Religiously committed to social action in Africa


Back from a two month African volunteering programme run by practical aid charity Tzedek, student Eli Gaventa says he felt more comfortable wearing a kippah in Ghana than he does in London. Mr Gaventa, 21, who is co-head of the Sinai youth movement, is an example of the growing demand from young Orthodox people to take part in social action projects in countries where there is no kosher structure.

Along with another observant volunteer - Matt Marks, who has since gone on to yeshivah - he kept kosher and Shabbat during the trip.

Food-wise, "we koshered the kitchen, cleaned out the oven and stuck to a vegetarian diet". The Shabbat celebrations had an egalitarian nature, with the more Orthodox among the participants adding prayers to the basic service.

While Mr Marks conducted surveys about the needs of the elderly and vulnerable in Tamale, northern Ghana, Mr Gaventa documented the various projects with Tzedek's partners in the region as photographer and film-maker. This included a day in the life of a schoolgirl, from doing household chores at four in the morning until going to bed at 10 at night. His images and films will also be used as part of Tzedek's educational and fundraising programmes.

He said he had been stopped in the street by locals "because I was identifiably white, and with the kippah and the beard, looked different to the usual white volunteers". There had been great interest in his Judaism. "I'd say that I'm Jewish and they would say, 'oh what does that mean? Do you believe Jesus is the son of God?' Or 'why are you not a Muslim?' Or 'you should convert to Christianity'."

Mr Gaventa answered that "I have a particular belief and it's OK to believe something different".

He felt that more volunteers from similar backgrounds would engage in social action of this type. He saw from his own youth movement that members were "growing up in this global village and are very aware of poverty. They don't see the distinction between us and them."

Tzedek education programme manager Adam Francies also hoped to see more religious Jews volunteering. "I think people have been put off living in a very rural and non-Jewish society thinking it was impossible to be observant," he explained.

"However, I don't think there are any actual barriers. Hopefully these pioneers are breaking them down."

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