In 2007, when she was 17 and still a junior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva in Teaneck, Esther Hindin spent nearly a month in Ghana with a summer service program run by the American Jewish World Service.
For others on the program, it was a chance to broaden their horizons, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For Hindin, it was a glimpse of her future. Now 25, she has spent most of the last seven months in rural Ethiopia, working with an Israel-based foundation whose goal is to eradicate neglected tropical diseases and various parasites in rural areas.
The West Orange native, who grew up at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David and made aliya after spending a gap year in Israel, has been fascinated with international development since she was a little girl. Eight years after her first trip, she is back for her third and longest foray in Africa, and her first in a professional position.
“I wasn’t looking for a volunteer experience — to build a building or paint a house. I’ve done that. I needed to do real work this time,” she told NJJN in a recent Skype chat from an Internet cafe in the town nearest to the rural village of Adwa, where she lives.
Finding a cafe with working Internet service presented its own series of challenges. Because Internet access is less than ideal, “I can go one to two weeks without speaking to my family,” she said.
Hindin, who has a law degree from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, spent a previous month in Uganda during her studies there. After making aliya, she volunteered at an absorption center in Kiryat Gat, where she learned her first words of Amharic, the language most Ethiopians speak. But that small glimpse into their culture meant “there were things I saw but did not understand,” she said.
For example, she said, “There’s no such thing as coffee on the run” in Ethiopia. “Twice a day in the morning and afternoon, they have a Buna, a coffee ceremony. It begins with heating coals and then the coffee beans, and involves grinding the coffee beans and using special implements. It’s a whole process.”
Through the NALA Foundation, the executive arm of the Center for Emerging Tropical Diseases and AIDS at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Hindin was hired to work on education and drug administration.
She sets up programs, brings in teachers for the schools, and works with women, teaching them about hygiene, medication, and safe food preparation. Approximately 45 percent of the population in Ethiopia, primarily those ages five-15, are infected with parasites, Hindin said.
“Aside from damaging their physical and mental development, it also preserves the poverty cycle. If you’re sick you can’t work and then you cannot provide for your children who get sick and cannot go to school and fall behind.
“It’s a vicious cycle unless we can eradicate the parasites,” she said.
She arrived in Adwa in February (after spending three months in Mekalle, the capital city, with a population of about 200,000, in the Tigray region in the north of Ethiopia). She returned briefly to the United States in January to attend her sister’s wedding.
She warmed up to Adwa, a rural area, also in Tigray, with a population of about 45,000. “At a certain point, you recognize all the people on the street, and you recognize the people in the shops. It’s a nice atmosphere,” she said.
One thing she didn’t have to worry about in Ethiopia is her adopted nationality. “Everywhere in the world I go, I’m nervous to say I’m from Israel. Here, they love Israel. You get discounts. People get so excited” when they hear she’s from Israel. But they also think everyone is Christian in Israel. “When you say, ‘I’m Jewish,’ they don’t know what it is,” she said.
In addition to her work for NALA, she’s also learning Tigrinya, the local language, which, it turns out, is more complicated than Amharic.
“Most people come and do not invest the time in learning the language,” Hindin said. The local people “are so excited when they hear you speak.” And she finds the language has some surprising similarities to Hebrew.
As an Orthodox Jew, she knew maintaining her religious observance might be complicated. “I’m very low maintenance; things don’t bother me,” she said. “But I have high standards for religion.” Among the other NALA staff people and volunteers from Israel, she is the sole person keeping the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, and holidays.
“Religion is something I take with me wherever I go,” she said. “It’s been a really interesting, challenging experience,” she said.
“I brought my own pot, cutting board, and utensils to make simple food for myself,” she said. “But everyone was very accommodating and understanding, and it was no problem.”
It helps that the houses where the Israelis stay are already vegetarian, and, at least in Adwa, “there are not so many things people could bring in that are not kosher,” she said. “One of the pros of being shomer kashrut in a place like this is that everything is natural. There are no preservatives in anything.”
Shabbat has been only slightly more complicated. “I learned the halachot for what I need to do and I make hallah every week. It makes Shabbat really nice. It makes a Shabbos atmosphere, and everyone in this group in Adwa is really respectful,” she said.
And on Shabbat morning, “Everyone goes out often for a hike. I stay home and read the parsha. It’s a calm, peaceful Shabbat.”
For Purim, she brought her own megilla. “It was amazing. I read the megilla for everyone and we had makeshift graggers. We made hamentaschen and I gave mishloah manot,” Purim gift baskets, she said. But most moving was her experience with matanot l’evyonim, the tradition of giving to the poor on the holiday. In Israel, she usually gives money to an organization, she said. “In Adwa, I walked outside, and it’s a very different feeling. Much more real. You’re looking at a person in front of you and giving them matanot l’evyonim.”
But Pesach was too complicated to contemplate. “Kashering the house would be difficult and I don’t have matza,” she said. Shortly after her interview with NJJN, she headed home to Israel for the holiday. When Pesach is over, she will return to Adwa until she finishes her stint in June.
Her love affair with Africa may last for the long term, but Israel is her permanent home. “For now it’s the right thing to do, to gain experience and understanding,” she said.