The Jewish community is filled with opportunities to do meaningful, direct service work all over the world. But Naomi Orensten and Hed Ehrlich – a couple living in Israel – wanted something different. Orensten (a program associate at the Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel office) and Ehrlich (a lawyer) were getting married, and decided to organize an independent service trip for their honeymoon.
Hundreds of emails, several long-distance conference calls and two round trip tickets to Cambodia later, they landed at the doorstep of the Harpswell Foundation – a non-profit organization that works to provide education, housing, and leadership training to young women in the developing world. The couple’s task was to collect information about the employment opportunities available to Cambodian women once they graduated from school, and explore how the foundation’s supplemental education program could work with the available opportunities.
With the successful experience now behind them, Orensten and Ehrlich took the time to speak with me about planning an independent service trip, the situation in Cambodia today, and meeting a bona fide princess.
Going on an independent, self-organized service trip is pretty unusual. In the words of a Jewish mother, “what got into you?”
Naomi: We knew we wanted to take time off and travel after we got married. And given our time frame, we were limited to certain parts of the world for weather. I researched the options at some of the traditional Jewish service organizations, but we did not want to do direct service.
Hed: We wanted to use our skills to help build the capacity of an organization.
Naomi: So, we sent about 150 emails out to friends and friends of friends – and we heard back from the Harpswell Foundation. They had never had a volunteer do the kind of tailor-made service program we were proposing – so we had a conference call to feel each other out. And everything ended up falling into place.
How was it tailor made?
Naomi: We made it clear that we wanted to help the organization grow from where they were at that place in time. They gave us three options of things they wanted volunteers to do. One of those options was to look at the job market in Cambodia and investigate theoretical questions of what that meant for female graduates in Cambodia. That seemed the most interesting and worthwhile to us.
What personal / professional goals did you have for the trip?
Hed: Well, it was our honeymoon so it was of course important that we enjoy the experience. We also wanted it to be intellectually stimulating and a significant research experience.
Naomi: We also wanted our work to be a real value-add for the organization. The foundation is doing phenomenal work on the ground, but it was important for them to learn what the options were for their graduates. To hire a consulting company to do the same work would have cost a lot of money, and wouldn’t have been the best use of resources. We were able to help them think big picture about the long term, while doing something we were interested in doing. It was win-win.
What were your hopes in terms of the impact you wanted to have?
Naomi: People volunteer for lots of reasons, and you have to feel good about what you’re doing. We wanted to travel in the developing world while having the opportunity to do something that would help people – as individuals, and also helping to build a strong civil society and a more educated people.
Traveling in the developing world, its hard to get off of the tourists’ path, but this trip allowed us to stay in Cambodia for a month and a half, rent an apartment and meet both locals and ex-pats. It gave us the perfect “in” to learn about the country, and we got the chance to meet incredible leaders and change-makers amidst a country with many challenges.
Hed: Cambodia is a very poor country. The situation after the Khmer Rouge regime – where many of the intellectual elite and professors were murdered – left a huge impact. Cambodian society is still recovering, and the government is not doing enough. So the country is practically run by the UN and international NGOs. But even if the government was perfect now, it would still be a difficult problem.
So citizens look to NGOs for services and opportunities more than the government?
Hed: That is accurate.
Naomi: Hands down. In Cambodian civil society, these organizations are leading social change.
Hed: It was our first time there, but people were talking about how better the situation is today than five years ago.
Naomi: Five years ago, many of the major roads did not have pavement. Today the infrastructure is better, the health system and education systems are better. The country is poor in any standard we know, but it is improving.
How did you build trust with the Foundation and the people you interviewed?
Naomi: It was incredibly important to us that we build up trust building trust with the Harpswell Foudnation. This was a risky venture for them in that we were speaking on behalf of the Foundation. We had conference calls before the trip where they prepped us, and also made sure they were entrusting this work with people who would do it with integrity.
As far as building relationships with interviewees, most of the interviews were one-offs, and we got them on the good name of the Foundation in Cambodia. We did the best we could in that time.
How did you prepare for the trip? Did you know a lot about the community before you got there?
Hed: We read a lot of books. And the Harpswell Foundation was very helpful. I also have some friends who lived there who gave us background information. But we learned a lot when we were there.
Naomi: I have a friend who works for an organization that has representation in Cambodia, so I asked her which books to read so that we could be prepared emotionally and practically. But there was so much we did not know – for example, what is the etiquette for showing up to and conducting an interview? What do you wear? A lot of the time, the process felt like “ready, fire, aim.”
Did you have any trouble with the language barriers?
Hed: Well, we don’t speak a word of khmer, and that definitely limited us to interviewing only English speaking Cambodians.
Naomi: However, most educated people in Cambodia speak English – and all the people we were looking to interview held functions or positions that meant they could speak English.
Hed: We were ready to hire a translator, but never needed to.
What were the benefits/challenges of working independently?
Naomi: Reflecting back, it was fabulous. Coordinating a short-term volunteer position over the phone left a lot of opportunity for miscommunication, but we ended up having a great relationship with the organization. We really frontloaded on the planning, and it was important to us that we really knew what we were looking for.
Once we were there, it was also important to be flexible and know when to adapt. For example, the organization was interested in learning about both women’s education and women leaders. As the interviews progressed we just weren’t getting the info about leadership, so we were able to work with the Harpswell Foundation to tweak the focus to make sure we were as effective as possible given the time we had.
And the results were really incredible – within 15 minutes of our handing over our results, the foundation made an organizational policy change based on the caliber of the people we interviewed and the report we wrote. It was so incredible to know that we’d taken this risk together and it paid off.
How was the experience as a honeymoon?
Naomi: Hed’s parents said if we came back from the trip and still wanted to be together, we would be good!
Hed: We really enjoyed it. When you travel, the only locals you usually meet are taxi drivers and hostel workers. But we had a chance to meet students and professionals working in fields similar to us.
Naomi: We got to meet with a princess! [Princess Sisowath Kanthireth is the President of Hope of Cambodia, and active in Cambodia's Girl-Guiding Association.] We addressed her as “her excellency.” We also met two people who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. We were just amazed and humbled to get to meet with so many change makers.
Hed: I’ve traveled a lot in the developing world before, but this was a completely different – and great – experience.