Okay so now that we have the how my arrival in India was tough piece, onto why I was in India in the first place. The opportunity to lead part of Entwine’s Global Seminar orientation. Global Seminar is a volunteer program in partnership with Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) - check out their sweet website here. Eight young adults would come and volunteer and teach children for a week in the slums of Kalwa and a week in a village called Ashte. I’d be there for their first few days as they transitioned into teaching.
Upon their arrival I felt more like myself, my ability to actually somewhat navigate the area of Mumbai we were in, and feel like I knew something about the city helped me out. Also, they are just a great group (shout out to you all!). We held orientation and on Friday spent part of the day in the Kalwa slums learning about the work GPM does there.
Seriously, check out their website to see all the different programs GPM runs and the work it’s doing to make a difference, regularly bringing Jewish groups to volunteer as well. Aside from the school which provides added enrichment programs to the students regular school day, they run a clinic, water treatment center, a soap and paper making business, and Masala Mamas a program where woman cook the lunches for the kids and also offer catering - check out their cookbook. All of these are social impact where the goal is for them to be sustainable businesses. Volunteers teaching in the classroom bring new ideas, new songs, and new energies to the classroom and for the teachers, so while they may only be there for a week, the impact is lasting.
It can be hard to reconcile all that we saw. As you drive in the rickshaw into Kalwa you are met with heaps of trash, and pigs running around eating it. Goats jumping on carts, cows in the streets, tuktuks, and mopeds, and carts all using the same streets. In the rainy season it’s muddy and the roads are not quite paved. Each ride is an adventure – seriously we were gripping the sides hoping that the tuktuk would not fall over…it didn’t.
The kids were eager to learn, they sit with their pencils and their notebook at attention. We were reminded that they are only in school part of the day as they don’t have space for all the ages at the same time. All these elements are continual reminders of such a different life. I have all sorts of thoughts about this piece of the trip, however, I only spent two days there. The orientation day and the first day the participants were teaching. That said, it was still an experience.
For Shabbat, we attended Friday night at the Chabad in Mumbai, a few of us went to Knesset Eliyahoo Saturday morning for services (nothing like being given chai tea on arrival at shul), and back to Chabad for lunch. The Chabad of Mumbai is a warm and welcoming place. Additionally they have their own incredible story, as one of the sites of the terrorist attacks from 2008. There are lots of things to read about them, but here is one link. Following lunch and rich conversation one of the Rabbi’s gave us a tour of the upstairs. There is a memorial, and two more floors where the attacks took place that they are hoping to turn into a larger memorial. He walked us through the attacks with the bullet holes, and painting on the wall still there.
Still such a powerful story and the Rabbi in sharing it made sure to talk about the light within the darkness. How do we bring light into the world? Always an important message whether in volunteering, finding smiles, visiting elderly, or sharing stories, light shines bright we sometimes just need to find it. So many connections to be made.
Sunday was an early one with a dose of adrenaline as we biked through Mumbai. We were up at 6 am so as to bike while the streets were still fairly empty. Let me just say that I don’t think anyone had coffee beforehand and I don’t think anyone needed it once we started riding and once the traffic picked up. We toured the city seeing sites, markets, temples, holy cows, a meat market that would make someone become vegetarian for sure, fresh chai, and the “Miami beach” of Mumbai. We all made it back in one piece but definitely a highlight!
The final piece of my part of the orientation was our visit to the JDC office which is also the JCC of Mumbai. It’s all one big room. Yet again a different history a different story. JDC works with the JCC in Mumbai, there is programming for all ages, and also helps with the senior home (that the volunteers got to visit!)
The group spent time with young adults from the community talking about everything from dating, to making Aliyah, to whether or not they eat challah or naan for Shabbat. The young adults also performed and tried to teach a dance to the group as well. The challenges are similar for young people in India, wanting to find someone to marry can be difficult in a small community, so moving is sometimes the last or only resort. Indian Jews are also finding their own ways of observance with a high degree of knowledge about Judaism and the Torah although not always as observant. All these things serve as little nuggets of information as I think about community and Jewish identity.
The Indian community was one of the most welcoming I’ve been to. I’ve sat down in many shuls on Friday nights this year, and this was possibly the first one where I was invited to a Kiddush in the first sentence someone said to me. This community is not without its own challenges, being such a small community there are still a number of synagogues and smaller groups that may not always see eye to eye.
This community, like others I’ve been in also makes me think about this role of host in terms of tourists. As the community ages or in certain spaces who will be there to tell the story. How can you welcome the stranger and welcome the people. Then again who’s responsibility is it to play host to tourists? If a community is trying to hold on to their traditions and exist in a way that is meaningful to it’s population how can it simultaneously be of service and welcoming of Jewish tourists who are looking for food or Shabbat or to learn about a different community? Just another big picture question.
Overall, Mumbai was a lot of things for me. I finally settled in, I think there is definitely beauty to be found in Mumbai, but it’s something to be prepared for. I feel like this was my introduction to a whole different side of the world than I’ve been to before.
One more post on India...check it out, plus it's really chock full of pictures!