Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Tisha Be’Av in the slums

Spending Tisha Be’Av in a Mumbai slums is quite surreal. Tisha Be’Av, the 9th  day of the month of the Hebrew month Av, commemorates the destruction of  both the First Temple and Second Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred about 655 years apart, but share a common calendar date. We fast to remember the great national loss, a loss that led to a people’s expulsion many terrible persecutions and Jewish statelessness for 2000 years.

Traditionally, we read the Book of Lamentations that outlines the tragedy of the destruction of the Solomon’s Temple (6th century BCE), the crippling siege on Jerusalem, the pain and suffering of a people massacred and enslaved. Written by the prophet Jeremiah, details of the war, the suffering of innocents are detailed in heartrending detail.

This Tisha Be’Av,  after reading the Book of Lamentations at the local synagogue, I joined the volunteers at Gabriel Project Mumbai in the nearby slums where we help support nutrition, health and literacy efforts for hundreds of vulnerable children. It soon became clear that I couldn’t stop thinking about Jeremiah’s description of pain and suffering of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Temple to the sights and reality around me in the slums of Mumbai.

Now I must emphasize that the slum that we work in is an enormous district with many communities. There are people of different faiths and it is a place of hardworking people struggling to survive in their limited financial reality. The slum is not a depressing place nor is it a place of crime.  It is home to many hundreds of thousands of people who live day-to-day, vulnerable, illiterate overall and marginalized by society around them.

Some of Jeremiah’s description of the aftermath of the destruction and siege of Jerusalem resonated with us this Tisha Be’Av. Chapter 4 Verse 4-5 of Lamentations describes the hunger and prolonged malnutrition of the people “The tongue of the sucking child cleaves to the roof of his mouth for thirst; the young children ask for bread, and none gives it unto them…they embrace dunghills.”  This description of hunger is evident in the slums. We provide daily nutritious meals for hundreds of children attending class in the slums. The classes operate Monday to Saturday and not on Sunday so the children do not receive food from us on Sunday. Many times children tell us on Monday morning that their last meal was the meal we provided on Saturday…
Chapter 5 Verse 13 describes the breakdown of education for the young and the prominence of child labor. This too is a reality in the slums. “The young men have borne the mill, and the children have stumbled under the wood.” Parents in the slums are in a constant battle for survival. Some send their children, as young as 4 or 5 to work as sewerage cleaners, rag pickers and other menial jobs where small bodies and thin limbs are an advantage - the few pennies earned stave off family’s hunger. As with the people of Jerusalem at the time of the ‘Destruction’, children  in the slum are stripped of their childhood, forced into child labor and not encouraged to dream and hope for a better future. They stumble under the wood…

A particular poignant narrative in Lamentations is Chapter 2 Verse 19 “Arise, cry out in the night… pour out thy heart … for the life of thy young children, that faint for hunger at the head of every street.”  The US National Institutes of Health made the following report: “Chronic under-nutrition in childhood [in India’s urban slums] is linked to slower cognitive development and serious health impairments.” Also, regarding nutritional status, “prevalence of stunting (long duration malnutrition)" was found in children living in the slums.”Malnutrition also causes anemia, iodine deficiency and chronic diarrhea - one of the major causes of death for slum children.

Tisha Be’Av is a time to reflect on the pain and destruction endured by a people who lost everything.  It is also a time to become aware of peoples suffering and distress.  But this is not enough. Tisha Be’Av is, or should be, a call to action. Our goal in life should be to stop the ‘Tisha Be’Avs’ around us and to prevent suffering and servitude in our midst.  Commenting on the main cause of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, there was a consensus by all the great sages that ‘Sinat Chinam” loosely translated as ’indifference/hatred to our fellow man’ was the primary catalyst for the destruction.  The sages teach us that humanity prospers when we care for one another. Let us hope that when next Tisha Be Av comes around, we have made a difference and created a better world.

Jacob Sztokman is the director of Gabriel Project Mumbai. Jacob is currently volunteering with six JDC-GPM Entwine fellows and his son Effie in the slums of Mumbai! Please note that the thoughts expressed here are personal reflections and are in no way meant to offend anyone.

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