Saturday, May 31, 2014

Week 3: Grappling with the realities of slum life

Adina Lichtman, a proud member of the 8th Cohort of JDC Entwine-GPM service program in India, chronicled her experiences in a series of evocative letters to her friends and family.  Adina, a student of Social Work and Art at NYU and is Hillel Community Service chair on campus, captured some powerful and touching moments during her time on the program, caring for vulnerable children living in the slums, connecting with the Jewish community with the JDC and experiencing the wonders of India. GPM will be publishing excerpts from her diaries in a series of blog posts and photo essays. 

--Read Adina's 1st week here--
--Read Adina's 2nd week here--

Week 3: Grappling with the realities of slum life

Namaste to all,

After 3 weeks of being in India, all I can tell you  is I have so much to learn from this culture and the people here. What they give me is more then I will ever be able to give. This email will probably be a little bit heavier than my previous ones, but it’s the only way I can describe my experience thus far.
Twice a week in the morning, we cook alongside 17 women who live in the nicer part of the slums and get a small amount of money for their work. They cook food for the students we teach. The students live in the poorer area of the slums, which means less electricity or running water if there is any in their homes and their walls are made of tins and very thin slabs of wood or sometimes tarp.  The food is provided by the Gabriel Project Mumbai (the organization I’m working with) and REAP as incentive for the children to come to school and so their parents want to send them to school. It is very often the only meal those students will get that day. The food is provided so that the parents let their kids go to school to get their meal for the day instead of begging for money or working.  I learnt this week that 30 children a month in the Thane district slums die from hunger. That’s almost one child every day that dies from hunger in the slums I work in every day.

I just learnt this week that last year at around this time, a good portion of the Kalva slums was bulldozed. Why? Because the government wanted to keep “them” contained, and they were spreading out too much and taking up too much room. So a truck came and just plowed down all their homes. It’s hard to think about the lives these children live when you are teaching their smiling faces every day. This week we taught about rainbows and the rain cycle, the next day one of my students came running over to me at the end of class to show me what she made at home. It was a picture of the rain cycle, and rainbows – she had remembered what we taught her and chose to review it at home and give herself homework! Have you ever met a student who creates homework for themselves?! These children are unbelievable, so excited to learn! Every time I walk through the slums to get to class I feel so torn about what I see, but the few steps before I step into the classroom I get these excited butterflies, because I know my students are waiting eagerly to say “good morning teacher!”… Little do they know that they make my morning THE BEST when I walk into that class.

I also got the privilege of teaching adults in the Thane Jewish community the Parsha this week. The class went really well and I think they really enjoyed it. At the end of our class, we wanted feedback as to what types of things they wanted to learn. Their questions were loaded. They badly wanted to learn about the meaning of life and our purpose as Jews in this world. They asked about how we know the torah is the word of god and how the torah was passed down from god – to Moshe and then to all of us. They wanted to know torah baal peh vs torah she bichtav [Oral Law versus Written Law]. Some questions were easier to answer while others were questions I wake up thinking daily. All I could think when I left was how lucky I am to live in a community where there are so many Rabbis and Teachers I can call and ask these questions to and get different opinions with different perspectives. I appreciate having a big Jewish community both in and out of college more than I ever have before. I am so lucky to have such a beautiful Jewish community at home and in school, and I think sometimes it takes leaving your community to see how beautiful where you come from really is.

This Shabbat we went to Mumbai for the weekend, we had prayers at the Kneseth Eliyahu shul which is over 100 years old! It’s painted a beautiful light blue on both the inside and the outside. It’s HUGE! And so are the hearts of every person inside of it, however the actual number of people in it is significantly less. There were very few people there, but enough to make a Minyan. We ate dinner Friday Night at Chabad. It was so cool to have someone from Morocco on my right and someone from Australia on my left and all around the table all these people from different countries all sitting in the center of Mumbai and singing the same Shalom Aleichem tune. We sang the night away and ate all these delicious foods!

Shabbat day our group took a walk to the old Chabad house, where the 2008 attacks took place. We went to the room where the terrorists barged in and shot the Chabad rabbi and his wife. The bullet holes are still there and the babies’ room is still painted in the baby blue colors with the aleph bet painted on the wall. They are in the process of rebuilding the Chabad house there – and it is beautiful to see that as Jews, we are just constantly allowing our struggles to motivate us to grow. The Chabad house in India is going to be bigger than it was before, and in the same place and for me it served as a reminder that as Jews, we can’t be broken. Am Yisrael Chai was all I kept thinking as I walked through the Old Chabad house covered in bullet holes. Gabriel Project Mumbai is the organization I am working for here, they create opportunities for the youth of the Jewish Community here in India to do volunteer work in the Slums. The name Gabriel is [named in part] in memory of Rabbi Gabriel who was the Chabad Rabbi killed in the 2008 attacks.

Sunday was time for us to take a bike trip in Mumbai (due to my lack of bike riding skills I rode the back of the tour guide’s bike!) We left at 6 am to try and avoid the traffic of Mumbai. We began bike riding as the sun was rising, and as the city itself was waking up. As we were riding, I saw tons and tons of people sleeping on the streets, every 5-10 feet was another person rolled up in a blanket sleeping. I would have never known that this many people slept on the streets at night because they aren’t there during the day. I NY most of the people you see sleeping on the streets at night are also there during the day. Here in Mumbai, everyone works. I saw all these people during their morning routine, brushing their teeth, rolling up their blankets, saying their morning prayers just like we all do every day. Living in NY I have seen many people who experience homelessness daily, the difference is, here in Mumbai it’s the norm, and doesn’t stop anyone from carrying on with their day to day lives.

Mumbai to me is a city filled with extreme contrasts. You have extremely over the top hotels and mansions that almost no one can afford, right next to people who are experiencing the most extreme poverty. The Taj Mahal Hotel is the nicest hotel in India, and anytime you walk by it, there will be children who aren’t in school and sent by either their parents or other adults to go beg you for money. They only are taught a few words of English that all revolve around asking for money. Its hard to go to the slums daily and then see how some of the really rich live here. It makes me feel uneasy and has given me a lot to think about.

On our bike trip we went to a few different markets. The meat market was one of the first but I couldn’t bring myself to go inside, I don’t do well with seeing dead animals and the smell was awful, but from what I heard there was even a man who was sleeping in the meat market! People sleep anywhere and everywhere here in Mumbai. We also went to the flower market, cow shelter (where all the cows are treated so well because they believe 330 million Hindu gods all have spirits within the cow so its holy to feed them.) Then we went to the fish market which was the smelliest, busiest, craziest market I had ever seen! Everywhere I looked there were sharks being chopped, lobsters being tossed, fish being beheaded, eye balls being sweeped, sting rays being sliced! Fish guts was everywhere – my feet were covered in it! (Sandals probably weren’t the best shoe choice!) It was quite the experience!

After that we took a ferry to Elephanta Island, about an hour away from Mumbai – where we could get a little peace and quiet from the hustle and bustle of the city. There we saw lots of ancient ruins and monkeys (one of which stole my friend’s grocery bag!) After Elephanta Island we went to another Jewish Indian Wedding! But this time I dressed properly for the occasion – I got an Indian dress! For the first time since I have gotten here – I was able to walk through the streets without being stared at for standing out as a white girl. I must have looked really Indian because not one person stared or asked for a picture with me (something that happens quite often to white people in India!)The wedding was so much fun and I love the Jewish community here! They are all so sweet and excited about meeting us and introducing us to all their families and friends!

 Everyone I meet here is so warm and hospitable. A family we met who has 2 kids and the four of them live in a studio one bedroom apartment with only 2 beds. The kitchen is also the living room and the bedroom. There is no table and is about half the size of my room at home. Yet they still invited us in to their homes, offered us snacks and drinks and introduced us to all their kids! They are so happy with so little (compared to back home)! This family I met is considered middle class and has it pretty good compared to a lot of families here in India. I am learning a lot from everyone around me and know I still have so much to learn!

On the bike tour around Mumbai
Early morning on the streets of Mumbai

Taj Mahal Hotel,

A lot of monkey business on Elephanta island

Lots of love,

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Jewish Peoplehood: A View From Mumbai

[ This essay can be found on the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education website at 

by Jacob Sztokman and Elana Maryles Sztokman

One of the most powerful messages in the Torah is the mission of the Jewish people to look after the vulnerable members of society. This is an integral theme –if not the mostimportant theme –of the Bible: to care for all marginalized people, the poor, foreigners, and all those fates have left them vulnerable in this world. More prevalent than keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, or many other practices that we tend to use to define ourselves as Jews, this mandate connects us back to our basic origins, to our birth as a people during the Exodus, as the Torah repeatedly says that the  commandment to empathize with the stranger is a direct result of our experience as strangers in Egypt.

The practice of caring for others makes us the people that we are, and arguably has the potential to unite us as a people more than any other notion of peoplehood. We would argue that the connection between caring for the other and Jewish peoplehood runs even deeper than that: the directive to take action to alleviate the suffering of the other is one of the prime contributions of Jewish culture to the world. Many eastern religions that took shape during the same centuries that the Torah entered the world describe the importance of self-awareness and bolstering our connection to our spiritual source, or to God. This is a very noble quest that finds expression in Jewish heritage as well. But this notion of spirituality as a personal journey often creates some questionable practices in interpersonal relationships. Eastern traditions often teach that the best way to create a better world is by bettering ourselves, that by striving for inner peace and balance we bring more peace to the world. Buddhism, for example, teaches that all suffering comes from the self and that the answer to our own suffering is to look within rather than intervene in another’s journey. We can’t change anyone else, some argue, so the best we can do is to work on ourselves.

But Judaism has a very different teaching about suffering. When we see an animal with a heavy yoke, we are told, our job is to go over to the animal and remove the yoke. When we witness the suffering of another – orphans, disabled, elderly or poor – our job is to take action and interfere. We do not accept the idea that all suffering is internal, self-imposed, or part of one’s journey. To be humanly connected means that another person’s suffering is like my own. We are enjoined to notice those who are often invisible in society, to give thought to the plight of that invisible one, and to actually take action and interfere in order to alleviate that suffering.

The Torah tells us that we actually can change others’ lives and fates for the better. This radical idea, that we can and must intervene to alleviate the suffering of the other, is a defining concept of
Jewish peoplehood. It is with this mission in mind that Gabriel Project Mumbai was formed. The program was established as a Jewish initiative to care for vulnerable children in the slums of Mumbai. It is a result of having witnessed the unnecessary human suffering in the Mumbai slums and the decision to work on alleviating children’s poverty and hunger through interventions
around nutrition, literacy, health and hygiene.

In Mumbai, over 70% of the 22 million residents live in slums where they have limited access to electricity, clean water, food, and education, and suffer from overcrowded communal bathroom facilities, open sewage and contaminated drinking water. Some 700,000 Indians die each year from diarrhea. The slums are home to over seven million children under the age of 14 who are growing up in abject poverty. According to the World Health Organization, children suffer from this situation in some harrowing ways:
  • 42.5% of the children in India suffer from malnutrition; 
  • 49% of the world's underweight children and 
  • 34% of the world's stunted children live in India. 

Because food is scarce and the need for families to pool their resources for survival is great, there is tremendous pressure on children – even as young as four years old – to work. Slum children work as rag pickers, sewage cleaners and other menial jobs all around Mumbai, earning a few cents a month in order to stave off their families’ hunger. Education and literacy are put off as parents struggle to balance the immediate needs for survival of the family over the need of a child to grow, develop, and study in order to build a different life.

Education is the key to saving children’s lives. Education in health and sanitation, skills training, and literacy are key components in breaking the devastating cycle of poverty and changing the trajectory of children’s lives.

We started Gabriel Project Mumbai two years ago in partnership with REAP, an award- winning NGO in Mumbai, that runs educational programs in the slums, and with the support and partnership of The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and Entwine. REAP was facing a great challenge in its amazing efforts to introduce education in the slums: parents, desperate for food, would often find themselves forced to send their children work instead of school – in order to have food to eat. GPM offers a simple but extremely effective solution: We bring Jewish volunteers to deliver hot meals to some 1000 children who attend classes in the slum, alleviating hunger and malnutrition while relieving the parents of pressure to find food, and simultaneously promoting the long-term solution of literacy and education. Volunteers, who come from all around the world as well as from the Jewish community of Mumbai, prepare informal lesson plans and use basic technology like laptops and iPads to enhance the children’s learning experience.

The volunteers thus help stimulate and motivate the children’s learning while keeping their young tummies warm and full.

One of the most unique aspects of the GPM approach is this collaboration with the local Mumbai Jewish community. The Jewish community of Mumbai is a vital link between the Jews of the world and the population of vulnerable children in the slums. Members of the Mumbai Jewish community lead the program and teach the volunteers about India and Indian culture. This process breaks down cultural hierarchies and forges powerful bonds of connectivity. For the international volunteers, working side by side with co-religionists from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds is a vital, eye-opening and humbling experience. The diversity and multi-faceted encounter redefines Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood through the prism of care for others. Furthermore, the program has a paradoxical impact that challenges some of our assumptions about Jewish identity. Our program evaluations have shown that the program increases both the volunteers’ affinity with non-Jewish populations and their connections with other Jews. How can that be? After all, we are often taught that a universalistic Jewish identity stands in tension with a particularistic Jewish identity. Either we are citizens of the world or citizens of the Jewish people, right? Not necessarily. Our program has demonstrated that both can be connected – indeed they must be connected.

The impact of the program on volunteers’ Jewish identity is that they are more connected to other Jews and more connected to humanity. It’s a stronger humanity and a stronger Jewishness. It’s a profound identity change as humans and as Jews. The impact on the Mumbai Jewish community is no less significant than the impact on non-Indian Jews. Building on these common Jewish values is empowering for everyone. It is by definition the core of Jewish peoplehood. It’s about connecting Jews from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds around the most fundamental aspect of Jewish heritage, which is the care for the other.

With that, we would like to clarify that we do not do this work with the primary goal of bolstering our own identities. We are not doing this for ourselves. The benefit to our own souls is a byproduct of the work, but it’s not the main objective. We are doing this because we have an obligation – as humans and as Jews – to take care of those who need help. We are not here to use the poor in order to feel better about ourselves. We are here to help alleviate human suffering.

The essence of Jewish peoplehood is this service to humanity. By doing this work to help vulnerable people –  to remove their yoke, to alleviate hunger, to halt child labor, to promote literacy and education in order to enable them to change the trajectory of their lives – we end up not only changing the lives of the people we are helping, but changing ourselves as well. We come to  understand what it means to be part of the Jewish people, and what it means to be a Jew in the world.

Jacob Sztokman is the founding director of Gabriel Project Mumbai, a Jewish volunteer initiative providing literacy and nutrition relief to children in the Mumbai slums.www.

Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author and educator and board member of The Center for Jewish Peoplehood

Week 2: My first time in the slums

Adina Lichtman, a proud member of the 8th Cohort of JDC Entwine-GPM volunteer program in India, chronicled her experiences in a series of evocative letters to her friends and family.  Adina, a student of Social Work and Art at NYU and is Hillel Community Service chair on campus, captured some powerful and touching moments during her time on the program, caring for vulnerable children living in the slums, connecting with the Jewish community with the JDC and experiencing the wonders of India. GPM will be publishing excerpts from her diaries in a series of blog posts and photo essays.

--Read Adina's 1st week here--
--Read Adina's 2nd week here--
--Read Adina's 3rd week here--

Week 2: My first time in the slums

WOW. I can’t believe how quickly two weeks have flown by.

The fact that my intolerance for spicy food and my pounding heart beat when crossing streets have finally subsided, I think this means I am almost fully used to the culture here. Except for hanging out of trains, I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get used to that... But I did stand near the open door!

Fun fact about Mumbai - there are 59,410 people per square mile here. To put that into perspective for everyone - there are 29,953 people per square mile in New York City. And 953 people per square mile in Sydney, Australia. This place is packed! It makes NYC feel sooo quiet!

But I love it. Everyone here is really so nice, and even though people honk their cars EVERY SECOND no one actually looks the least bit frustrated! Traffic here doesn’t seem to bother anyone here, it just gives them a chance to honk even more which they love to do!

This week was my first week in the Kalva Slums. I think I am definitely not at a point where I can internalize what I see daily yet. But to give you all a little bit of what the daily routine is like, I will describe what I see. We go to the train station in the morning and walk across the tracks. Behind the tracks are a few shacks and people selling vegetables. We walk through that area and there are far fewer cars and auto rickshaws and motorcycles. However all of a sudden there are flocks of pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, dogs, cows and bulls. We walk through this area for a few minutes till we get to this wider path where there are no shacks around it, we walk for about ten minutes on a path where on both sides are piles and piles of garbage, some of which is burning. Around these garbage piles there are kids running around on them and climbing on them and many children and sometimes adults using these piles of garbage as a bathroom, with no real form of privacy.

On this twenty minute walk to the slums, as we are walking in to it, everyone else is leaving. Most are dressed pretty nicely that you wouldn’t believe the place they are coming from unless you saw it for yourself. They are all leaving to go to work in the city of Thane or in Mumbai itself. This means that most of the kids are left alone with no adults to look after them during the day. When I walk through the slums there are so many children running around and hardly any adults around. Then we get to the classroom. My favorite part of the day!

All the students jump up and say in their adorable accents, "Gooood morning teacher, thank you teacher" and get all excited for what we are about to teach. Their smiles can literally brighten up the world. I have never seen students get so excited about learning and about their teachers. They have such respect and such gratitude for everything we do with them. I have never heard the word thank you so much in a classroom!

The classrooms are very small with no real light except for the light coming through the door. They sit on mats in the floor and everyone including teachers takes off their shoes when they come in. The classes have around 35 kids in a class. Their ages range from 5 to 13 all in one class. They all speak Hindi or Marati so we have translators in the classes for us as we give our lessons. This week was international week and we taught about 4 different countries and how they dance, eat and greet each other in these different countries and what their flags represent. Our primary job in the classrooms is to teach them about things outside of the slums that they wouldn’t normally learn about but that people outside the slums all know. This week we plan to teach them about the Olympics, rain cycles, different seasons and ocean life. There are 6 other volunteers here with me and we all split up into 4 classes for the lessons.

After me and the six other volunteers have spent about 2 weeks in Thane and Mumbai, we needed a little bit of a break for Shabbat from all the noise, so we went to a place called Matharan which is about 2 hours away all the way up in the hills. They keep this place as a pollution free zone which means no cars or buses are allowed up it. There are only two ways to get up the mountain – either by a trolley which looks like a toy train that goes up only once a day or by horses. It was getting close to Shabbat so we had to ride horses up the mountain! This area is the most beautiful area I have ever seen, as we were riding up it was sooo peaceful and quiet. For the first time in a very long time I heard birds tweeting and rays of sunlight were coming down shining through the leaves of the trees. And best of all - MONKEYS! EVERYWHERE!!!!!!! Except WARNING you can’t hold food outside or they will jump on you and snatch it out of your hand! My friend Shira experienced this first-hand. There are as many monkeys in the area as there are squirrels in Washington Square Park - which is A LOT! The views were incredible from the top of the mountain over looking all the valleys! I squeezed grapes and made grape juice for Shabbat! I filled up a whole jar, and made it in the bathroom of the hotel in Matharan over the sink!  It was so much fun - Shabbat was lovely there, so peaceful and relaxing.

This week Will also be starting a weekly Parsha lesson in the shul on Wednesday nights for some of the adults in the synagogue here who requested it.

All the best,

(Adina's next blog post will be uploaded shortly. Revisit this blog for the next exciting blog entry!)
Adina and Ilana at Chowpatty Beach - agreat place to eat

1st week teaching in the slums

Mango milkshake-Yummy!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

GPM's 'Eat to Learn' nutrition program expanding to reach 1000 children!

The GPM innovative “Eat to Learn” nutrition program will be expanding by 25% to reach 1000 schoolchildren every day in the slums of Mumbai with fresh, hot, nutritious food.
Eat to Learn, which works to combat poverty by providing nutritious meals to children who attend school, began in June 2012 with 500 children ages 4-14. In 2013, the program expanded to 750 children – and led to an increase in attendance of children in school. This June, which opens the 2014-15 Indian school year, 1000 children will be benefiting from the work of GPM, including 250 preschool children for whom nutrition is particularly important for physical and cognitive development.

The children benefiting from the GPM Eat to Learn program attend classes run by GPM partners organization REAP, an award-winning NGO running a literacy network of classrooms throughout the slums and rural villages in and around Mumbai.

“The GPM project is vital for these children,” says REAP founding director Dr. Trevor Miranda. “The program provides a very important incentive for parents and children, and helps ensure that the children receive the support that they need in order to be able to learn.”

Eat to Learn, the GPM approach to poverty, child labor and malnutrition through the delivery of hot meals in school, is an innovation that addresses both the short term and long-term needs of the children. The immediate goal of hunger relief is achieved, malnutrition abated and a sound education is established to help end the cycle of poverty for children living in the slums.

“I’m so excited to see GPM grow and expand our reach”, says GPM founder Jacob Sztokman. “To see the look on the children’s faces when we arrive is so encouraging. And it’s thanks to all of our dedicated volunteers and supporters that we are able to make a difference in the children’s lives.”

Children attending one of the REAP classes with GPM volunteers

GPM volunteers and women of the REAP self-help empowerment
groups preparing food for the children in the slums

Women of the REAP self-help empowerment groups preparing food for the children in the Kalva slums

Local women in the central kitchen for the children in the Kalva slums

Eat and Learn: Actually, the children learn first and then eat a yummy lunch

Rice, dahl, vegetables and legumes

Dishing out food for the children

The dedicated women delivering food to children throughout the slums

Monday, May 26, 2014

Mumbai Diaries: 9 weeks with GPM volunteer Adina Lichtman

Adina Lichtman, a proud member of the 8th Cohort of JDC Entwine-GPM service program in India, chronicled her experiences in a series of evocative letters to her friends and family.  Adina, a student of Social Work and Art at NYU and is Hillel Community Service chair on campus, captured some powerful and touching moments during her time on the program, caring for vulnerable children living in the slums, connecting with the Jewish community with the JDC and experiencing the wonders of India. GPM will be publishing excerpts from her diaries in a series of blog posts and photo essays.

Mumbai diaries Week 1: My first encounters with Jewish India
Namaste :) It’s been almost a week that I am here so far, and it is absolutely incredible!  I can’t stop smiling all the time here in this country!

India is the biggest culture shock I have ever experienced and I think most people who travel could say the same. Everything from the smells, to the number of people, to the transportation system and beyond, everything is completely different. The train we went on today was packed to the max and people hang outside the doors while it’s in motion the whole way!

This week we went to the synagogue here for Friday night services. We went to the Shaar Hashamayim Shul. It was the most beautiful prayer service I have ever been to. After one of the men read from the  Torah, every single man in the shul came over to shake his hand and kiss it. This experience was so eye-opening; no one in the community gets overlooked and every person is so included in every aspect of the community. After every prayer service, everyone goes around shaking each other’s hands and then kissing their hands. Every single person who steps into the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue gets a warm Shabbat greeting from every single person in shul. To me - this is the epitome of what it means to be a Jew. And what it means when we say all Jews are family.
Everyone in shul this weekend kept coming over to us and introducing themselves and inviting us to their houses. I felt so strongly that I was a part of this community after just one weekend of being there. I walk around smiling here all the time because I feel so connected to these people I only just met. They all invited us on Shabbat to a wedding this Sunday.

I just got back from this wedding, it was beautiful! Their traditions are so beautiful. Under the Chuppah, both the groom and bride have to finish the whole cup of wine because at the bottom of the glass of wine is where the rings are! They also then use that same cup to break after the chuppah. After the chuppah, the bride and groom walk to the aron kodesh and kiss the torah. And then everyone leaves from the shul to go to the reception. Tonight’s wedding had around 800 people! The whole Jewish community of Thane and Mumbai come to the wedding. It was so beautiful and all the ladies wear gorgeous Saris with all different colors and glittery sparkles!

Tomorrow is going to be my first day working in the Slums as a teacher. I am really excited to meet my students!

(Read Week 2 of Adina's blog 'My first time in the slums' HERE)

Adina ready for the wedding

Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue Thane