I’ve met Nepali shopkeepers in Kathmandu who’ve learned to speak Hebrew, and I’ve eaten the Israeli dish shakshuka in a dusty tea shop in the hills of south India after my bus broke down, testifying to the reach and impact of the legions of young Israeli backpackers on their post-army trips around the world. Nevertheless, when I arrived in Leh, the tiny capital of Ladakh in India’s far north, I was surprised to see a sign in Hebrew at a busy junction saying, “We are waiting for you at Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home),” with an arrow pointing up Changspa Road.
Ladakh, a high-altitude, semi-desert region, was an independent Buddhist kingdom for nine centuries with close ties to neighboring Tibet, until it was conquered and annexed by the rulers of Kashmir in 1842. Today it is a sparsely populated, autonomous district within the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has managed to avoid the Hindu-Muslim sectarian conflict and separatist violence that has plagued other parts of Kashmir for decades.
Due to its militarily sensitive location however, Ladakh was completely closed to tourists until 1974, and today the Indian Army still maintains a large presence, patrolling the border areas next to Tibet and China, where India and China fought a war in 1962, and facing off against Pakistani troops all along the Line of Control in disputed and divided Kashmir, most famously at the remote Siachen Glacier, at 5,753 m. (18,875 ft.) the highest-altitude battleground in the world.
Ladakh draws visitors for its fascinating and relatively unspoiled Buddhist culture and ancient monasteries, but it is also an outdoor adventurers’ paradise, with many opportunities for trekking, mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, jeep riding, and even bicycling down from the Khardung La, which the Indians claim at 5,602 m. (18,379 ft.) is the highest motorable pass in the world.
Two roads bring travelers to Ladakh. One comes from Srinigar in Kashmir and crosses three high mountain passes, but it can be shut during times of conflict. The other requires a treacherous, bone-shaking 22-hour, two-day journey from Manali in Himachal Pradesh, with twisting, hairpin mountain bends including the Rhotang Pass, literally meaning “pile of corpses,” so named because of the number of people killed crossing it over the years. Both roads often have delays due to landslides.
Less adventurous or wealthier travelers can instead take the spectacular flight from the steaming plains of Delhi over the Indian Himalaya to Kushak Bakula Rinpoche airport in Leh, which at around 3,500 m. (11 483 ft.) is one of the highest in the world, and where visitors need a few days to acclimatize. Ladakh is fairly cut off from the rest of India when the two roads are closed eight months of the year due to snow, from October to May, and the year-round flights are the only option in, apart from a few hardy Ladakhis who trek in via the frozen Zanskar River.
So what is the Jewish Home doing in such a remote place? “There are lots of Israelis here,” says Hananel Namir, 25, who came from Israel with his wife Racheli, 24, and children Noa, 4, and Yosef, 2, to run the center for the summer. Habayit Hayehudi, not to be confused with the Israeli political party with the same name that sits in the Knesset and current government, is a Jewish outreach organization based in Tel Aviv and inspired by Breslov hassidism that supports the center in Leh as well as one in Goa, on India’s west coast, and another in Dali City in China’s Yunnan region.
I arrived at the Jewish Home in Leh on a Friday morning and entered the large covered courtyard, where a dozen young Israelis sat the floor in a circle talking, while one gently played the bongos. A laptop with speakers blared out religious Breslover music with chants about “Rabbi Nachman from Uman.” A large sign in both Hebrew and English advised, “Give a smile, everything is for the best,” while a travelers’ billboard had handwritten notes in Hebrew from Israelis searching for others to share a jeep ride to the Nubra Valley or a trek to Tso Moriri lake. An apricot tree groaned with ripe yellow-orange fruit, not far from the mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath. Indoors, there was a kosher kitchen, a backpack storage room, and a chill-out room and library where two young Israeli guys sat on the floor strumming guitars.
Habayit Hayehudi invites all Jewish travelers in Leh to come for free Shabbat meals, so I returned on Friday night and joined about 20 observant Israeli men in white shirts and knitted kippot for spirited Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, while another 150 people waited elsewhere in the courtyard. I’d estimate that 99% of the guests were Israeli, as I found only one Australian Jewish tourist, though Hananel claims that non-Israeli Jews do attend most weeks. We all sang “Shalom Aleihem” and “Eshet Hayil,” traditional Friday night songs, and for the Shabbat meal we sat cross-legged on the floor in front of low wooden tables covered with tablecloths. For starters we ate dishes to warm the heart of any homesick Israeli, including hummus and cabbage, red pepper, and eggplant salads, along with Racheli’s delicious challah rolls, of which she bakes 500 every Shabbat. The salads were followed by a chunky soup filled with carrots, potatoes and onions, with tofu balls substituting for chicken, and cake and fruit for dessert.
During the meal, Hananel gave a short lesson on the Torah portion of the week while swigging from a bottle of Indian whiskey, which he joked tasted pretty good for only 20 rupees (about 40 US cents). On Saturday there were morning prayers followed by a lunch of hamin (chulent), a Seudah Shlishit (Third Meal) later in the day, and Havdalah to mark the end of the Shabbat . On weekdays there’s also a program of lectures, sometimes given by visiting rabbis.
I asked Hananel why he came out to India with his family to run the Jewish Home. “We came to make achdut, Jewish unity,” he exclaimed. “In Israel it’s all about right vs. left, hiloni (secular) vs. dati (religious), but the most important thing is for Jews to be together, as all Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) is one big family.” To sum it up, he echoed The Beatles: “All we need is love.”