carvingkaruna2012

I would like to thank all of my readers across the globe. In total, this blog reached readers in 63 countries! If you are interested in viewing the 2012 annual report of Carving Karuna, I have copied it below.

As for an update on my end, I am currently living in Cambridge, MA with plans of moving to Baltimore, MD early 2013. My aspirations have been keeping me busy as I move in new directions, exploring more research opportunities utilizing writing and photography to tell meaningful stories. I hope to be more active in regards to updating Carving Karuna, as I do have lots to share. Do not hesitate to get in touch and stay in touch( levi.gersh@gmail.com) and keep an eye peeled towards my new website: http://www.levigersh.com

Be well – wherever you are – Happy New Year. May this be one of health, happiness and grand discovery.

Many Blessings, Levi

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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“My eyes strained to see the arbitrary lines that dictate where life is allowed to be lived and where it is not.” Photo taken on top of Mt. Hermon, 40 km from Damascus. At waste line, you can see a small Druze village located right beyond Israel’s boarder with Syria.

With so much in the air right now, it seems unlikely that writing a single op-ed piece could succeed in shining light on any truth besides the one I struggle to decipher for myself. The past three weeks in Israel have involved a tightrope routine –navigating the murky boundaries between modern Zionist ideology and the pervasive anti-Palestinian sentiment. Life continues to unfold as a series of conversations with the undying humanist alive in my soul.

Three days before, I stood atop Mt. Hermon. My eyes strained to see the arbitrary lines that dictate where life is allowed to be lived and where it is not. On my way to the Hermon, I passed through Majdal Shams, the largest Druze villages in the Golan Heights. Since Israel’s occupation of the Golan from the Six-Day War of June 1967, the people of Majdal Shams have been separated from their Syrian brethren. Although the Israeli government now permits Shams’ citizens to file for Israeli citizenship, the Syrian authorities still consider the villagers to be citizens of Syria. Boarder crossing is permissible, however, sometimes only out of Israel. It is one thing to contest over boarders and land, it is another to contest over people.

For those who have never seen The Syrian Bride (2004), it is a compelling film that tells the story of a woman forced to decide between marriage and the one place she has always known. The filmed was shot in Majdal Shams and offers an authentic view of life for natives in the Golan. A full version of the film is available on youtube and embedded here.

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This afternoon I returned for the fourth time to the welcoming village of Kfar Manda. It was here, in the home of my dear friend, with the familiar sting of Arabic coffee in my throat, that I witness the election of Mohammed Morsi. Egypt’s new president marks a great transition as well as trepidation for those who feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is important that I write now, though there is only so much I can unpack in one sitting, because tomorrow morning I will leave for three days in Amman, Jordan.

I would like to share some resources related to Israeli and Palestinian-based resistance movements. Though I have not had the opportunity to become an active participant within the resistance movement, I commend those who place themselves at risk in order advocate for the rights of others. In my opinion, this is a subject that requires quite a bit of education before action should be taken (on either side).

Too many times I hear the words “Israeli” and “Jewish” being used synonymously.  Israel is not exclusively a Jewish nation and members of many other ethnic, social and religious groups hold citizenship here. I write these words as the sole Jew in Kfar Manda, a village of 15,000+ Muslims. As Avi Melamed explains, “the Arab Israeli conflict is a struggle over narrative –symbols, names, awareness and identity are all central, and of utmost importance. By continuing to allow mistakes and misconceptions to live and evolve on both sides, the conflict perpetuates a process of flawed perceptions and those perceptions become reality.”

This is especially important when long-term conflicts span generations because mistakes become set in collective consciousness and soon are accepted as facts. “And the danger is” Melamed states,  “that sometimes there is no desire to change the awareness even when people know it’s wrong. More alarming, the conflict does not just breed this process; it is bred by this process. And thus a vicious cycle is created which is very difficult to break.  And the conflict continues and gets worse…”

I was privileged enough to meet Avi and to learn about his mission which reminds the world that “Israel speaks Arabic”. Melamed, an Israeli Jew, is the founder of Feenjan, an organization that addresses the Arab world about Israel using the Arabic language. Feenjan’s goal is to add an Israeli–Jewish voice to the narrative in a balanced, objective way. Feenjan fosters an online community of Israelis and Arabs that communicate with each other, thus contributing towards more understanding and tolerance. As Kurt Tocholsky observed at the time of Nazi Germany,  “A country is not only what is does, but also what it tolerates.” Tolerance of a misrepresented narrative is something that I would like to see change in Israel.

It is getting late, though I feel the need to at least mention the work of a young poet and activist named Moriel Rothman. His leftist politics and poetry is accessible via the blog The Leftern Wall. Moriel serves as an advocate for Palestinians who are currently loosing their homes to Israeli zoning laws. Like Moriel, I reject Israeli bulldozers destroying the homes of Palestinians and want to help spread the word. Two days ago there was an important peaceful demonstration in the village of Susya, which the poem below describes. Here are also two pictures posted by participants in the demonstration. Please listen and then follow along to The Leftern Wall to learn more.

For further reading, see ‘I Am an Illegal Alien on My Own Land’ by David Shulman. It is a well written and compelling article –extremely relevant for anyone interested in the current situation of Israeli settlers expropriating Palestinian land. http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/jun/28/susya-demolition-israeli-occupation/

Thank you for reading. Please share your response or comments. Perhaps an approach to the question: Where Do I Stand?

Blessings from my journey to the experience of the Human Heart,

Levi Gershkowitz                                                                                                                                                  June 24, 2012                                                                                                                                                            Kfar Manda, Israel

Protest in Susya, South Hebron Hills, 22/06/2012. About 350 Palestinian, Israeli and international activists gathered in Susya village to protest against the 56 demolition orders distributed by the Israeli Civic Administration which, if carried out, will destroy the entire village.

“Tonight is March 31, the last day in Women’s History Month; let’s see if we can make history for these women tonight.”

For those who were unable to make it to tonight’s Women Empowerment Program, here are some of the notes I went off of to begin our conversation about the need for developing skill-based training for Kathmandu’s incarcerated female prisoners.

It is important to keep in mind that not all prisoners in Nepali prisons are Nepali. A large number of political and foreign prisoners are incarcerated for various crimes. Yes, that includes Americans.

Rehabilitation and training programs have been found to increase morale among prisoners and decrease levels of despair of helplessness. In the past, not all prisoners have been allowed to participate in these programs and their involvement may depend on personal matters within the prison system, ie relationship with prison officials. The recommendation for providing prison rehabilitation to prisoners has been discussed in Nepal since the early 1970s. Again, this is not the first time that an ex-judge of the Supreme Court has made recommendations concerning prison reform, however, this is the first time that an ex-judge has been the one willing to do the ground work. Thank you Sharada. Due to Nepal’s limited info structure and facilities capable of treating the mentally ill, many women who suffer from mental illness are sent to prison, whether they have committed a crime or not, instead of being admitted to an appropriate hospital. In 1988, legal staff working at Kathmandu’s Central Jail reported that 75 our of 125 female prisoners suffered from some form of mental illness. The hostile environment of prisons is greatly intensified by high numbers of mentally ill (untreated) prisoners. In order for the prisons to run smoothly, healthy women are often forced to become caretakers for their fellow prisoners. Released prisoners have reported that prison administration often take advantage of these mentally ill women and chose to withhold ample supply of food and clothing. In addition to being caretakers, healthy prisoners have organized hunger strikes and protests within the prisons in order to rally for equal rights.

After starting this work, the question people ask me most is some form of: “but what have the women done?” My understanding of this popular question reflects a widespread hope that the women we are talking about are generally not guilty.

Q: Historically, what do you think is one of the most popular crimes that women are guilty of and committed to penitentiary?

Theft, attempt to divorce, prostitution…

A: Abortion

[Let’s have dialogue now]

Thank you to all of our supporters and to those who attended this special event.

Join Friends of Nepal-New Jersey as we continue to work towards the betterment of underprivileged women in Nepal

To donate to this cause visit: http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs051/1101870871359/archive/11094087…04419.html

This event will focus on the experiences of two marginalized groups in Nepal: female prisoners and women seeking reform from working in brothels. Tickets are $20 (which includes a delicious meal) and all proceeds go directly to establishing skill-based vocational trainings for these women as they embark on a life changing course.

Please register ahead of time. This will help us to prepare an appropriate amount of food and set up for the event. Still, last minutes guests are always welcome. The evening will also include a presentation by FONNJ’s Goodwill Ambassador, Levi Gershkowitz, who will be reflecting on his months spent in Nepal and the situation for female prisoners in Kathmandu.

FONNJ has been successfully supporting low-caste and underprivileged women in Nepal through micro-credit loans. Strong examples of this work are our goat distribution projects and sponsoring female student education in government schools. Now that these program are running strong, we are expanding our female empowerment program to include women incarcerated within the Kathmandu prison system as well as women reforming their lives from living/working in brothels. Eat with us on March, 31 and the money for your plate will go to supporting this meaningful project. Thank you.
Pass this invitation along to any you feel would be interested.

With additional questions contact Dr. Tulsi Maharjan: 908-369-4318

www.fonnj.com

We are grateful to St. Lukes Lutheran Church for offering their space.

DIRECTIONS:
St. Lukes is located just south of the center of Dunellen.
From the intersection of Washington Avenue and North Avenue in Dunellen, continue south on Washington Avenue and under the railroad tracks. After the railroad tracks continue south to the first traffic light at Walnut Street. Make right onto Walnut Street and follow one block to stop sign, St. Luke’s Church will be directly ahead.

264 New Market Road , Dunellen, NJ

While the festival of colors filled the streets of Kathmandu, we celebrated our own palette of diversity at the International Institute of New Jersey, calling together the first meeting of the Nepali-Bhutanese-American (NBA) Coalition. ("B" may have to double for Burmese, thank you for hosting Mya.)

The Hindu festival of Holi, popularized around the globe by pictures of people covered in brilliant colors of paint, took place this week and marks a time of merrymaking and welcoming Spring. Similar to the Jewish holiday of Purim that is celebrated on the same full moon, Holi is a time for disregarding social norms and reinvoking the wilderness and playful joy that often remains dormant in “civilized” society.

Here in New Jersey, we observed Holi in a different way. Ten members of the Bhutanese-Nepali refugee community were called together and joined by executive and program directors of the International Institute of New Jersey to give voice to their needs. With a growing understanding of the Nepali language, I listened to stories about friends and families left behind in refugee camps inside Nepal. As the IOM works to relocate the remaining 40,000+ Lhotsampas still living in refugee camps, less and less attention is being paid to the individual bodies that actually make up that number. Although it is sad to learn about people being treated as numbers on a screen or piles of papers sitting in a file cabinet, I am learning the ways of a refugee case worker, learning what is possible and how to facilitate greater understanding on both ends.

Together with my mentor Dr. Tulsi Maharjan, we marked the coming of Spring within this community by distributing packages of seeds for planting, fresh deer meat and laptop computers -not quite the bright colors of Kathmandu yet a diverse palette of our own kind. Happy Holi to those who joined and may the light that was in that room know no limits.

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An important comment was sent to me by e-mail in response to a past post:

“about your blog’s comment that Gurung are lower caste people. …in Nepali Gurung are called Janajati and in English the word is indigenous, they don’t fall in lower caste.”

Thank you for bringing this to my attention and helping me to navigate the intricacies of the Nepali social structure. I did some reading about what specifically defines a group as Janajati and found some fascinating resources.

Janajatis are defined as persons who have their own language and traditional culture, and who are not included under the conventional Hindu hierarchical caste structure (NESAC 1998). The Janajatis are thus for the most part indigenous people. Given their isolation, which results from the mountainous terrain in the north of the country and the (till the 1960s) malaria- infested forests in the south, they lived what seemed to be lives separate from the rest of the country. While the number of members of each Janajati community tends to be small, Janajatis are spread out nearly all over Nepal, constituting 35.6% of the total population (CBS 1993). Thus far, the Government has recognized 61 communities as being Janajatis, but the count may not be totally complete, and in the case of certain communities there is controversy as to whether these people are to be counted as Janajatis or not (Himal 2000).

The situation of the Janajatis, economically and otherwise, varies widely from one community to another, and depends on many factors such as physical isolation, whether or not they are nomads, the role relegated to them historically by the ruling elite, and loss of their traditional community-owned lands as a result of actions by the Government or other groups within society. The Janajatis that appear to be the worst off are those living in the Terai and the midhill regions.

Programs targeting Janajatis were initiated in the late 1980s, and with the coming of democracy there is more awareness of their situation. The Government established the National Committee for Development of Janajatis (NCDJ) in 1997, for the purpose of coordinating its programs for the upliftment and development of indigenous people, but thus far, its activities appear for the most part to be limited to distribution of funds to various Janajati organizations. For example, during fiscal year 1999/2000, of its total budget of NRs10 million, slightly more than half was distributed to several Janajatis organizations. The other government program is the Praja Development Program (PDP), which is primarily active in the upliftment of Chepangs of Chitwan, Dhading, Gorkha and Makwanpur, which are the largest Janajati group, and the most backward of all Janajatis. In the case of the Janajatis the Government faces an even more difficult task, since unlike the Dalits who face more or less the same issues regardless of where they live, the Janajatis comprise different groups of people at various stages of development, who live in varying degrees of isolation.

Again, thank you for shining light on my not-knowing and encouraging me to discover so much more in the process.

Dilmaya Nepali, age-38, supports five family members and is one of ten women from Batulichour, Pokhara to receive the helpful gift of a female goat.

On 25 Feb, 2012 Businesses Professional Women (BPW) of Pokhara initiated their first goat distribution program focused on the Dalit women of Batulichour, Pokhara. The successes of this program would not have been possible without our valued donors sponsoring the gift of these much needed animals. An additional thank you to Laxmi Gurung for believing in this vision and making it possible to expand Friends of Nepal -New Jersey’s impact to the Pokhara valley. We are fortunate to have your organization as a partner in this important work. Let this mark the beginning.

As I think back on the green hills of Pokhara waking up to spring, fields of mustard and peach blossoms offering their scent to a welcoming blue sky, I am filled with gratitude for those who continue to carry the torch by bringing new opportunities to those who are truly deserving.

-Levi (writing from the Montague Bookmill, MA)

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Proud to announce that starting in April 2012, students at the Shree Udaya Higher Secondary School will begin receiving scholarship support from  FONNJ and the Damauli Rotary International Club. It was both an honor and true learning experience to establish this scholarship and facilitate the process of bringing together a group of people whose agreement immediately impacted the lives of students and their families.

Nursery children at the Shree Udaya Higher Secondary School welcome a returning visitor to their classroom.

Even for parents who admit that educating their children is most important, it just isn’t something that most Dalit and Janajati* families can afford. On average, full tuition (including registration, monthly fees and exams) cost the equivalent of 180 USD. Get this, that amount covers a child’s entire ten years of schooling. Unfortunately, harsh financial constraints still keep many children from completing school or even being able to afford the uniform which is necessary to attend in the first place. (Note: preschoolers are not required to wear uniforms.) Like everything in Nepal, school fees can fluctuate from year-to-year based on the current government’s education policies. However, despite rising and falling numbers, the steep cost structure remains the same. For example, when students transition from the 5th to the 6th class, the annual fee more than doubles (from 700 to 1520 NPR), leaving many families unable to afford continuing their children’s education. For families with multiple children, as is customary, some will be sent to school while others are kept at home.

*Dalit and Janajati refer to low-caste groupings of Nepali society. In the area of this particular school Dalit includes the sub-castes of Kami, Damai, Sarki and Sunar – Janajati includes Darai, Kumal, Bote, Gurung, Magar and Newar. 

Sangam Gurung

Although the needs of the children outweigh the support we are able to offer,  the benefits of one single child’s education is enough to transform an entire community. This year’s scholarship will begin with 12 recipients, all of whom will receive full support for the duration of their entire education. Unlike what a typical scholarship distribution may look like in America -metal placard on the wall and check in the mail- the awarded money will be given directly to the students, every six months, in the form of cash. Pictured here are the two youngest students who will receive their scholarship over the course of the next nine-and-a-half years.

Kiran Nepali

—–SCHOOL BACKGROUND—–

Shree Udaya is a government school in the Tanahun district of Nepal, located 50km east of Pokhara and 4km outside of Damauli northwest of Prithivi Highway. For those unaccustomed to Nepal’s geography, this means that Shree Udaya is relatively easy to access, yet remote for the villagers living there. It was established in 2032 BS by civic societies working towards the benefit of educating Dalit and Janajati students. In the beginning, the school only ran up to the primary level. After 22 years, Shree Udaya rose to offer secondary education and then higher secondary in 2067.

As anticipated, the school’s facilities are limited. There are currently four buildings which do not offer sufficient space for all the students. The majority of students come from marginalized groups reflecting the intricate demographics of the area. Within this particular school, the split between male and female students happens to be even, as well as the balance among staff and faculty (10 male to 7 female). Never-the-less, 70% of the students selected to receive scholarship will be girls. Most of the student’s parents are manual laborers involved in farming and construction. There are not enough job opportunities or steady employment available for families in this area to meet their daily needs for food and shelter. Many struggle and therefore can not afford to support their child’s education.

The school successfully ran a fund raising program last year called Maha Yagya, which raised enough to support the construction of a new toilet facility and the purchase of eight computers. The computers sit in a room that has yet to become the school’s library. In the coming years, we hope to initiate a library program here as well and support the administrators movement in the direction of a computer lab. The fundraiser also made it possible to begin offering more courses for the class 11 and 12 students. This curriculum is gravitating towards a technical based model that will require the integrating of computers and other technical trainings. English medium classes are being run from the first four years. This means up to class three because one of those years includes a preschool program. The school’s vision is to continue to expand to the point where they can construct a student hostel on site to house children who travel great distances by foot or those who do not have homes. In the future, their full aspiration is to offer Bachelor level education to the greater Dalit and Janajati community which is estimated in the thousands.

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With the echo of 200+ students calling on my name, Leviji, I left the hills of that place forever changed. The final blessing upon leaving the village was being waved over by a young man into a field to photograph his lovely family. Three weeks prior I had met him and his (then) uber-pregnant wife. Now, she had given birth to these beautiful twins and wanted their new pride to be documented.

In my mind                                                                                                                                                              they remain resting in the nest                                                                                                                              of their mother’s shawl                                                                                                                                 strewed across the lap of a fertile village                                                                                               growing with the sun



“Their laughter is infectious, honest and real. What once animated itself as silence, down-turned chins and embarrassed eyes, has hatched into a room full of fluttering hands. Laughter lingers on late into the afternoon. My students are learning! I am learning. Together, so much becomes possible once we commit ourselves to a common goal.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2012.

Gita, Lal Devi, Levi, Noina and Sushi

I am proud to share that three weeks ago, six of my female students completed their 36-hour Thai Yoga Massage training. Now I know why so many people have been encouraging me to write. Because even as I do, I hardly believe my own story. Each piece was so precious as it fell into place and allowed for our course of study to unfurl. After a month of service to working at the Nepali Yoga Women Trust (NYWT),  a gem of experience and wisdom was revealed. It brings me so much pride to know that a dozen gracious hands are now on the loose in Pokhara. These women are not a force to be reckoned with but a strong fleet of massage robots waging war with compassionate touch.

On any single day in our class, the bodies in one room often came to represent eight different countries of origin. What could be more beautiful than a diversity of individuals all sharing one experience, together for hours and asking to return for more tomorrow?

Sometimes, when I lay back in bed before taking the smooth road to sleep, I amaze myself through recounting the many accomplishments, lessons and fresh ideas conceived, born, grown and passed in one day. Despite how marvelous this phenomenon is each night, the one thing that amazes me more is the simple thought “so, what is possible tomorrow!?”