Bene Israel Jews date back more than 2,000 years, tie their ancestry to one of the lost tribes.
The mission was the largest for JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, with 105 participants representing 36 communities, and coincided with India celebrating 25 years of diplomatic relations with Israel.
I had the opportunity to meet Daniel Carmon, Israel’s ambassador to India, and learn about the many ways Israel and India are working toward common goals as democratic partners in the Middle East. In addition to strategic concerns, such as security and technology, Israel is working with India to address some of the substantial infrastructure and poverty challenges caused by India’s rapidly growing population, particularly in urban centers.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin recently visited India to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attack at Chabad in Mumbai.
The sights, sounds, culture and religious diversity of India were like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and it was remarkable getting to know the Bene Israel Jews, who represent just 0.000004 percent of India’s population of 1.2 billion. The Jewish communities of India date back more than 2,000 years, and Indian Jews tie their ancestry to one of the lost tribes.
Many of the Bene Israel Jews we met in Mumbai joined us for Shabbat in Delhi. The small Judah Hyam Synagogue was filled, probably for the first time in a while. The services were led by Judah Hyam Synagogue, the synagogue’s honorary secretary. He joked that it was nice to have a minyan for a change.
The Indian Jews showed us their incredible spirit and pride in being Jewish. While our tunes differed in some instances, the feeling in the room was that we were all connected and one people. They shared their stories and joyful Malida service, a tradition that takes individual simchas and celebrates them as a community.
The purpose of the mission was to build a connection with the Indian Jews and understand the organizational services in place to support their unique way of life and how they engage with the larger Indian society.
The poverty in India is stark. Seven million children live in slums without access to education. Poor children in India are three times more likely to die than children anywhere else in the world.
I visited the Dharavi Slum, the largest in Asia and one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Nearly 1 million people live in less than 1 square mile with 1,700 shared toilets. While we expected the conditions to be terrible (and they were), what surprised us was the strength of the community.
Families and individuals looked out for one another. Kids played in the street. School was in session. Food was prepared and shared. Shoes were repaired. Crafts were prepared for sale at the market. General commerce took place — it just kind of worked.
This slum had an ecosystem where producers, buyers and sellers made commerce happen. We spoke with residents who seemed happy and proud. While the spirit in the slums appeared to be positive and strong, the conditions and infrastructure have a long way to go.
JFNA, through its partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, provides social and educational services for the small community of 5,000 Jews in India and for those living in poverty regardless of religion or ethnicity.
JDC runs the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center in Mumbai, offering programs ranging from b’nai mitzvah preparations to elder care visits and Meals on Wheels.
JDC works with multiple organizations with which I had the opportunity to volunteer: making soap from discarded shards left at Mumbai hotels; recycling paper to provide a livelihood for impoverished women; and helping special needs children create art and bake challah (which went to Jewish families for Shabbat).
JAFI has helped resettle Indian Jews in Israel, where the Indian Jewish population exceeds 70,000, through services such as Hebrew education and job training. In early February, 102 Indian Jews moved to Israel.
For those who remain in India, JAFI offers Birthright and longer-term Israel experiences through Masa. This year India will have its first full bus of Birthright participants.
Each of us on the mission was asked to bring a gift for the centers we would visit — school supplies, mind-stimulating exercise books for the elderly, toys and toiletries. My kids and I purchased dozens of boxes of crayons, colored pencils and pencils at Walmart. Kayla, 7, and Ethan, 5, wanted the kids of India to know they hoped they would enjoy the gifts and dream big, so they each wrote a message on the boxes.
India is an ancient country that’s modernizing quickly; it’s the largest democracy on Earth. Being out of my element in an environment that’s so culturally and religiously different has heightened my awareness and strengthened my commitment to Jewish life.
My time in India reinforced the core values of being Jewish: chesed (compassion), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedek (justice). Looking into the eyes of children suffering from malnutrition and lacking clean water, health care and education is heart-rending. At the same time, it motivates me to do what I can to help.
Throughout the mission, we witnessed extreme poverty and formed meaningful relationships with the members of the Indian Jewish community. Our National Young Leadership Cabinet chairs, Ronna Schneider (Cincinnati) and Bryan Drowos (South Palm Beach, Fla.), urged the participants to give back to the Indian community in a meaningful way. We will raise funds for the Gabriel Project Mumbai and JDC’s Youth Pioneers Program.
I am proud to help children we met in the slums of India and to support activities for young adults to ensure a strong Jewish future in India.
Engaging with those most in need through the work of Federation and partners deepened my belief that we are capable of the greatest good when acting on our Jewish values together. While I believe that personal engagement makes the most difference, just being involved in some way is important, whether telling a story, stroking a check, or visiting a person, site or country.
We all have a duty to carry out tikkun olam and do our part to strengthen the world for current and future generations.
By: Justin Milrad