By Rebecca Loeb
It’s one thing to read, from the comforts of my home in Houston, about the Jewish Federation’s humanitarian work around the world. To witness that work up close, in India, is an entirely different experience.
I recently visited India on a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) National Young Leadership Cabinet (NYL Cabinet) study mission to connect with the Bene Israel, one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. Not only was this the first JFNA mission to India, a country that has had strong military ties and trading partnerships with Israel for the past 25 years, but with 110 participants from 35 Federation communities, it was the largest-ever NYL Cabinet study mission.
The sights, sounds and smells of India were like nothing I have ever experienced before. That said, having grown up in a small Jewish community in Victoria, Texas, I could immediately relate to the challenges facing the proportionally small 5,000-member Jewish community of India, the world’s second-most populous country, and the work that goes into keeping such a community active despite limited members and resources.
It was remarkable to spend Shabbat with fellow Jews who have adapted to the local customs and traditions of their Hindu homeland. Our Federation dollars, through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel, are helping those whose culture and environment are so different from our own. This support provides social and educational services not only for this small community of 5,000 Jews in India, but also for those living in poverty regardless of their religious or ethnic background.
Among the places we visited was the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center in Mumbai. This JCC works with multiple organizations to serve all facets of the Jewish community in Mumbai. We were asked to bring gifts: school supplies, exercise books for the elderly and basic Hebrew alphabet books. Collectively, we donated 750 pounds of books and supplies. These items will provide education and enjoyment for many years to come for those who depend on the JCC. We all felt privileged to be a part of this effort to alleviate even a small amount of the extreme needs we witnessed firsthand.
While India has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, its population suffers from extreme poverty. Seven million children live in slums across India, often without access to education. We visited a slum in Mumbai where we volunteered with participants of Gabriel Project Mumbai, a non-governmental organization that cares for vulnerable children living in slums and poor rural areas of India by supporting their educational and nutritional needs. Gabriel Project Mumbai sends Jewish young adults on an eight-week volunteer and learning program in Mumbai through their partner, the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps program. Gabriel Project Mumbai volunteers spend their mornings teaching in the slums and preparing nutritious meals. Visiting the slums was a sobering experience. It not only showed us where our dollars go, but allowed us to revisit the level of materialism in our lives. We truly saw how others lived, and it made us so grateful for our own lives in a way than I have never experienced.
I also had the opportunity to listen to Daniel Carmon, Israel’s ambassador to India, and learn about the many ways that Israel and India are working together toward common goals as democratic partners.
Engaging with those who have most significant needs deepened my belief that we are capable of the greatest good when we take action together using our Jewish values as a guide. This study mission to India did more than raise my awareness and engagement about the needs of global Jewry. It gave me a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience the work of Jewish Federations and their partner agencies and see it in action. I already knew that JFNA and the JDC do significant overseas work, but I was unaware that we contribute to tikkun olam outside of our Jewish community. I am honored and grateful to be a part of an organization that honors my Jewish values both within our community and throughout the world.
Together, NYL Cabinet members will raise funds for two of the programs we visited: Gabriel Project Mumbai and JDC’s Youth Pioneers Program. To date, we’ve raised more than $50,000. While this amount is significant even from an American perspective, the impact it will have on these programs in India is much greater.