Tuesday, December 23, 2014

275,000 reasons to say Thank You for an amazing 2014!

As 2014 comes to an end, I would like to personally thank you for being such a great supporter of our work. Thanks to you, we at Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) have been able to achieve some absolutely incredible things, making a real difference in the lives of ONE THOUSAND children in the slums of Mumbai, and help change the trajectory of their lives.

Thanks to you, we were able to deliver 275,000 hot, nutritious, fresh meals to children in schools as part of
our special “Eat to Learn” program. Yes, that’s right. We delivered 275,000 meals to children in schools, made fresh every day by the REAP women’s cooperative with the support of GPM volunteers, meals specifically suited to the nutritional, developmental and educational needs of the children, ages 3-14. That’s a lot of meals. When the children receive hot meals in school, they go to learn instead of going to work. We are so proud of this accomplishment, and we could not have done it without you.

Here are a few more snapshots of our work in 2014:

•    1,000 children. That’s how many children received hot, nutritious meals in school thanks to the GPM “Eat to Learn” program. Read more about it here.

•     140 women. That’s how many women in the food cooperative now have a growing business and increasing economic stability, enabling them to support their families and strengthen the slum community. Read more about it here.

•     50 international volunteers. That’s how many young Jewish adults from around the world participated in the GPM-JDC-Entwine program in the slums in 2014 – over 100 altogether to date. Read more about it here.

•     20 Indian Jewish interns. That’s how many young Jewish adults from Mumbai worked with GPM in the slums. Read more about it here.

•    50% attendance increase. That’s how the “Eat to Learn” program affected children’s ability to come to school instead of going to work. As Bill Clinton said, when there is hot food in school, children learn to read. Read more about it here.

•     825,000 learning hours. That’s how many hours of learning took place because children are attending school at higher rates.

•     600 volunteer hours. That’s how many hours GPM volunteers added to the children’s learning program at the classes of our partner organization REAP, delivering informal classes in subjects such as English, Math, Science, Geography and Hygiene. Read more about it here.

•     1,000 sets of clean teeth. The GPM H.E.A.L. Hygiene Program that was launched in 2014 – a volunteer-led innovation and initiative – ensured that 1000 children received toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and lessons in health and oral hygiene. Read more about it here.

•    4,000 pieces of fruit. That’s how many fruits GPM now delivers each month to the children in school, thanks to a special Fruit for Kids campaign, supported by the Good People Fund. The nutrients and health benefits of fruit are invaluable.  Read more about it here.

We could not have done all this without you! THANK YOU!

As 2014 comes to a close and you plan your end-of-year giving, please think of GPM. We are counting on your support to continue to do our vital work.

One thousand children and 140 women in the slums of Mumbai are counting on your support.

THANK YOU and best wishes for a wonderful and fruitful 2015

Jacob Sztokman
Founding Director
Gabriel Project Mumbai

Sunday, December 14, 2014

'Fruit for Kids' launched for the children in the Mumbai slums

Bananas ready for delivery to the children
Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) is excited to have started providing a weekly diet of fruit to 1000 children learning in school and part of the GPM Nutrition Program in the slums of Mumbai.  Since 2012, GPM has been providing daily hot nutritious meals to vulnerable children in the Mumbai slums which gives basic tools for good health, cognition and development, and is enabling children to stay in school. GPM’s 'Fruit for Kids' campaign  provides a comprehensive nutritional impact, ensuring that the children receive all the nutrients that their beautiful growing bodies need and deserve.

GPM would like to thank the Good People Fund for allocating a matching grant for “Fruit for Kids” campaign, our friends at Modern Trousseau for their generous gift to the program, the support of our grassroots partner REAP and to the many friends and volunteer alumni of GPM who pitched in to make the
Going bananas!
'Fruit for Kids' campaign a reality for the children living in the slums.


Here are three great reasons why children need fruit:

  • Fresh fiber. Fruit is an important source of fiber, which improves digestion while decreasing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  • Vitamins and minerals. Fruit is vital for potassium, which helps keep children's blood pressure balanced; for vitamin C, which boosts immune systems and helps prevent infection; and vitamin A for healthy eyes and folate for normal DNA production. The vitamins and minerals in fruit  also keep children's kidneys working normally, which decreases his risk of kidney stones, and helps build bone mass. Fruit also reduces the risk of certain types of cancer such as throat, esophageal and stomach. 
  • Cognitive development. Fruit improves brain development, and research shows that a diet rich in fruit actually results in higher test scores. A healthy diet that includes fruit can also increase children's focus in the classroom.
    Oranges-a great source of vitamin C!

    Lots of organges
Handing out bananas

GPM Educational Director, Hayley, attempting to deliver fruit on her head...

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Slum Senses: Experiences working with some grade 'A' cuties in the slums of Mumbai

Elana Winchester is a GPM-Entwine Spring 2014 Fellow. Nearing the end of her last full week working in the slums, she shares some thoughts on her experiences working with 'some grade A cuties.'

Rickshaw. Garbage. Goat. Pig. Garbage. Another pig. Banana stand. Children. Donkey. Little boy's butt. Garbage. Dog. Huge pig. Another butt! Donkey. Garbage. Garbage. Pig in garbage.

Nothing gives you a morning wake up, and makes sure your five senses are in check, quite like the walk
Seen on walk from train to slums
from the Kalwa train station into the slums. The smell and taste of burning garbage, the sight of children running around half-naked and barefoot, the sound of pigs squealing and the feeling of rocky, trash laden pathways beneath your feet are enough to make you feel shocked, overwhelmed and extremely fortunate for what you have.

But as India has proven time and time again, this country is one of contrasts.

Past the garbage, poverty and chaos, are a second set of senses more striking than the first. The smell and taste of the nutritious food we help cook and deliver to the classrooms, the sight of children with the biggest, whitest smiles, the sound of "good morning, teacher!" every time I enter the classroom and the feeling of being bombarded by children asking for high fives and handshakes. "Amjad, just ek (one) high five this time, okay?" It's never just ek.

Marketing Manager, Social Media Coordinator and Hillel Board Member are a few of the hats I've worn over the past few years. In October, as part of The Gabriel Project Mumbai, I was privileged to add one more to my repertoire. To 60 children, 5 days a week, I am known as "Elana Teacher". the English speaking white girl who came all the way to India via airplane (a machine these kids are fascinated by) to teach, sing and play games with them.

As the children learn math and reading during their regularly scheduled classes, our job is to provide lessons on informal education, touching on topics they are rarely exposed to, such as art, music, science and
Elana Teacher
geography. The freedom to teach these children whatever we want gives us an immense amount of power. But it also comes with a host of challenges and responsibilities...What if we teach them something that will go over their heads? WHAT will go over their heads? What would they appreciate? What do they already know? What don't they know? How can we teach and build connections if we don't speak Hindi? Are we actually making an impact on their lives?

There was no guide book that could give us the answers to these questions so we relied on the old fashioned trial and error method. And with the help of our translators, David and Haley, we have been able to communicate with our students and put together some amazing lessons that we feel are truly making a difference. And even with the frustrating language barrier, my experience in the slums has reinforced the notion that relationships have the ability to transcend verbal communication. I've made best friends out of Sunil and Poonam just by putting my foot in their laps every day and leaving it there as they giggle and try to push it away. They think it's hilarious, but guys...it's gross. These feet have been in dark, terrible places.

Because our classrooms have students ranging from ages 4 to 12, it's hard to organize lessons that won't be too challenging for the littluns while not being too simple for the older kids. And through our scientifically tested trial and error method, we seem to have found a decent balance through the combination of educational information, games, children's songs and experiments.

During the first week of class, we focused on teaching the kids about emotions, showing them that they can express themselves beyond being just "happy" or "sad." The kids took turns sharing what makes them scared, excited, embarrassed, surprised, angry, etc. and it was interesting to hear their responses. (An upsetting number of students said "I am scared/angry when my father beats me.")
Put your hands in the ayer

My favorite lesson thus far has been teaching the kids about inventions and inspiring the kids to think creatively and out of the box. We introduced the invention of the airplane (which the kids loved), telephone, stethoscope, bicycle, etc. and we challenged the kids to create inventions of their own. We had creative workshops in which we gave the kids an object and told them to pretend it was something it was not. (This pen is a microphone! This pen is a rocket! This pen is a snake!) From this week, it was very clear to us that these kids are rarely pushed to think creatively. Fingers crossed that our lesson lit some sort of creative spark in those cute little heads of theirs.

For our science week, we taught the kids about static electricity, energy, and why some things sink while others float. We brought in a bucket of water and a bunch of objects, challenging the kids to guess whether the objects would float/upar or sink/niche. It was such a fun lesson and, when I saw how engaged and excited the kids were, I was even more proud to be part of this project.

The kids freak out over duck, duck, goose, powerpoint presentations, coloring, music and limbo - such simple things that we take for granted. And even while sitting in a hot, dark, 10x10 classroom, their eagerness to learn is palpable and I am floored by how well behaved and appreciative they are.

But some students are not so lucky. About one month into the program, one of my students, Anand, stopped coming to class. It wasn't until I bumped into him carrying two jugs of water in the alleyways of the slums that I learned he had stopped attending because it was his responsibility to make sure his house had water. Since when do kids take on adult responsibilities? Since when do small children take care of their, even smaller, siblings? This is the reality within the slums and it's really hard to grasp.

Despite the differences between the reality of the slums and the reality which I am familiar with, it's important to note that life within the slums is not sad. In fact, it's the opposite - people seem really happy. Children play, women gossip and goats frolic, just like in the rest of India. It just takes a bit of effort, and a different perspective, to notice that life within the slums is not defined by its garbage, chaos and poverty.

Before coming to India, my knowledge of the slums (and India, in general) was limited to that which I learned from the film, Slumdog Millionaire (which taught me about rupees, the train system, and chai wallahs - success!). But most kids don't have Jamal Malik's luck and will never transition from slumdog to millionaire and live happily ever after with a choreographed Jai Ho dance sequence. While it's extremely difficult for a slumdog to make his or her way out of the slums, my hope is that, through the Gabriel Project Mumbai, we are inspiring children to explore the world around them, ask questions and ultimately fulfill their dreams.

Elana Teacher in the class

GPM's Fruit campaign: 'Banana Day!'

The high five master himself, Amjad

My precious little Poonam

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

That time when Thanksgiving came to the slums of Mumbai

This week for the first time in their lives, the children in the slums of Mumbai learned what a turkey is.
GPM volunteers and staff introduced the children to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, offering a special lesson comparing it to the recent Indian festival of Dawali. The classes discussed the histories that formed each holiday – gratitude for bounty among the Americans and gratitude for light over darkness for the Indians – and then explored some of the traditions of each. When the teachers explained that Americans have the custom of eating turkey on Thanksgiving, the children were perplexed. “What is a turkey?” they asked.
“Well,” GPM Haley Dsouza Educational Director said, “it’s like a very big chicken.” The children were amazed. “Think of it like four or five chickens stuck together,” she added, and the children burst out in

The lesson was part of the informal education program that GPM brings to children studying in the REAP schools in the slums of Mumbai. GPM volunteers teach the children, ages 4-14, subjects such as astronomy, geography, hygiene, English, and more. In a program on life-skills, the volunteers have recently taught classes on a variety of topics such as inventions, body language, and telling time. “We learned about inventions like old telephones, telescopes, and The Wright Brothers,” Haley said. The children also play games and learn songs, which help them with English language acquisition.

 “The children learn so much from the volunteers,” Haley said. “So do I,” she added with a smile.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cleaning up the Jewish Cemetery in Mumbai-connection with the past; commitment to the future

Working together to clean the cemetery
The Jewish Cemetery of the Worli Bene Israel Jewish Community in Mumbai received some unexpected visitors last week: The volunteers of Gabriel Project Mumbai (GMP).

Several dozen volunteers, including GPM-JDC Entwine international volunteers, representatives of the Indian Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP) and members of the local Jewish community spent the morning last Sunday cleaning up the Jewish cemetery. Braving the mid-morning Mumbai heat, they spent hours clearing away vegetation, garbage and rubble from the centuries’ old Jewish cemetery that is in disrepair.

A group picture of the international and local volunteers
The activity was coordinated by Herzel Simon head of The Jewish Cemeteries Trust, India, Salome Abraham of JDC India and Sigalith Isaac Kurulkar of GPM. 

“It was so moving to see Jewish Peoplehood in action - different generations of Indian Jews, international Jews and others join hands in respecting and honoring our ancestors,” said Sigalith Isaac Kurulkar.  

Clearing away debris
“Indian Jews are a religious minority of India and one of the first foreign religions to have arrived here. The Bene Israel are a historic community of Jews in India who have migrated from villages in the Konkan area, where they lived for two thousand years,  to the nearby cities like Mumbai. In Mumbai, their history dates back to the 18th century when the first member of the Bene Israel community arrived,” Mr. Simon explained.  A cemetery for Bene Israelis is on E Moses Road with the first grave dating back to 1927. The cemetery has graves of several famous Jews including Bollywood choreographer Herman Ezra Kolarkar, Dr. E Moses the ex. Mayor of Mumbai, architect Simon Reuben of the Jehangir Art Gallery, film historian Bunny Reuben and Judah Reuben Nowgaonkar, the first umpire of a Test match between India and England,  amongst others. Till date 6555 burials have taken place at this cemetery.”

Removing weeds covering the graves
This was the first time the community has come together and physically helped clean the cemetery! 

The cemetery was in disrepair, with garbage seeping in, broken walkways, old drainage lines, and more. The volunteers helped with cleaning weeds from around and on the graves, on the pathways and the fence. The Jewish Cemeteries Trust previously repaired one wall, and added a grill to stop the garbage, tiled the walkways, added three water tanks, drainage line, and more. 

Half of the cost of the cemetery clean-up was covered by donations from a cemetery fundraiser that took place in August this year, and the rest came from the cemetery reserve fund. “We now need to raise money to cover the upkeep of the cemetery,” Mr. Simon added. 
JDC fellow Kimberly, leading a session after the clean-up

Following the clean-up, JDC Fellow Kimberly  conducted a though-provoking session on the meaning of working in the cemetery, responsibility to the past and how it effects our future. 

To make an online donation to the repair and restoration of this and other Jewish cemeteries in India via The Jewish Cemeteries Trust, India, please press HERE, 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

TAKUM classes on Jewish social justice for GPM volunteers

GPM has introduced an exciting new learning component to the volunteer program in collaboration with the internationally renowned Jewish social justice organization TAKUM. Teachers from TAKUM, the learning center founded by Rabbi Levi Lauer and the ATZUM organization, dedicated to bringing classic and contemporary Jewish texts to the grounds of social activism and social activism to the beit midrash, have begun a course that explores social justice in biblical and classic hassidic texts. The GPM volunteers are studying a wide range of Jewish texts with world-renowned Jewish teachers of TAKUM who communicate from around the world via group Skype sessions. This cohort of volunteers is the first GPM group to benefit from the new collaboration with Takum.

GPM volunteers discussing Jewish aspects of social justice -- "tikkun olam" -- following a TAKUM class.
"The speaker tonight was wonderful!" wrote GPM volunteer Leyla Sandler following the first class. "I really enjoyed him, the way he presented, and his motivations. He was quite inspirational". 

“It was truly inspiring to teach the GPM volunteers, who brought extraordinary depth of thought to our session", remarked Rabbi Levi Lauer after one class. "Their engagement with the texts learned brought Mumbai and Yerushalayim far closer than one would imagine Skype might bridge. It was a privilege to be even smallest part of their work moving Torah to the streets of urgent human need.”

"The rabbi was incredibly insightful and reflective," added GPM volunteer Debra Feinberg. "I'm looking forward to learning with him again." 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

GPM comes to Limmud India

GPM founding director Jacob Sztokman gave a riveting talk at the second annual Limmud India. His talk, which focused on social activism with vulnerable populations as a core Jewish value, generated lively discussions among participants. GPM volunteers attended the Jewish conference – a model of Jewish learning that takes place in dozens of communities around the world – and particularly enjoyed classes such as Indian Jewish history, explorations in community-development, insights from the deputy Israeli ambassador to India, Jewish yoga, and even Israeli belly dancing.

"Who would have ever thought that of all places in the world, India would be the place where I most get in touch with my Jewish identity!" said GPM volunteer Debra Feinberg. "Life is full of surprises."

Some GPM fellows with newly made friends at Limmud India
Nissim Pingle, head of the JCC Mumbai makes the opening remarks
Shayna Penkar, an award wining belly-dancer teaches the group to move at Limmud India 2014
Relaxing between sessions at Limmud
Jacob Sztokman talking about Tikkun Olam
Indian yoga with a Jewish flavor at Limmud India
Sharon Galsulkar teaching about what does it mean to be the chosen people?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Welcome new cohort of GPM-Entwine fellows!

The newest cohort of GPM-JDC Entwine international volunteers arrived in Mumbai and are already enthusiastically working in the slums. After a week of orientation, in which they received targeted teacher-training, took classes in conversational Hindi and Indian culture, experienced a Hindu Ashram, visited Dharavi (the largest slum in India) and toured Mumbai, the group of six young Jewish adults were invigorated and ready to start their work. They have begun volunteering with classes of children ages 5-14 studying in the REAP classes in the Kalwa slum.

The group, the 11th cohort of GPM international volunteers, includes young adults from all different backgrounds – five Americans and one Australian, a violinist, a Teach for America graduate, a social worker, a real estate specialist, and more – who share joy and zeal in participating in the GPM volunteer program.
The 11th GPM cohort of volunteers arrives in Mumbai

Elana Winchester, a member of the newest cohort of GPM volunteers, teaches "time" to the children in the Mumbai slums

GPM volunteers working with women's empowerment groups in the Mumbai slums, preparing hot lunches for the children in the REAP school

Leila Sandler, a new GPM volunteer, working on literacy with the children

GPM volunteer Adam Davis teaching numbers to the children in the slums
The international volunteer program, which is eight weeks long, also includes enrichment programs such as trips to the Konkan coast, collaborative work with Indian Jewish interns, and opportunities to volunteer with the Jewish community. During the program, the group will be working with young Indian Jews to clean up the Bnei Israel cemetery, volunteering in a children’s hospital, visiting the JDC old-age home Bayiti for Indian Jews, studying issues of Jewish social justice with the world-renowned Takum organization, and participating in dynamic Jewish peoplehood workshops called the “Chai-time Talks” (see clip of previous Chai-time Talks HERE.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

We did it! We reached our “Fruit for Kids” goal!

GPM successfully raised $9,000 for Fruit for Kids, a project to add fresh fruit to the regular menu of daily hot, nutritious meals that GPM children receive when they attend class. The funds, which were part of an on-line matching grant campaign to improve the health and nutrition of 1000 children learning in school in the Mumbai slums, were matched by $9,000 from The Good People Fund. Modern Trousseau, a corporate sponsor of GPM activities, Jenny Samad and other GPM volunteer alumni as well as a generous gift from a UK couple who visited GPM also made a significant contribution. The rest of the donations came from donors around the world via the online campaign.

“As we all enjoy the beautiful juicy apples that are harvested at this time of year, it is a great feeling to know that 1000 schoolkids in Mumbai who have so little will also enjoy the sweet taste of fruit,” Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of The Good People Fund, wrote on Facebook.” It was the Good People Fund's honor to put this challenge out there to GPM.”

“The Fruit for Kids program adds a vital new component to the nutrition that the children are receiving from GPM,” says GPM Founding Director Jacob Sztokman. “Fruit is such an important part of every child’s development. We are so very grateful to The Good People Fund, as well as all the donors all around the world who made this happen. ”

Here are three reasons why children need fruit:

* Fresh fiber. Fruit is an important source of fiber, which improves digestion while decreasing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

* Vitamins and minerals. Fruit is vital for potassium, which helps keep children's blood pressure balanced; for vitamin C, which boosts immune systems and helps prevent infection; and vitamin A for healthy eyes and folate for normal DNA production.

The vitamins and minerals in fruit  also keep children's kidneys working normally, which decreases his risk of kidney stones, and helps build bone mass. Fruit also reduces the risk of certain types of cancer such as throat, esophageal and stomach. 

* Cognitive development. Fruit improves brain development, and research shows that a diet rich in fruit actually results in higher test scores. A healthy diet that includes fruit can also increase children's focus in the classroom.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

IDF Soldiers, “Fighters for Life,” volunteer teaching Krav Maga in Mumbai

Fifteen soldiers spent two weeks volunteering in a community center catering to underprivileged children of Mumbai in September, thanks to the coordinating efforts of GPM and the Israel Consulate in Mumbai. The soldiers, men and women who recently completed combat duty with the Israel Defense Forces, spent ten days in Santa Cruz, Mumbai, teaching Krav Maga, First Aid, English and other empowering coursesto disadvantaged children in the neighborhood. The group, called “Fighters for Life”, worked in conjunction with the socio-humanitarian service organization in Mumbai called Triranta Prerana Mandal, and also utilized their time painting and offering light external repairs to the local community center building.

“Fighters for Life” was formed earlier this year by Captain Gilli Cohen who had been listening to many of his soldiers discussing their plans for travel after the army. The soldiers expressed interest in doing something meaningful while backpacking overseas – and he decided to take action. He met with people, formed a committee, and opened a Facebook group which quickly garnered over 4,000 members. Finally Gilli contacted GPM for assistance, as well as the Israeli Consulate in Mumbai, and all together they formulated a plan and launched their project.

The cohort of Fighters for Life, consisting of fifteen soldiers and officers from many sections of the IDF called themselves “Team Pomerantz” in memory of the late Staff Sgt. Daniel Pomerantz who was killed in the Gaza war in July.

GPM staffer, David Ramrajkar, was happy to assist in group logistics while they were in Mumbai."The Israelis were so nice and professional in teaching their classes, I really enjoyed spending time with them."

A highlight of the experience was the two weekends the group spent with the Jewish community of Mumbai. The group taught self defense to the community's youth and adults at the Mumbai JCC, taught about Israel, learned about India's Jewry and shared in fascinating cultural exchanges.

IDF General (res.) Eliezer Shkedi, who now serves as the the Board President of Fighters for Life, met with GPM Founding Director Jacob Sztokman and commented on this endeavor. “It’s so nice to see such a large group of socially-minded young people, who want to include a meaningful volunteer experience as part of their travels.” 

Gilli was happy to share his thoughts and impressions at the completion of his time in Mumbai. "We were so amazed by the help we received from GPM and inspired by what they are doing with children in the slums of Mumbai. While we volunteered, we learned a lot, gave of ourselves wholeheartedly and have been changed forever."

Teaching about human anatomy

Class on hygiene and health

Part of the painting and gardening project at the community center

Understanding the challenges of life in the slums with Gabriel Project Mumbai

With the Jewish community at the Mumbai JCC

Some media attention

Painting outside walls of the community center

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Interview with Leigh Evans, GPM-JDC Entwine volunteer, Summer 2014 Cohort

Leigh Evans, a second year student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a recipient of the Brawerman Fellowship for emerging young Jewish leaders from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, participated in the 10th volunteer GPM cohort in Mumbai this past summer. (Harmony Richman, of the same cohort, was also a Brawerman Fellow).Leigh, who is pursuing a double major in Sociology and Psychology with a minor in Education, works part-time as a paid intern at the UCSB Alumni Association. She is also involved in a variety of activities including the College of Letters and Science Honors Program, the Isla Vista Tutoring Program, Active Minds, Hillel, and “Gauchos for Education”, an organization she cofounded. Leigh hopes to apply her passion for education and background in Sociology and Psychology to her future career in education reform. Leigh is deeply passionate about civil rights, social reform, education, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, arts and culture, and the promotion of tolerance.

Jacob Sztokman sat down with Leigh for a chat a few weeks after the program finished, where she reflected on her experiences at GPM:

How did you enjoy the program?
It’s been really great. It put into perspective how much I’ve grown as a person. It also put my career aspirations in perspective, because it helped me focus on what I really want to do. Before the program, I thought I wanted to go into education but not necessarily working with the people, more like writing legislation and being a lawyer. But now it made me realize that I really do want a day-to-day job of working with students and with kids. That’s definitely important to me. I enjoyed it so much. 

Now that you’re back home, how do you feel about what you experienced?
With everything going on in Ferguson and everything going on with race and difference in the media, it showed me just how important it is to go and put yourself in a place and a culture that you’re not necessarily comfortable in. And I’ve been to Israel but in that case I was completely comfortable from the moment I walked into Ben Gurion airport. This is a totally different thing, and I totally stepped out of my comfort zone being in India. And I didn’t realize how big of a shock it would be. I always had this very idyllic vision of how it would be to study abroad and live in a totally different culture. I listened to what everyone said to me before I left but I didn’t really think it would apply to me. They said it would be difficult and you’ll see some really tough things – and I did. And a lot of what everyone said would happen happened.

What were the hard things for you?
I think what gets everyone is that the poverty was very difficult. And the stray animal problem was really difficult, maybe more for me than other people just because I do a lot in animal care and that’s a very big issue for me – that is, for it to be normal to see starving, emaciated dogs in the middle of the street. But then you see a starving man or woman in the middle of the street and it’s all really difficult. Those things – the human poverty and the animal neglect – both were so much worse than anything I’ve ever seen before.

And then the lack of health care, the physical issues that people dealt with every day, like the amount of polio that I saw, it was a huge shock for me and I was really unprepared for that. Because this is something so simple over here – you just get a vaccine and it’s all taken care of. And then you can’t even access that over there. But then you have antibiotics being administered over the counter and being used irresponsibly, and it’s just such a weird juxtaposition that people aren’t getting what they need but they have lots of extra stuff around, and it becomes a huge problem.

Probably the hardest thing I saw was acid survivors. I remember this one day walking back from the Byculla train station and a man was coming towards me on the sidewalk and at first I thought he was wearing a mask because it just looked so strange to me. But then as he got closer to me I saw that his skin just sagged all the way down to his collarbone and his eyes were gone, and it was a really tough thing to see. 

What also hit me is that you see people with polio on the train just working, doing anything they can to help themselves and survive,  and selling all those trinkets and the little hair accessories, literally dropping their bodies on the floor but being so persistent, and go on another day to make a living and make a life. That is just so incredible to me. You don’t see that here out in the open in that way.
I took a class on African studies, and there is so much aid going to Africa, but in India the striking lack of aid was really difficult. You don’t see clinics in the slums, or at least I didn’t. When I talked to local people, I didn’t hear about clinics. Maybe there are a few in Mumbai, they said, but they’re not totally free and not totally subsidized. I feel like India needs a lot more attention from NGOs and people who are just there to help.

Tell me about the Brawerman Fellowship that you received.
When I was in high school, I applied for the Brawerman Fellowship from the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. I was the first year of the fellowship. It was donated by Geri Brawerman who is a major supporter of the Federation. She and her late husband did a ton of philanthropic work, and she had this vision for young Jewish leadership work. So she gave a donation that was the largest donation in the history of the Federation. It’s a four year fellowship, it means I get financial aid every year, and on top of that I participate in facets of the special program – for instance in the summers, we have a travel-work experience. The first year we went to Israel because they try to foster our connections to Israel as leaders of the Jewish community. Then we are doing a volunteer experience abroad, which was originally meant to be one or two weeks, but luckily Harmony and I were approved for this program even though it’s longer than two weeks. The third year is going to be a local internship with the Jewish Federation because they want us to be involved with the Federation and know what the Federation is doing for the community. It’s a fantastic program.
Leigh and Harmony in Mumbai
Leigh and some of the children
Leigh and a student

Leigh with some of the children

Leigh with the REAP teachers and other GPM fellows

Taking time out to charm a snake...

On the train...