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My Jewish Mission to India: A Week that Changed My Life

Reuben Robin is a member of National Young Leadership Cabinet (NYLC), a six-year leadership development program for the Jewish Federations of North America. This year, Reuben represented the Los Angeles chapter of NYLC on the annual study mission, which sends Cabinet members from different communities across North America to see our work overseas in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

I recently participated in the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) National Young Leadership Cabinet (NYLC) Study Mission to India. The Jewish communities of India date back more than 2,000 years, and Indian Jews tie their ancestry to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The mission was the largest ever for JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, with 105 participants representing 36 communities across North America, and coincided with India’s 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 that Israel and India are working together toward common goals as democratic partners in the Middle East. In addition to strategic concerns such as security and technology, Israel is partnering with India to address some of the substantial infrastructure and poverty challenges caused by the rapidly growing population, particularly in India’s urban centers. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited recently to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attack at the 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 B’nai Israel Jews, who represent just .000004% of the total population in a country of 1.2 billion.

It is incredible how the community is so small, yet is striving to maintain its Jewish identity. There are local youth programs just like you would see in the United States — something I would have never expected. Over Shabbat we went to the local Orthodox synagogue and prayed with the locals. The prayers were identical; however, the tunes were something I’ve never experienced, nor would have without participating on this mission. It truly was amazing to see.

The purpose of this NYLC mission was to build a connection with the Indian Jewish community and understand the organizational services in place to support their unique way of life, as well as 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 are kids anywhere else across the globe. I visited the Dharavi Slum, the largest slum in Asia and one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Nearly one million people live in an area of less than one square mile.

Jewish Federation Los Angeles — through its partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) — provides social and educational services for the small community of 5,000 Jews in India and for those living in poverty, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.

JDC runs the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center in Mumbai, offering a menu of programs ranging from bar/bat mitzvah preparations to elder care visits and Meals on Wheels. JDC works together with multiple organizations, where I had the opportunity to volunteer directly, making soap from discarded shards left behind at Mumbai hotels, recycling paper to provide a livelihood for impoverished women, and helping children with special needs create beautiful art and bake challah.

I could tell how proud a local Indian woman felt as she was showing my chevre (group) and me the recycling process that is giving her the ability to provide for her family. This program built with our dollars is saving lives. It was an inspiration to watch, and to know we were doing this under the roof of the local Jewish Community Center in Mumbai felt great. Knowing that my dollars were at work all the way in India further validated my reasons for being involved with Federation.

JAFI has helped to resettle Indian Jews in Israel (where the Indian-Jewish population exceeds 70,000) through services such as Hebrew learning seminars and job training. In early February — just prior to the mission — 102 Indian Jews immigrated to Israel. For those who remain in India, JAFI offers Birthright as well as longer-term Israel experiences through Masa. This year, India will have its first full bus of Birthright participants.

Prior to the mission, each of us was asked to bring a gift for the centers we would be visiting — school supplies, mind-stimulating exercise books for the elderly, toys, and toiletries — that would help serve the needs of the community. I went out with my kids before I left for India and let them choose toys, puzzles, and books that they would love to have and let them know I would be giving them to underprivileged kids in India. They were so happy to do this mitzvah and it was meaningful to me to watch them participate even in such a small way. India is an ancient country that’s modernizing quickly — the largest democracy on earth. Being out of my element in an environment that’s so culturally and religiously different from my own has heightened my awareness and strengthened my own commitment to Jewish life.

My time in India reinforced for me the core values of The Jewish Federation — chesed (kindness), tikkun olam (making a difference in the world) and tzedek (justice). Looking into the eyes of the children suffering from malnutrition and lacking basic services like clean water, healthcare, and education is absolutely heart-rending. At the same time, it motivates me to do what I can to help.

Throughout the course of the mission, we witnessed extreme poverty and formed meaningful relationships with the members of the Indian Jewish community. Our National Young Leadership Chairs Ronna Schneider (Cincinnati) and Bryan Drowos (South Palm Beach) 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 be helping children that 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 our Federation partners deepened my belief that we are capable of the greatest good when taking action on our Jewish values together. National Young Leadership Cabinet has made me a more engaged Jewish leader and has raised my awareness through study missions and retreats about the needs of local and global Jewry. The work we do is so important, and NYLC has further invigorated my desire to do more.

–Reuben Robin, NYLC Class of 2012

For more information about NYLC in Los Angeles, please contact David Harris at DHarris@JewishLA.org.

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