Just about the first thing Guy Seemann wants when he gets back to Israel at the end of October is a hot shower. For the past nine months, sharing a house in the Haitian town of Leogane, he has made do with cold water and limited electrical power.
But the 27-year-old former New Jerseyan isn’t complaining. Putting aside personal comfort to deal with crucial issues of life and death is what he went to Haiti for. As country director for Israel’s development mission there, working with two non-governmental organizations, Tevel B’Tzedek (The Earth In Justice) and IsraAID, he has helped organize programs dealing with community development and job training, a health clinic, and innovative agriculture projects.
“I’ve been involved in politics, government, and journalism for most of my career so far,” he told NJ Jewish News in an e-mail exchange. “I wanted to make a real difference that I can see happening in front of my eyes. In government you can have a very fancy title and be approached to make extremely important decisions, but so rarely do you actually see the effects of your work. I wanted a new challenge that would teach me things only this type of experience can teach.”
Seemann was born in Israel and moved to New Jersey with his parents as a baby. He grew up in Hillsborough, and earned a degree in political science and philosophy at American University in Washington, DC. He worked in political journalism and served on the campaigns of NJ Sen. Robert Menendez and on the 2008 Obama campaign. But he also went to Israel that year on a Masa Israel government fellowship, and interned in the Prime Minister’s Office doing work as an international press liaison. It convinced him that Israel is where he would want to raise a family.
In 2009 he made aliya. After doing his army service, he worked on the Prime Minister’s National Security Council. He also worked with the Jewish Agency, organizing — among other efforts — a hip-hop dance troupe to help new immigrants integrate into Israeli society.
He has nothing against material comforts, Seemann insisted, “but it’s really the simple things in life — like exploring new countries, new cultures, new hobbies, and dancing — that bring me to life. Everything else, 90 percent of ‘things’ we have, I don’t really care about. If I have them, great; if not, no worries.”
The roots of Seemann’s desire to serve go back to his childhood. His father died when he was 12, an experience, he said, that devastated his family. More than his peers, this led, he thinks, to his learning to tune into others’ emotions. “I became more responsive not just to people’s pain but to their personalities and needs,” he said.
In Judaism, he found a moral basis for that empathy. “The Torah has so many wonderful words to really shape a complete human being,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, there are things in the Torah that I clearly disagree with, but I have done a lot of study on the principles of Judaism and gotten much closer to God. This only buttressed my sense of duty to help others as well as instilling in me a drive to lead by action.”
Seemann acknowledged that he is feeling some burnout from the 12- 14-hour days on the job. But he seems to have handled with ease the stress of dealing with overwhelming problems. He said, “There are many NGOs in Haiti. Everyone has their own projects, and the problems are enormous.” Unlike many others, the Tevel B’Tzedek/IsraAID efforts, he said, “were long-term investments (not just financially). They were projects I knew would not just temporarily affect a certain population but would end up positively affecting their children and other regions of Haiti. Other NGOs were working in different regions on different issues, so all together we are making a large impact on Haiti’s population from every angle.”
Being Israeli has been a major plus factor. “We are known as the Israelis with the revolutionary agricultural project, a highly effective health clinic, and packed community centers offering language, computer, and job training,” he said. “Haitians love Israel, and love Jewish people. They know all about Israel and its reputation in agriculture and medicine. So it’s much easier to propose a project to Haitian partners or even the Haitian government with Israel’s topnotch reputation in those fields.
“Because I know what I am talking about and I have a great staff, we confirm that fact.”