Prior to visiting India, I was told that there is a spiritual richness within the billions of people who live there that cannot be touched, explained, measured or described … only felt. I was told you have to peel back the layers of their society (the smells, the smoke, the dust and the seemingly unfathomable disconnect between the haves and have nots) just slightly to see it. After just a short visit, I can now say that I understand. Whether it was in the slums or the streets, the shops or the restaurants, the people of India showed us graciousness, kindness, peace and love.
I recently visited India on a Jewish Federations of North American (JFNA) National Young Leadership Cabinet (NYLC) study mission. Our intention was to build a connection with the Indian Jewish community and understand the organizational services in place to support their unique way of life. There are about 4,400 Jews remaining in India, all derived from Bene Israel, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world and one many consider a lost tribe of Israel. Not only was this the first JFNA mission to India, but with 110 participants from 35 Federation communities across North America, it was the largest-ever NYLC mission anywhere.
Our Federation dollars, through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), are helping those in need all over the world. Their support provides social and educational services not only for this small community of Jews, but also for those living in poverty regardless of their religious or ethnic background.
In India, it was inspiring to meet with members of the Jewish Youth Pioneers, a JDC-supported program that trains tomorrow’s Jewish leaders. Among the places we visited was the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center, similar to JCCs here in the U.S., offering programs designed to help build a strong and sustainable Jewish community. Another program that left its mark on me was Om Creations Trust. This nonprofit rehabilitation program provides employment opportunities for women with developmental disabilities, a historically ignored portion of the population.
The sights, sounds and smells of India were like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and it was remarkable to spend Shabbat with fellow Jews who have seamlessly weaved the local customs and traditions of their homeland with their Judaism. During the two Shabbats we experienced while in India, we filled both Mumbai and Delhi’s synagogues to capacity, with members from our community shoulder to shoulder with the local members who typically struggle to find a weekly minyan. Participating in services led by Bene Israel community members, we learned their stories and shared in singing Hebrew songs both in our melodies and in theirs. We stood together as Jews, bound by the thread that unites us all; regardless of where we call home.
While India has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, it also has extreme poverty. Seven million children live in slums across India, often without access to education. We visited the Dharavi Slum — the largest slum in Asia, and one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Nearly 1 million people live in an area of less than one square mile. Here, we learned of the miraculous work of the Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM), an NGO that aims to care for vulnerable children living in slums through supporting their educational, health and nutritional needs.
The project’s founder, Jacob Sztokman, discussed the challenges of extreme urban poverty and the vicious cycles that occur when children are forced out of school to earn a living for their families. The Gabriel Project tries to break these cycles by providing intensive school programs coupled with hot meals. The project partners with Sundara, an organization that repurposes used soap from hotels into new bars that are distributed during hygiene lessons in the slums. It also partners with Naya, a program that recycles waste paper into beautiful paper goods that are bought by businesses and local residents. Sundara and Naya provide low-tech employment to (often illiterate) women in the slums, allowing their children to remain in school. The interconnectedness of these programs, supporting and feeding off of one another, unfolds beautifully. These simple and low-cost programs are incredibly effective and, we hope, will continue to grow.
It was an experience I will not soon forget. Through the Cabinet program, I have been able to see firsthand the work of our local Pittsburgh Federation, and how it helps to feed the collective work of JNFA, JDC and JAFI. I have a deeper understanding of our past and deep-rooted tradition, and I have been educated on how to stand at the forefront of an even brighter future. The Cabinet program teaches us that as leaders of this Jewish generation, it is our duty to be knowledgeable on the past, to be aware of our current environment and above all, to be leading the charge for the generation that follows. As I return to Pittsburgh, I am grateful for the opportunities, the friendships and the adventures NYL Cabinet, and my local Federation, has provided me over the past five years.
Drew Goldstein, a Pittsburgh resident, joined JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, the leadership philanthropic program for Jewish men and women ages 30-45 across the U.S. and Canada, in 2012. National Young Leadership Cabinet is now recruiting for new members. To learn more about Cabinet, email firstname.lastname@example.org.