When Rachel Feuerstein-Simon walks to work every morning, she passes hundreds of people sleeping on the street.
Many in her city of 13 million people — attracted to her bright, white skin — approach her, asking to have their picture taken with her.
When she finally arrives at work, Feuerstein-Simon starts her day by downing bottled water (tap water isn’t safe where she lives).
No, Feuerstein-Simon, who goes by Rachel FS, doesn’t work in Pittsburgh; far from it. She’s one of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps fellows abroad, and she lives and works in India’s largest city, Mumbai.
FS arrived in India just last month after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh last spring. She was accepted out of the 100 young adults who applied to JDC’s year-long volunteer program that places fellows in countries with small, underserved Jewish populations. This year, the fellows went to India, Estonia, Ukraine, Russia and Rwanda, among other lands. The fellowships have existed since 1987.
Though fellows weren’t chosen until April, “I’m pretty type-A, so I applied back in December,” said FS.
The fellowship seemed a good fit from the start. “I’ve always been devoted to volunteering,” she said. “I knew that I didn’t want to go straight into the work force and wanted to do something abroad.”
Alternately, FS also became a good fit for JDC.
“These are young people who have often had prior involvement with global Jewish activism, perhaps through a previous service experience,” said Sarah Eisenman, director of JDC’s Next Generation and Service Initiatives. “Our JSC fellows are catalysts for change.”
Though FS traveled to India in 2009, she described her expectations of her JDC work as “ambiguous.”
“I think more of my expectations were hinged on the fact that I was living in a third world country for the year,” she said. “I knew that the Internet would be slow, the water would be undrinkable and the poverty unintelligible.”
While the challenges facing India may be massive, FS’s work focuses on a tiny sliver of the population. Less than 10,000 Jews now live in India, down considerably from a height of 60,000. Working at Mumbai’s JCC, FS leads informal Jewish education initiatives, planning youth camps and various community events. As she actively brings a sense of Jewish identity to the tiny community, the Indian Jews unwittingly do the same to her.
Attending High Holy Day services in a 150-year-old synagogue in Mumbai, FS “looked out at an audience of women in saris and head coverings,” she said.
“The fact that Jews across the world recite the same blessings, but maintain rituals and practices from their respective nationalities is something I observe on a daily basis,” she added. “It’s exhilarating.”
JDC expects this cultural give and take. “With each JDC service program, we watch participants transform, returning home with new knowledge and commitments,” said Eisenman.
Religious bonds are not the only ones tying FS to the Indian Jews of Mumbai. She remembered her first weekend in India — the JCC threw a greeting party that “turned into a full-out dance party with familiar tunes and dance moves,” as she recalled.
“I could be in a JCC literally across the world and have a similar feeling to when I would dance at my local JCC in New York,” FS said. “The familiarity was amazing, being with these Indian young adults across the world, simply because we were all Jewish.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)