Orbach spreading coexistence and goodwill across the ‘Diasburgha’
I haven’t done much traveling in my life. Aside from a tightly guided 12-day Jewish Heritage press trip to Europe (funded by the generous Czech Republic), my immature passport bears only the typical stamps of adolescent Jewish travel: Israel (Birthright), Canada (Camp Ramah) and Mexico (spring break).
Yet, despite these limited experiences abroad, I still find myself living in a foreign land.
I call it the ‘Diasburgha.’
Identified as all lands outside Pittsburgh, the Diasburgha (not to be confused with its Israeli counterpart, the Diaspora) is a place where natives speak a strange dialect and an economic system called “sales tax» makes clothing more costly than an incompetent special team.
But is the Diasburgha good for Pittsburgh?
It can be argued that the Diasburgha is decentralizing the world’s Pittsburgh population. But, through places like Steelers bars or Dicks Sporting Goods, the Diasburgha is also establishing and expanding a Pittsburgh far beyond the reaches of Allegheny County.
Expatriate Pittsburgher Ben Orbach is quite familiar with Diasburgha life, having not only spent a significant time outside of Pittsburgh, but also outside the United States.
A native of Greenfield and Squirrel Hill, Orbach, 34, spent the last two years in Jerusalem working with Creative Associates International as the resident country director for the West Bank and Gaza. There, he developed community leadership programs for West Bank cities, villages and refugee camps.
Now living in Manhattan with his wife and fellow expat Ashley Kushner, Orbach is working on his latest project, Unofficial Ambassadors, set to launch in late 2010.
A project of Creative Learning, a Washington, D.C., based nonprofit, Unofficial Ambassadors aims to show how regular Americans can help improve relationships with the Muslim community. By establishing a social network, Orbach hopes to connect volunteers with legitimate international organizations in the Muslim world.
“Through our deeds and actions, like helping design curricula, support creation of libraries or sports teams, we can reinforce the positive stereotypes of American people,” Orbach said. “There’s a separation between what people think about U.S. foreign policy and what they think about the American people.”
In addition to his time in Israel and his current humanitarian work, Orbach’s resume is based in international efforts. He holds a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies from Johns Hopkins University and served as deputy regional coordinator for the U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative between 2004 and 2007.
He also wrote, “Live from Jordan,” a book cataloging his experiences living in Jordan and backpacking through the region between the summer of 2002 and winter of 2003.
He decided to move to Jordan to answer questions he had in the aftermath of 9/11.
“I felt I was in a unique position to investigate the situation firsthand,” Orbach said.
So, without any plans or arrangements, Orbach moved to the Middle Eastern country.
His e-mails to friends and family detailing his experiences quickly spread across the Internet. Over the course of two years, he turned them into a manuscript, found an agent, got published and toured the country to discuss the Middle East with middle Americans.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1997, Orbach worked for Americorps in Colorado and then moved to Washington, D.C., to become a research assistant at a Mideast think tank. In 2002, he began his graduate work at Johns Hopkins.
Although his efforts have taken him to countries like Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Kuwait, Orbach says he “always felt really good representing Pittsburghers. It’s an important part of who I am.” He said he’s also “made a practice of telling the Arab world about the Steelers and how important [they] are to Pittsburgh culture.”
But the hardest part about living abroad isn’t staying up late to watch American football. It’s being away from home, said Orbach, who makes a point to leave the Diasburgha several times a year.
And, according to Orbach, Arabic is definitely more difficult to learn than Pittsburghese.
Orbach will be signing copies of “Live from Jordan” at the Waterworks Barnes & Noble Saturday, Nov. 28, at 3 p.m. Visit Orbach’s Web site at benjaminorbach.com.