Monday, July 30, 2012

Learning from Badshah

A new child, Badshah, who is around 11 years old, recently joined one of the literacy classrooms in the Kalwa slums. It was his first day at school. The dedicated teacher from the NGO, REAP (, had finished her classes in Hindi and Math and the Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) volunteers concluded the day with a fun lesson on the human body in English.

Two women from one of the local women’s groups who GPM works with in preparing food for the children in the slum arrived with the day’s food for the class. All the kids were sitting down while the volunteers started serving the chapattis and vegetables.

Badshah stayed standing, he refused to come forward, he declined the food being offered. I asked him if he had a tiffen (type of lunch box). He said ‘no’ so I asked him where he lived and if it was close. He did live close to the class, so we told him to go back home and bring his tiffen so that he can receive food like the other children.

Badshah was adamant, he refused to have the food. The teacher and I kept on pressing him to eat. We both knew that some children in the slums don’t get food to eat on a daily basis and that he was at school learning so he deserved to get some food like the others.

Badshah continued to shake his head and say ‘Nahe’, no. After pressing him further he blurted out that he knew that his mother had worked hard preparing some food and that his meal was waiting for him at home. ‘It is not ethical for me to take the food when I have food at home; it’s not right for me to eat a double portion just because it is free for all the students’.

This small child’s simple, honest answer impressed and stunned me. I went numb. Here is a child who lives in difficult economic conditions to say the least. As Fr Trevor from REAP had told us, the families of the slums are in a constant daily fight for survival. And with all this, Badshah showed incredible moral fortitude. I learned a lot from Badshah that day.

Sigalith Isaac is the Program Coordinator, Gabriel Project Mumbai. She lives in Thane, Mumbai

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tribal girls boarding school in remote village

The ride took three hours, two hours on a highway and another hour on back roads full of potholes where slabs of asphalt had washed away during the last monsoon. The volunteers and staff of Gabriel Project Mumbai were travelling to a boarding home for tribal girls nestled in the quaint but impoverished hillside village of Dolkhamb 30km away from the Sharpur area, north of Mumbai. The home is run by our fantastic grass-roots partner NGO, Reach Education Action Programme (REAP), that promotes literacy for marginalized children in India. Sister Catherine looks after the 40 girls, teaching them to read and write, offering nutritious meals and instructing the girls with empowering life skills. Girls come from remote tribal villages around the area to receive an education and live in a warm environment. 
REAP and GPM representatives at a village tribal school

We had come to the boarding home to teach fun English classes and to better understand the issues pertaining to tribal village children living vast distances from schools. Over the last two months the GPM volunteers have been working with children living in urban slums and this was a great opportunity to appreciate the unique challenges facing marginalized village-tribal children. The home’s staff pointed out some upsetting facts: If the girls do not come to the boarding home they are looking at a grim future which includes early marriages (at 12-15 yrs of age), no education and a life of menial work. On the whole, health and nutrition of some tribal girls is poor. Sometimes the girls are married off simply because there is a lack of food. Sometimes they are married off to men 10 years older than them based on a financial payment to the girls’ family….and on and on. A lot is riding on the girls’ success at the boarding school. And from what we saw, there are some room for optimism. After completing their studies at the boarding home the girls leave with knowledge, skills and strong motivation to continue their education. Studies in health and hygiene help the girls overall health and wellbeing. They become empowered, self confident and attain skills that serve them well for the rest of their lives.

When the boarding school was established seven years ago, it was difficult for REAP director Fr Trevor Miranda to convince tribal families to enroll their children. As girls living in remote villages, they were considered more useful servicing the home – cleaning, cooking and working the fields. What eventually convinced some parents was when they noticed how the girls’ time at REAP helped them develop into well mannered, knowledgeable and confident young women. In fact, parents began to urge REAP to open a boarding school for tribal boys. Twenty boys now attend the nearby boys group home and learn together with the girls. 

We received a sweet welcome from the girls aged 10-16 (5th to 11th grade) and following introductions all around, we ate lunch together. The children were polite, helpful and tidy, and cleaned up after the meal. Moreover, their Hindi/Marathi literacy level was high and they had a solid knowledge of Math, Science and English.  Sister Catherine emphasized her desire that the boarding home become the children’s home – that is, their second home far away from their villages. It was not long before we felt like we had indeed entered a loving family unit. It was obvious to all that the girls were friends and shared a strong love for each other.  When the younger group of girls came into the home in the middle of our first lesson, the older girls raised their heads with warm smiles. The younger girls ran over to them, some squeezing hands and all happy to be sitting next to their ‘sisters’.

The GPM volunteers and staff taught English through group games of hangman, memory, and English songs. The children displayed some jaw-dropping abilities in memory, which seemed so incongruent with their contexts, yet reminded us about the awesome potential here. The children also put on impromptu plays and very impressive popular Bollywood-style dancing. We tried to join in but they were far more talented than us. We came with candies for the children and the idea that we had a lot to teach them but we left knowing that they really gave us so much more…

Click below to view the younger girls dancing a fantastic Bollywood style dance!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Interview with new GPM volunteer, Fanny Briceno

Gabriel Project Mumbai recently welcomed a new volunteer, Fanny Briceno, a 23-year old Houston resident who enjoys cooking, traveling the world and experiencing new cultures. In this interview, Fanny calls her experience at GPM “life changing”, and adds that “Seeing the kids smile will break whatever barrier you have in your heart.”. Read the rest of the interview here:

Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself

I was born and raised in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and at the age of 13, I moved to Houston, TX. I attended college in Appleton, WI at Lawrence University and graduated with a double major in Government and Philosophy. I intend to go to Law School in the near future.

I was not that religious growing up in Honduras and there was only one Synagogue in the country. Once in college, I joined Hillel and was determined to become a better Jew. I decided to start with Tikun Olam right after graduating college and started planning a volunteer trip to India!

I enjoy cooking and before wanting to become a lawyer, I contemplated the idea of becoming a chef. I enjoy molecular gastronomy...which is science in food!!

I enjoy traveling and learning about new cultures. I have been to Jordan, Egypt, Ireland, France, UK, Italy and Honduras. Throughout all my travels, I try to become part of the community and live how they live. I like a combination of "touristy" and "local" traveling experiences!

Q: So when did you arrive in India?

I arrived in India in June. I went to Ahmedabad, Guyarat and started working for a local NGO in Ahmedabad. But my work revolved around reports, fundraising and brainstorming and I needed a more hands-on experience, so I decided to join the Gabriel Project Mumbai after reading a newsletter that my Houston Rabbi posted on my Facebook. I moved to Mumbai in July!

Q: What has your experience on GPM been like so far?

My experience on GPM has been absolutely life changing so far. Time is passing by too fast! I go to the slums everyday and the first thing I see is the beautiful mountains in the distance. The greenery is breathtaking. Once in the heart of the slums, as we approach the classroom, the children start yelling "Hi teacher" and their bright, white smiles hit me! We then proceed to teach them English through games and fun interactive activities.

GPM also provided a tour of South Mumbai and it combined the tour with Jewish sites. It was absolutely phenomenal! It was great to see the Jewish history in India and also see the other parts of this multicultural nation. Like when we were at Victoria Terminal (CST), we saw British, Muslim and Indian influences in the architectural design!

Q: What would you recommend to people considering coming on GPM?

I would suggest packing light because everything in India is so awesome that one wants to take it all home!! I wish I had brought a lot of things that would help the kids here. Crayons, toys, learning books that we take for granted in the US, things that we might just toss in the US are very much needed here. Yeah we can buy it here, but thinking about all the "unused" things I have at home, makes me sad that I didn’t bring them. I also recommend people to bring an open mind and an open heart. Seeing the kids smile will break whatever barrier you have in your heart, but you won’t get any sort of meaningful experience with a closed mind!

Q: What are your plans after India?

After India, I am planning on go to Law School in the East Coast in August of 2013. I realize that after law school, I will be dedicated to my career and hopefully build a family of my own. So when I get back I would just like to be with my mom, help her at home and treat her to fancy Indian food! I need to start cooking here to get some practice!

Q: How have your family and friends reacted to tales of your experiences?

My family and friends have been deeply moved by the stories I share about GPM and the slums. They know it is a tough life and they have become more appreciative of the things they have. They have also been motivated to do some charity of their own by giving money or time. I am so delighted to know that through my work at GPM, I am also helping a third party somewhere because my work here is more than the children I directly help, I hopefully will inspire more people to do similar projects!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Gabriel Project Mumbai in 'Kol India'

Gabriel Project Mumbai is grateful for the support of the JDC, India and the warm Jewish community of Mumbai. GPM was featured in the latest edition of 'Kol India' published by the JDC and servicing the Indian Jewish community. The article is below:

 Gabriel Project Mumbai brings young Jewish adults to India to help break the cycle of poverty and hunger by volunteering in food distribution and literacy among the children of the Mumbai slums. The program, started in June 2012, is the brainchild of Jacob Sztokman from Israel and Sigalith Isaac Ghosalkar from Thane, Mumbai. The innovative program utilizes Jewish volunteers from here and around the world while employing a micro-credit system of women groups located in the Kalwa slums to providing meals for 500 children living in the slum. Jewish volunteers assist the women groups in preparing the food, feeding the children and teaching English in an informal and innovative setting. The program works on short- and long-term solutions to global hunger by providing food to children attending school, a powerful incentive for families to help their children gain literacy rather than working on the streets.

The program, in collaboration with the JDC, India and the award-winning NGO REAP that runs classes for children (4-12) in the slums, enables young adults to volunteer in food preparation & distribution and literacy for slum children while studying social justice, Indian Jewish history, and issues of global hunger – all the while collaborating with Indian Jews to provide both immediate and long-term solutions to children’s hunger. GPM combines basic human compassion with a broad vision of change, transforming the lives of slum children, empowering women while inculcating young Jewish adults with the powerful ethos of care and connectivity that is vital to Jewish identity and peoplehood.

This meaningful, life transforming work is in collaboration with the Jewish community of India, creating a powerful new model that melds Jewish peoplehood and tikkun olam. It is a vision for alleviating poverty, eradicating illiteracy while educating young Jewish adults into a powerful ethos of care.

For more information view our website at . You can contact Gabriel Project Mumbai at: 91-983-366-0944 or
Members of REAP's local women’s groups and Gabriel Project Mumbai discussing the nutrition program for 500 children living in the Kalwa slums


Monday, July 2, 2012

Jewish Indian heritage comes alive on the Konkan coast

After two weeks working with children in the Kalva slums of Mumbai, the volunteers of the Gabriel Project Mumbai took a trip to Alibaug a village three hours outside Mumbai on the Konkan Coast, to explore the history of the Jews of India – in particular the history of the Bene Israel, the largest Jewish Indian sect.

The drive to the Konkan Coast was beautiful and surreal. The countryside is an expansive, lush plateau, tranquil and green – a vision that stands in stark contrast to the cramped, chaotic, noisy surroundings that are typical of Mumbai.  It was almost a relief for the volunteers to breathe fresh air again, and it was enlightening to realize how large and diverse the landscapes of India really are.
We arrived at a small coastal village called Navgaon, which is the central location of Indian Jewish history. This is where the two thousand year-old story of Indian Jewry comes alive. According to the local legend, a boat left Israel at the time of the destruction of the second Temple and headed for the Indian coast – perhaps for trade or perhaps to flee the turmoil in Jerusalem. At the Konkan coast, just outside Navgaon, this ship full of Jews is said to have crashed, leaving only six or seven Jewish couples to survive. These couples made their home in Navgon, on the Konkan coast.
These Jews, strangers to India, brought with them Jewish traditions and religious practices from their lives in Israel – but after the shipwreck, they had no books. With no writings, Torah scrolls, or religious artifacts, they nevertheless kept a diligent oral tradition over the generations. They were steadfast about circumcision, Shabbat, saying the Shema, and eating only kosher fish (ones with both fins and scales).  Interestingly, they worked primarily in oil-making (a trade that they presumably learned in Israel) and they were known as Shenwar Teli” the “Saturday oil-pressers”, because unlike most villagers  who took Mondays off, the Bene Israel were uncompromising about Saturday – Shabbat – being their day of rest. 

The Bene Israel have also developed fascinatingly meaningful Jewish customs of their own. The volunteers and I were fortunate to participate in a ‘Malida’, a thanksgiving ceremony held in the home where guests partake in a plate full of roasted rice, fruits, spices and flowers. In this ceremony they sing songs praising the Lord. In the main song they also praise Prophet Elijah as the precursor of the Messiah.

The Bene Israel legend also narrates of two occasions when Prophet Elijah visited India and returned to heaven. The first account occurred immediately after the arrival of Bene Israel to the Konkan coast. On this occasion Prophet Elijah revived the unconscious Bene Israels who washed up on the beach from the sea. The second story occurred at a much earlier period. At the time of the story of Prophet Elijah’s ascent to heaven on a fiery chariot (Kings II 1-18), the Bene Israel believe, Prophet Elijah made a pit stop  in the village of Khandala near Alibaug. It is believed that the chariots wheels and horse footprints, that are visible today, are imprinted on a large rock when he took off to heaven. 

Today there are approximately 35,000 Bene Israel, most of whom live in Israel. Some 4,000 live in India, most in and around Mumbai.     
It was astounding to me realize that the Bene Israel is one of the oldest and most secure Jewish communities in the world. They are one of the few Jewish groups in the world that can boast that they have had a consistent presence in the same region for two millennia – completely free of anti-semitism, anti-Jewish legislation, pogroms, crusades, Holocausts, Inquisitions, or any kind of anti-Jewish discrimination. This kind of history is simply unheard of for Jews. The Bene Israel are very proud of their place among the Indian people, of the truly peaceful coexistence that has characterized their community during the entire two-millenial period of Jewish exile. Throughout that time, the Jews of India were always treated well by their neighbors and by the Indian authorities. There is simply no parallel to their experience throughout Jewish history.
The enormity of this history can be seen in a rather subtle way in the Jewish cemetery in Navgaon. The Jewish community has been using this cemetery for centuries. The recent graves have monuments, but the ones that look very ancient just have stones around them. Even more ancient ones are left unmarked in an open field. There has simply been too much history to maintain all of it.

For me, the most riveting experience, which highlighted the wondrousness of this historical Jewish narrative, was our visit to the 162 year old synagogue, Beth-El, in Revdanda.  Although the synagogue remains exquisite, there are only around ten Jews left in the village. One of them is Binyamin, a forty-year old Jewish man who graciously invited us into his house to meet his wife and three children and to hear about his life. Next door is his parents’ house, although his father recently died. In his house he has an oil press, which has been in his family for generations, but nobody knows quite for how long. All Binyamin can say for sure is that his grandfather told him that his own great-grandfather had worked the oil press.
In addition to his other skills, Binyamin is a cantor and a ritual slaughterer according to Bene Israel tradition. Every day he goes to the synagogue to pray, but he usually prays alone. Every once in a while the Jews from the surrounding villagers gather at Beth-El to make a minyan (quorum of men) on Sabbath morning. Binyamin proudly showed us the pictures of his son’s lively Bar Mitzvah at Beth-El that took place earlier that year.

I found it so inspiring to observe the deep connection that Binyamin and his fellow Jews have to Judaism, a connection that is bound by a quietly unrelenting and uninterrupted two-thousand year old Jewish presence in the area. Their houses are full of Jewish symbols, including large stars of David outside every house and the requisite picture of Eliyahu Hanavi and his chariot hanging on the wall. They are so proud of being Jewish, and their connection is directly tied to the ancient temple in Jerusalem. It is fascinating to witness such an unbroken Jewish presence in place where Jews were simply accepted by their non-Jewish neighbors. I believe that this narrative has no parallel in Jewish history.

This visit awakened in me both a sense of deep connection and a humbling awesomeness about being part of the Jewish people. We Western Jews are so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the center of Jewish life, as the ones who have maintained an ancient tradition and fought mighty forces and enemies in order to keep Judaism alive. And all this time, in a different corner of the planet, one where communal harmony is the norm and mutual respect is a given, a group of Jews have been peacefully and gently keeping alive the Jewish spirit in their own way. Jews around the world owe it to themselves to get acquainted with this extraordinary community. We need to open our eyes to the wondrous diversity of our people, and open our minds to the possibility of a remarkably different Jewish story.