India was never on my bucket list.
But when asked to co-chair a Jewish Federations of North America Young Leadership Cabinet (NYL Cabinet) study mission, I quickly checked that my passport was up to date and looked forward to the opportunity to expand my knowledge of global Jewry with 110 Federation peers from across North America.
Stepping out of my comfort zone and into a culture so vastly different from my own, I never imagined the positive impact these eight days would have on me. JFNA’s first mission to India, and the largest NYL Cabinet mission anywhere, truly demonstrated how the Jewish community worldwide is linked. Not only did I learn from fellow Jews living almost 8,000 miles away and experience the world from a different cultural lens but I also internalized the importance of community in a way I never had before.
Our mission exposed us to several Federation-funded projects through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) that strengthen Indian Jewish life and also provide humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable living in India’s slums. While India has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it also has extreme poverty. We saw the juxtaposition of the riches of the Taj Mahal just days after experiencing the high need that exists in the Dharavi slum.
Dharavi, the nation’s largest slum, was both a hub of activity and an assault on the senses. The streets were dusty, with water-filled basins everywhere. On one block, a man was hand-making pots from a pile of clay. Two blocks down, the stench of a bonfire, fueled by scraps of polyester and used to fire the clay pots, was overwhelming. The houses, fashioned of brick and wood, looked as though they might crumble at any moment but through all of this, what stood out were the people. So happy in their community, these residents portrayed a contagious sense of pride; I kept noticing myself smiling back at their smiles. Our tour guide was a slum community member himself. He still lives in the same apartment he grew up in, with the family members he grew up with. The stories he told were ones of perseverance and progress. He shared that all of his family members are educated and have jobs, something that was not the case for his grandparents.
The JDC works to contribute to this progress by partnering with the Gabriel Project Mumbai to send Jewish young adults on the Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps program, an eight-week volunteer and learning program in the slums of Mumbai. Volunteers spend their mornings teaching in the slums and preparing nutritious meals for the children. With the rash of anti-Semitic attacks at home, it was heartening to hear that kids in India’s slums equate Jews with generosity and helpfulness. Through our good work there and elsewhere around the word — in places where people would not typically have contact with Jews — we increase the good name of the Jewish people. Through our Federation dollars we are touching lives that we never knew existed.
Among the members of the Jewish community we met were participants in the Jewish Youth Pioneers, a JDC-supported program to train tomorrow’s Jewish leaders. This group of passionate community builders traveled with us throughout our journey, each leg of the way sharing the distinctions of their traditions and the efforts they make to keep Judaism thriving. Together we said prayers, visited the JCC, toured local neighborhoods, and celebrated Shabbat. It was within these instances that our cohorts became family, not only bonding over our commonalities such as Shabbat rituals, Israel, community service, and Jewish dating habits, but also finding genuine interest in our differences.
During Shabbat I spoke with Mayan, a Jewish Youth Pioneer, about living as a minority culture in India – a trait of many North American communities as well. She told me of a time she invited a few of her curious non-Jewish friends to join her family for Shabbat dinner. Just as I had, her friends learned about Mayan’s tiny community which until the 18th century had no written texts, living their Judaism through Shabbat, the Sh’ma, kashrut and brit milah. Today, Mayan’s community, numbering just 5,000 in a nation of 1.3 billion, has texts, including JDC-provided prayer books transliterated into local dialects. These books allow Mayan to study, to lead services and to pass understanding onto others, including the friends that attended her Shabbat dinner.
The Indian Jewish community’s thirst for Jewish knowledge, carrying on traditions, and spreading those traditions with peers of other faiths, gave me an appreciation for my own practice. In addition to my plans to invite non-Jewish friends to my Shabbat table, I want to deepen our family connection to tradition.
Each night, as I said the Sh’ma with my new community, I thought of my son at home. Similar to the Bene Israel Jews, saying the Sh’ma is a family custom in our household. Jesse, my son, is at the age where Hebrew school doesn’t seem as cool as it once did. Now more than ever I want him to find connection in the values that bring us together with the broader Jewish community. Our ancestors may have come from different places but as people we are all interwoven by the fabric of being Jewish.
India may not have been on my bucket list, but in opening my mind to the opportunity, my heart has opened as well. I will forever be grateful for the new friendships I’ve made, the work of the Federation system to support those in need in India and around the world, and my renewed passion for tradition.
Stacie Friedman lives in Greater MetroWest New Jersey. The programs she visited in India are run and operated by the Joint Distribution Committee and funded in part by Jewish Federations. Stacie joined JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, the premier leadership philanthropic program for Jewish men and women ages 30-45 across the U.S. and Canada in 2011. National Young Leadership Cabinet is now recruiting for new members. To learn more about Cabinet, email firstname.lastname@example.org.