By: Lauren Cooper
I didn’t know much about Israel’s extensive development agenda around the world. That changed when I signed up for a study tour run by Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies that showed me how Israeli technology, know-how, and ingenuity is improving and enriching lives in Kenya.
I applied to Project Inspire on a bit of a whim. My friend went on CJP’s pilot trip six months ago and spoke glowingly of her experience. Our shared interests and the itinerary were enough for me to throw my hat in the ring. Boy am I glad I took the chance.
Why bring American Jews to Kenya? From my perspective, it’s important to explore both locally and globally. I also believe dispelling false narratives is important. Much is shared about Israel and Africa in the news and it is easy to make grand sweeping statements or stereotypes, be it about terror, corruption, or poverty. So, if you are given the chance to see something with your own two eyes, you go.
In August, eleven young professionals, along with CJP staff, and a representative from the Israeli Consulate to New England began the long journey from Boston to Kenya. Twenty-five hours later, we arrived. We were exhausted, but when I looked around at the group, everyone’s eyes were a bit wider as we took in our first glimpses of Nairobi.
As we boarded our bus, we were handed bottles of water. What caught my eye was the plastic seal around the top. It read Ubuntu. As a Celtics fan, I was familiar with this word. Years ago, Doc Rivers made “ubuntu” the rallying cry of the team. Desmond Tutu says,
“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks to the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, unobuntu’; ‘Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.’
The relationship between Israel and Kenya is ubuntu in spades. We were the lucky recipients to partake and see the real magic of their ubuntu in action.
The partnership that I witnessed between the two countries is deep and profound. In fact, I was blown away by the love that I saw for Israel in Kenya. By sharing innovation and resources through the lens of empowerment, education, and local solutions, Israel seems to be saying to Kenyans, “What I have is yours. If you are better. I am better.”
We saw development practices that were about collaborating rather than swooping in to “fix.” It was the epitome of the ancient proverb, “You give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” At each school, farm, and hospital we visited, I saw how partnerships between Israel and Kenya seek to break the cycle of inequality and create access to positive and lasting change.
Seeing the work of Israel in Kenya sparked discussions in our group about how we “help” and the essence of global Jewish responsibility. Of course, we all see the world through our own eyes, and we talked about the role of religion and culture in shaping our outlook. Many described how our Judaism is a large part of our call to participate both at home and abroad. Other themes that threaded through our group discussions were passion, compassion, commitment, and drive – values that we feel we closely shared with the Kenyan partners that we met.
Everywhere we went, a common refrain was, “Head. Heart. Hands.” If you can think it in your head and believe it in your heart, you can put your idea into action with your hands. It’s all the better when we care and share that spirit and responsibility with one another.
When I left for Project Inspire, I had no clue what I was about to experience. What we felt and saw firsthand, is that borders and kindness know no bounds and the human spirit can transcend difficulties and different experiences. I’m still processing the trip, but hope these words give others a sliver of our experience. To say I’m inspired is an understatement. I left forever changed.
Lauren Cooper is a Boston-based communications and marketing consultant.
Aviva Klompas is the Associate Vice President of Strategic Israel Engagement at CJP.