint’s Israeli branch and other Israeli aid organizations note that their representatives were among the first to enter Myanmar two weeks ago to help victims of Cyclone Nargis – at a time when the junta was still denying access to better-known aid organizations.

Through such projects, Jewish groups hope not only to score public relations points, but also to encourage young Jews, who are less interested in traditional Jewish frameworks, to become active in – and contribute to – Jewish causes.


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