Healing the World: A Q&A With Ronnie-Lee Sneh, 2023 JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow

Ronnie-Lee Sneh brings her passion for helping the vulnerable to the RIG Fellowship.

By Ronnie-Lee Sneh - 2023 JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow | March 19, 2023

Ronnie-Lee Sneh accepts the Yigal Alon Award for Pioneering Excellence, given to Sneh in recognition of the organization she founded – Street Medicine Tel Aviv.

For Ronnie-Lee Sneh, a 2023 JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman (RIG) Fellow, Jewish values like tikkun olam (healing the world) and gemilut hasadim (personal acts of kindness) guide her life and work. A passionate advocate for those experiencing homelessness, Sneh works to better the lives of the underrepresented. In this Q&A, we hear from Sneh about her Jewish journey, her work, and what inspired her to become a RIG Fellow. 

Sneh (left) caring for a patient as part of Street Medicine Tel Aviv. Photo: Motti Milrod. Haaretz.

What inspired you to apply for the RIG Fellowship? 

My core mission is to make long-lasting social change and work for equality. Thanks to Street Medicine Tel-Aviv – a program I founded to bring medical care to those experiencing homelessness – I get the opportunity to develop, in my homeland, the necessary skills to do this, and put my knowledge into action without the barriers of culture or language. At this moment, I feel confident in my abilities as a professional, and that is one reason I was inspired to apply for this unique fellowship – to have the opportunity to get into the international arena, out of my comfort zone, and challenge myself. In addition, I’m in a place in my life where I think a lot about my own Jewish identity. That’s why I’m excited to gain more knowledge about the life of Jewish people outside of Israel, develop meaningful relationships around the world to keep our Jewish traditions relevant, and spread acts of lovingkindness.  

What was your relationship to Jewish life when you were younger? Any special traditions?

I’ve been lucky to have a vast Jewish education, from home, school, and life in Israel. I come from a conservative Sephardic family, my dad is from Tunisia and my mom is from Iraq; our home incorporated both traditions For example, at the Passover seder, we would read and practice both traditions at the same table and cook both foods from each culture. 

My parents are religious, our home is Kosher, and they sent me to school that immersed us in Jewish studies. I got to learn about Jewish philosophy, Torah and Talmudic studies – I even read my bat mitzvah parasha, a practice that was rare for a girl to do in Israel during the 1990s.

When I look back on my unique education, I feel fortunate to know more about my roots and the traditions that survived so many years.  I’m honored to begin this special year and connect and learn about Jewish life around the world. 

What has been one of the greatest influences in your life — whether that be a person, book, film, or class? How did it shape you into the person you are today?

When I was 18, I chose to do a gap year in Yeruham, a small town in the south of Israel. As a young Jewish adult who was born and raised in Jerusalem, I had a comfortable life; I enjoyed a good education, extracurricular activities, cultural events, etc. I remember the first week in Yeruham, it was summer 2005 and the town suffered from a case of possible municipal corruption. All the formal institutions were closed because the mayor was dismissed. 

It was a shock for me to see children that had nothing to do during the summer – they couldn’t go to the pool or even the library. I was angry, but also fascinated. How is it possible that people in the same country can live such different lives? That was my first opportunity to witness and explore another reality. During the year, I developed unique relationships and cherished my conversations with these people, where I could learn about life in the town.  During this year, Mr. Amram Mitzna arrived to be an emergency mayor in Yeruham, and I got to witness the social change and community development happening in the town thanks to the efforts of the new municipality and the community investment in the town. Today, Yeruham is totally different from the small town I once knew, and it keeps developing. To this day, everything I experienced during my gap year inspired me to pursue community work and attain a degree in social work and international community development.   

Sneh (right) being interviewed on national television about Street Medicine Tel Aviv.

You founded the first Street Medicine program in Israel (You “live and breathe” this work). Talk about this work. What did you accomplish?

It’s true. Since May 2020 I’ve worked for the community of people experiencing homelessness, where I noticed a lack of access to medical care. After learning about the global movement of street medicine, I founded the first-of-its-kind Street Medicine Program in Israel, operating in Tel Aviv. We conduct street rounds every week with a multidisciplinary team that includes a doctor, social worker and medical students. We meet people where they are, create relationships, and try to mitigate their medical and social needs. For the last two years, I’ve lived and breathed this program. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night because I think about the people I’ve met, people we couldn’t reach out to,  and I think excessively about how to better our services.  

Last year, we founded an independent NGO in Israel to organize our activity. We manage over 30 volunteers and cared for over 500 people experiencing homelessness in the last year. We hope to expand our services and operate more than once a week, integrate medical innovation and secure funding for a mobile clinic while providing effective care and promoting health equity.  

Which Jewish values animate your humanitarian commitments? Talk about these values. Why are they important to you? 

I am committed to the Jewish value/ethical obligation of tikkun olam (repairing/healing the world) which means to me that we as Jews are obligated to better society and promote justice, equality, and peace. Another Jewish value that animates in my work is gemilut hasadim – what I define as small acts of kindness. Every small act brings us closer to a more just and compassionate society and is an essential part of tikkun olam. For example, there is only so much we can do when working with underrepresented communities. But a smile, a cup of tea, and an honest conversation go a long way.  

Small acts of kindness bring us closer to a more just and compassionate society and are an essential part of tikkun olam.

Ralph I. Goldman (1914-2014) was JDC’s Honorary Executive-Vice President, and a builder of the State of Israel.What does Ralph Goldman’s legacy mean to you?

Ralph I Goldman played a crucial role in shaping Jewish history by creating sustainable Jewish communities in Israel and around the world. I am deeply honored to carry his name and continue his legacy by dedicating myself, this year and for years to come, to learning about practices of community building, and to bring people together, as Ralph strived to do.  Especially at times like these, when we spend more and more time in front of a screen, we must work harder than ever to build strong, supportive communities and find relevant ways to keep Jewish tradition alive in this changing world.  

Ronnie-Lee Sneh is a certified Social Worker and an MA in International Community Development. She has volunteered and worked in the humanitarian field in Uganda and Israel, where she gained insights into the unique challenges and acute burden of excluded communities, like refugees and people living in poverty. Sneh’s advanced interpersonal and communication skills enable her to build connections, coordinate between stakeholders and advocate for a cause.

These skills, together with her first-hand involvement working with people experiencing homelessness in emergency hostels, allowed her to identify a gap and act to fill it, spearheading a Street Medicine program in Israel, starting in Tel-Aviv. Supported by seed funding from the Pears Foundation, the program entered its second year and was recently awarded the prestigious Yigal Allon Prize (2022) for Pioneering Excellence in innovation in medicine. Sneh is a recent graduate of the CitiBank Foundation and PresenTense’s Entrepreneurship Accelerator, where she acquired skills and knowledge to expand Street Medicine to reach more people in need. In the past year, Ronnie-Lee directed a dedicated medical team of doctors, medics, and medical students, raised funds and developed partnerships with stakeholders. Sneh was born and raised in Jerusalem.

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