Basya Gartenstein

Silver lining in the slums of India

I vividly recall the evening in August upon which I received my letter of acceptance to be a JDC Entwine fellow. Throughout life I have felt passionate about working with vulnerable populations to build their hope for a better future, and provide them the skills to make those hopes a reality. I recently completed my Bachelors in Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy at IDC Herzliya. After three years of immersion in subjects such as Globalization, Human Rights, and International Relations I found an organization that complemented my vision for actualizing the lessons of my courses which I hold dear. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) works with broken communities world wide, and has been for the past 100 years. They partner with Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) and Reach Education Action Programme (REAP) to fuse Humanitarianism and Jewish values by helping impoverished populations in the Kalwa slum of Mumbai, along with building up Jewish identity among the 2000+ Jews who live in the vicinity. These organizations have facilitated an opportunity to spread knowledge, skills, and love to the needy, for which I am deeply grateful.

I have been eagerly counting down the days to meet the children I will teach and begin my work. Last night I lay my head down with a sense of comfort, not because my pillow is particularly comfortable, rather, in anticipation of the long awaited day ahead.

And then it arrived:

Today I gave my first lesson in what is now ‘my slum’. I entered the crowded Kalwa slum on a dirt road which has been paved through wear. On its sides lie heaps of garbage, mud, and sewage. In the distance, through the morning haze, I see small man made homes made of tin and tarp piled on top of one another.

The view while walking on the road from the train into the slum
The view while walking on the road from the train into the slum.

The walk from the train is a half mile long but quite eventful. I had the opportunity to pass by a lovely family of pigs, a bunch of goats, not to mention the occasional bull.

My new family!
My new family!

Entering the slum I’m ambushed by screams: “teacher, teacher, good morning!” and countless hand shakes. I step over the threshold of a worn wooden door into my 15×15  foot classroom and my group of students are sitting on the floor eyes gleaming with excitement. Its 90 degree weather and the room has no cooling source. The room lacks electricity and windows, leaving the door open as our only light, along with the smiles of the children.

The theme of this week’s lessons is emotions. My group and I worked on expanding the children’s sense of feelings beyond happy or sad, giving them the ability to be more in touch with them selves and experiences. We also taught the kids the English words for the new emotions they are learning about. We ended with an acting activity in which the children would spin a large dice which landed on an emotion. They would then act it out to the class and the observers would guess the emotion shown, teaching them to perceive others emotions as well.

I am amazed at the appreciation the lesson received. The shy grins, the hugs, the eruption of giggles at the skits, the excitement when chosen to act… back in New York,  as well raised as children can be, they get bored so quickly. Hardly anything captures my nieces attention short of an iPhone or extravagant toy. My students held the papers we gave them like treasures  and treated their turn to act as an honor. I am humbled witnessing their entranced expressions and enthusiasm.

Children practicing what they expereince when feeling excited.
Children practicing what they expereince when feeling excited.

I was raised with the Jewish lesson: Eizeh hu ashir hasameach bichelko – he who is wealthy is happy with his lot in life. I’ve poured over texts and philosophized for hours on the ideal way to maintain this value in my life. Little did I know, that the 3-9 year old children of the Kalwa slums would teach it best. What a shame, all of that Bais Yaakov money gone to waste!

Though I am not a morning person, leaving on a 7am train is something I have started looking forward to. I came to India to teach, it turns out there are priceless lessons to learn from my beautiful students.

Despite the landfills, absence of plumbing, and layers of dirt, the slums are alive with something very special… appreciation and love. This seemingly dark life has a clear silver lining. The tangible happiness throughout the population seems to reflect its density

View of the Kalwa slum
View of the Kalwa slum


The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

About the Author
Basya Gartenstein is pursuing her Master of Divinity at Yale Divinity School. She is simultaneously earning a Certificate in Educational Leadership and Ministry from Berkley Divinity School. After being awarded her Bachelor’s Degree in Conflict Resolution and International Relations from the IDC Herzliya, she served as the Jewish Service Corps Fellow through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with placements in Mumbai, India and Helsinki, Finland. Basya worked at the Muslim Jewish Conference from 2015-2017, facilitating dialogue between Muslims and Jews across the spectrum of religious and political identity. Interested in the intersection of scholarship and interreligious encounter, Basya is the president and co-founder of the Yale Divinity School Interfaith Club. In 2019, she was the recipient of the SALAM Sultan Qaboos Scholarship for Advanced Arabic Study and Intercultural Exchange. In 2020, she received the Critical Language Scholarship through the US State Department, to solidify her linguistic goals in the service of her broader vocational aspirations.
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