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Richmond rabbi uses Israeli knowhow to aid the world

    Rabbi Yossi Ives
    Rabbi Yossi Ives

    There are probably not many rabbis helping to provide cleaner water in Myanmar (Burma) or first-aid training to wildlife rangers in Kenya.

    But Rabbi Yossi Ives, the minister of Richmond Synagogue, is doing just that through the organisation he has founded to put Jewish humanitarian values into practice.

    His enterprise, Tag International Development, supports social action and community-building in developing countries, by using Israeli know-how.

    Its projects have ranged from creating safe play areas for children in landmine-affected areas of Azerbaijan to improving medical services in Zanzibar.

    Tag stands for "Torah and gedulah"- worldly greatness - the phrase used of Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, the compiler of the Mishnah some two millennia ago.

    Children in Burma with a new water pipe system in their village
    Children in Burma with a new water pipe system in their village

    The idea for it grew out of Rabbi Ives's sense that the "Jewish community is unnecessarily parochial." He added: "The Jewish religion has lost its voice in relation to the big issues of the day. We have been focused inwards. We need to get back to a more positive stance in relation to the rest of the world."

    It was through his work with Israel's medical service Magen David Adom that he realised the contribution Israeli expertise could make to other places.

    Tag operates by arranging partnerships between Israeli organisations such as MDA or the Hadassah Hospital and local agencies in other countries.

    "Increasingly, people realise that Israel is a very developed country that has learned to cope with challenges," Rabbi Ives said.

    Last month Tag brought groups from Sri Lanka and Indonesia for a seminar in Israel jointly sponsored by Mashav, Israel's agency for international development co-operation. One of the subjects covered was "disaster preparedness" - training emergency services - which is vital for countries which, for example, in recent years have suffered the devastating effects of tsunamis.

    Afterwards the guests from South-East Asia, joined by Israelis, spent a further week in Jordan.

    Such relationships can transcend the political divide, according to Rabbi Ives. "The reason we are able to work together so well is that all we care about is saving lives. We've got the trust of partners all over the world."

    He even received good wishes for Israel Independence Day earlier this year from an associate in Indonesia. "We're building bridges for peace," he said. "There's tremendous appreciation for what Israel can offer."

    New projects include building a clinic in Uman, in the Ukraine, site of the mass annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: and supplying Android smart phones to remote rural villages in Sri Lanka.

    Internet access has all sorts of practical applications, explained Rabbi Ives. "If you can use a phone to check the weather forecast, you can know that it's safe to carry crops from one location to another without them getting ruined."

    Tag has quietly forged links in a dozen countries and its professional staff includes chief operating officer Amos Avgar, a former executive director of the American Joint's international development programme.

    Rabbi Ives, who recently gained his PhD from Oxford Brookes University for a study of goal-focused coaching, has also set up a sister organisation, the Tag Institute for Jewish Social Values. Its aim is to apply the insights of Jewish teachings to a variety of contemporary issues - such as eating disorders, bullying or the problems singles may have in finding partners.

    "Our tradition offers useful insights into many social issues because it's been around for a long time and it's had to deal with many difficult challenges," he said.

    But he stresses that its approach is strictly humanitarian. "It's not about proselytising, we are not promoting religion," he said. "This is to do with social development."

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