When the Chief Rabbi of UK visited the slums of Mumbai

Running an organization caring for the nutrition, health and education of thousands of children in the slums of Mumbai and underserved rural villages on India is not easy. Trying to make the most impact, with limited resources and in an effective targeted community development method is complicated and fraught with obstacles. On the way I have met many wonderfully sincere people who want to do good in the world and it has been an honor to work with them in creating projects that benefit the most marginalized children in the world. However, some days the task feels too daunting, some days the challenge seems insurmountable. But occasionally, there are moments that fill me with energy and optimism and the fuel that pushes me forward.

Last week I had such a moment when the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth , Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis came to the slums and made our efforts easier to bare. In fact, when Chief Rabbi Mirvis came to Gabriel Project Mumbai‘s operations in the Kalwa slums it was an amazing moment for me, the organization, the community and especially the children living in the slums. He reminded me why I decided to do this work at all.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis walked 25 minutes through the heaps of garbage and sights of squalor, asking pertinent, compassionate questions about the living conditions of the 200,000 residents of the slums. The Chief Rabbi was visibly pained by the enormous challenges faced by the children: child labour, severe malnutrition, disease and inaccessible health care, lack of hygiene and sanitation, and in some cases death.point2

It is in this vein that the Chief Rabbi asked me what he could do to help during his five hour visit in the slums. I told him that one of the main challenges that children face in the slums is the overall negative messaging they receive by the fact that they are ‘slum children’. There are certain sobering realities of their lives: the children have to deal with the daily affliction of disease (tuberculosis, acute diarrhea, hypertension, rheumatic heart disease, diseases caught by rat bites etc), child labour (even from the age of four years old!) malnutrition (on average 57 children die from malnutrition in the district every month). But in a certain way there is something  worse than the physical suffering, and that is, the emotional pain from stigma and shame. The greatest obstacle for many children is being mocked and marginalized for having been born in the slums. The message these children receive from the world around them is that they are not worthy. When the Chief Rabbi asked me what he could do, I said, “The greatest gift you could leave them with is a message of encouragement.”

The Chief Rabbi understood immediately, and delivered a message to the children, beyond anything I could have imagined, full of hope and love.

“I’ve met the Queen of England,” Rabbi Mirvis told the children, ages 4-12 who sat rapt listening to his lesson. “I’ve been to palaces and castles, and even saw the Taj Mahal! But you know what is the most wonderful thing that I have ever seen? Its YOU!”

Everyone in class was teary eyed while listening to the Chief Rabbi’s talk — and the children’s faces were beaming!

Chief Rabbi Mirvis deeply understood the children’s fate. He profoundly appreciated what it means to lift up a child’s spirit, and to impact their lives by reminding them that they matter. These children, like all children, are worthy. That is the essence of our work, and he powerfully and sincerely articulated that to the children and everyone else. When he said that the children are the most important people he has ever met, he really meant it.

I write this blog post to thank Chief Rabbi Mirvis from the depths of my heart. Thank you, dear Chief Rabbi, for wading through mounds of garbage to meet the children, for seeing past the squalor into the essence of their God-given spirits, and for appreciating the meaning of what we are doing with these vulnerable children. Thank you for reaching out to us. Thank you for your words of chizuk (encouragement). Thank you for being a role model. Thank you for your leadership, and thank you, above everything else, for the demonstration of love and care of these wonderful children. Your message will remain with us forever.

To learn more about the work of Gabriel Project Mumbai caring for vulnerable children in the slums of India, click here

About the Author
Jacob Sztokman is the founding director of Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) an initiative that provides nutrition, education, health care, hygiene and community development in urban slums and underserved rural villages in India. Jacob lives in Modiin with his wife and four children.
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