Friday, June 27, 2014

Week 4. More experiences in the slums and with the Jewish community

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 4: More experiences in the slums and with the Jewish community

Namaste to all my friends and family,

Wow. I can’t believe I have just completed 4 weeks here. Its been only four weeks and I feel like I have learned so much about myself and the world around me.

This week, in the slums, we taught about the human body, exercise and the Olympics. We also taught about the body we also taught the five senses. I walked into class and asked my students if they knew any of the five senses; not one kid raised their hand. A class filled with kids ranging from 5-13 and none of them had ever learned about their five senses. I sometimes forget how little our students are taught in school and often find myself having to break down my lesson plans into smaller parts so that they can really understand what we are trying to teach. There are many times in my experience in working in the slums that I think their lives aren’t sad because they don’t know about another life ; and to a certain extent I think it is true. They are always running around, laughing playing enjoying the simple things in life! But this week when we were talking about smells and senses; we asked them what kind of smells they smell on their way to class and all they could say were bathroom smells and one student says “We don’t smell nice things here.” The lifestyle in the slums in indescribable; from the horrid to the beautiful I have so much to learn. The children are the most beautiful children I have ever seen in my life. Their smiles are so captivating and the way they take care of one another is lie nothing I have ever seen before. Many of the children have younger siblings in the class; and the older siblings are always making sure their younger siblings get the markers first or get called on before they do; it’s a beautiful thing to see and always inspires me. Also their motivation to learn is incredible. One day in class this week there was smoke from something burning nearby blowing into the class room and me and all the teachers and students could not stop coughing for about five minutes – but even in those minutes they sat coughing they kept their eyes ahead waiting to see what we would teach next while we ourselves could hardly teach between coughs during those 5-10 minutes.

This week we also taught our Parsha class again in Thane Shul. The lesson was supposed to be one hour – we had so much discussion we were there for 2 hours! We were talking all about our role in the world and why we think that god is hidden and how. The conversations were so powerful, at one point I just sat back and watched; smiling while my eyes teared up. It was beautiful. It was crazy to me that in the middle of India – a group of adults so thirsty to learn were sitting here discussing with me their beliefs and doubts when it comes to god. They care so much; they are having conversations with us that every person should be having daily to remind us of our job in this world. On my way out of class – I was told that one of the men who come to our class asked to leave work a half hour early so he could make it to our class on time! How amazing??! This was by far my favorite part of the week!

Then came Shabbat. This Shabbat we spent in south Mumbai – we stayed in the Sasoon guest house. The jewish community here is very different from what I am used to at home when it comes to observing the Shabbat. Many people come to shul on Shabbat and the warmth that I feel in the shul on  feels more like Shabbat to me then anywhere else in the world. But in the homes – not everyone observes Shabbat in the same way. This weekend for both shabbat meals we ate by a couple named Sharon and Sharona. I was telling them how inspired I was by the jewish community here and how warm they are and how special it is. They were shocked at what I was saying because for them they feel that their jewish community is not as strong as it used to be and that people aren’t as committed to their jewish community as they used to be or as practicing as they used to be. This Shabbat in Mumbai their weren’t even enough people for a minyan on Friday night in the Magen David Bagdadi Shul. But for me I was shocked at how warm and welcoming their community was – we spent a long time talking about what our Jewish communities could learn from each other and how all communities have their strengths and weaknesses. I wish all communities in the US could have someone walk into shul for the first time and make them leave feeling as if they can’t wait to come back because of how welcoming everyone was! Maybe that should be our new goal – every shul to have a welcoming committee so that newcomers never feel out of place! Anyways back to more on this unbelievable couple I met.

Sharon and Sharona are a religious couple that very badly want to make aliyah. When I asked them why they don’t live their they told us because they want to help the community here in Mumbai. They are so dedicated to the Jews around them and they are one of the holiest couples I have ever met. Sharon is a mashgiach for OK kosher and his wife Sharona teaches in the Sasoon High School and is a therapist. Sharon was also one of the three people who watched over Rabbi Gabriels body after the 2008 attacks on Chabbad. He was supposed to walk over there the night of the attacks but by some miracle he decided not too. Sharon and his wife were there to comfort the nanny and baby who had survived the attacks as well. When we were singing “Yerushalaim shel zahav” you could see how emotional they got and how much they want to move to Israel. They do plan on moving there soon though but know they have more work to be done in India first. The whole Friday night we spent laughing and singing and playing games with their 3 beautiful daughters. We stayed till 1:30 am!!
Over Shabbat lunch Sharon told us the whole history of the Jews of India which is fascinating!
A fun table conversation was hearing religion comparisons of Hinduism to Judiasm. In America I am so used to hearing comparisons and contrasts of Judiasm to Christanity and Islam. Never to Hinduism! It was fascinating!

 On Sunday we took a trip to the Concan coast – the place where the ‘Bnei Israel’ Jews supposedly first arrived in India. They settled in a place called Alibag. The jews were considered to be their own caste in the Indian caste system and were know and the “7th day oil pressers.” They haven’t faced anti-semitism in all their years in india and were left alone because they were considered to be their own caste. They got this name because they didn’t press the oil on Shabbat. Today Alibag looks like a little village in the middle of a jungle. It is about 3 hours away from the main city of Mumbai and has about 4 Jewish families left there. They still press oil there in these machines that require a lot of manual labor. There is one small machine with a wheel that presses oil out of different nuts and a woman named Shoshana sits there and sorts the nuts to be pressed. Her and her husband press oil and make furniture together. There house is also right there and has Jewish stars on the outside and a mezuzah on the door post! The village had women washing their clothes in buckets of water outside while chickens and roosters ran around the house. There was a well where they get their water from and it has a little stream that comes out of it to plant all the trees in the area. It's beautiful to see how simply they live and how peaceful the area they live in is. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that this family that still presses oil is jewish. It's unbelievable to meet people who live such a completely different life then you but to share the same Jewish values.

Then we walked around the village a bit more and made our way to the synagogue there. Yes. A synagogue in the middle of this remote village! And it's BEAUTIFUL!! We enter but of course take our shoes off before entering because we are still in India!  It has all these bright colors, it's orange with pink and light blue and purple. These radiant colors that make you want to dance! The shul is over 100 years old with only four families in the area. I walk in and see a boy no older then 18, he's wearing a kipa and lighting the candles that hang in the shul. He is the shamash; the care taker of the shul, his dad had the role before him. I also got to hold a siddur that I found on the shelf that was made in 1872!!! This country is rich with Jewish history!

Another fun fact about Alibag - legend has it that  Elijah took off into the sky from here in India on a chariot with fire and there are marks on the ground of the horses hoof prints and wagon wheel marks! I saw it myself! Both Hindus and Jews consider the place holy. The Hindu man who lives there was told by his grandfather who was told by his grandfather etc etc the story of a holy man who took off in a chariot of fire. The man who lives there - their family has been there for generations and won't leave bc they feel the area is blessed. Hindus leave flowers and incense there and Jews go there to have maleeda's which are ceremonies when people have babies or celebrate anniversaries or other Simchas and invite eliyahu to come! It's such a beautiful place!

After four weeks of India I can finally say I'm adjusted- I think there is very little that surprises me here. I went to the doctor this week with a friend to get a shot and we had to take our shoes off before entering the doctors office. I didn't even think twice about it! I almost forgot to mention it in this email bc it's so the norm!  If a car bumps into me while I'm walking; I'm the least bit shocked, it happens to everyone! And at one of the meals this week there was salad with a cole slaw type of consistency, and I ate it with my fingertips! That's just how people eat here. Everything is finger food :) my nephews would be thrilled! I finally learned how to share a menu because they only bring one max 2 to a table even if it's six of you sitting there! And I'm finally learning some Bollywood Dance moves from my students who are great dancers!



(Adina's next blog post will be uploaded shortly. Revisit this blog for the next exciting blog entry!)

Adina with some of her students in the slums

Adina at the sight of Elijah's chariot ascent to the heavens on the Concan coast south of Mumbai

Magen Avot Synagogue in the village of Alibag

Sight of Elijah's chariot ascent according to Benei Israel tradition. This has been a pilgrimage sight for Indian Jews for over a millennia

Beth El Synagogue in Revdanda on the Konkan Coast - built in 1842

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