Building Community Through Volunteers in Jewish Mumbai

April 3, 2013


Tahl Mayer, JDC Entwine’s 2012-2013 Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Mumbai, India has joined the local Jewish Community Center (JCC) to spearhead a new youth leadership and engagement initiative.

Nearly mid-way through the program, Tahl shares his thoughts on Torah and tikkun olam (repairing the world) in one of the earth’s most challenging environments.

JDC: What was your introduction to India and the local Jewish community?

TM: I arrived in Mumbai last September during the Ganpati festival, a celebration honoring Ganesh, the elephant god. People were setting off fireworks, drumming, dancing in the streets, and blocking the roads carrying Ganesh statues, large and small, to the sea.

It was a very authentic introduction because India is a constant overload to your senses. There are so many smells, so many sounds, and so many colors. There were no words that could have properly prepared me for this trip.

I was welcomed with open arms by people from many different backgrounds and places in life, especially in the Jewish community.

The community I work with, the Bene Israel, trace their roots in India back to before the destruction of the second temple. Though the Jewish community is a very small fragment of the population—4,000 out of 30 million—when you walk around Mumbai, you see Jewish libraries, synagogues, and important landmarks all around the city because of the different Jewish groups that have settled here throughout history—the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi primarily.

JDC: JDC Entwine’s Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) is a yearlong, paid, professional opportunity for recent college graduates and young professionals to create innovative programs that respond to international Jewish and humanitarian needs and leave a lasting impact on global Jewish communities. How have you found your experience so far?

TM: Being the JSC fellow here in India is an amazingly overwhelming and wonderful experience because there is so much to do. There are so many great people within the community who genuinely want to learn and expand their knowledge, and who think that the Fellows of the past have brought something special. They expect a lot from JSC Fellows and working with them is very humbling.

JDC: You came here with an MA in International Studies, experience working in Hebrew and Arabic, and an interest in sports-based youth development. What was the initial volunteering project you came to work on?

TM: I came in as the JSC Fellow for Youth Service Programs and the Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP) youth group. I was tasked with creating a volunteer program in partnership with Gabriel Project Mumbai for local Jewish youth in order to offer them an opportunity to give back beyond the Jewish community.

I wanted to develop a sports-based youth development program in a nearby slum as a volunteering opportunity for the JYP youth group. (Youth group here is for people ages 16 to early 30s.)

I set out to lead a project between JDC (which works out of the local JCC to help sustain Jewish life here), Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM, a Jewish non-profit founded here in 2011), and Reach Education Action Programme (REAP, a local organization that runs 25 schools for about 500 students ages 4 to 12 in Mumbai’s Kalwa slum and many more throughout the region).

JDC wanted to partner with GPM and REAP to help better the neighborhood and to infuse a spirit of tikkun olam into the local Jewish community and the next generation of community leaders.

REAP provides the education, the teachers and access to the Kalwa slum. GPM gives local women microloans to buy food and cook lunch for the schoolchildren; they also coordinate volunteers to work in the slum. Now JDC is coming in and adding a third element of extra-curricular and physical activities for the children.

My role is to develop a volunteer program and coordinate that aspect of the partnership between the organizations. Together we’re providing education, food, and now physical exercise and play. In the process, the kids learn skills such as listening, teamwork, and patience.

As of the end of March, we have begun the spring session of the program. The huge smiles on the children’s faces and the feedback from the volunteers have proven to us that the project is already becoming a success.

JDC: This sounds like a somewhat complex project in a very challenging place.

TM: Mumbai is a very difficult place to live because of the intense contrast between extreme poverty and extreme wealth. And it’s difficult for me as a Westerner to look past the challenges and inequalities of life here.

It’s also hard for people here to feel that they can make an impact, given the scale of so many of Mumbai’s problems.

But I believe getting people involved in volunteer programs is essential because every person you reach has the potential to make and experience change—especially in how they juggle being a Jew in India with the concept of tikkun olam.

For me, my Judaism is about making a positive impact on other people’s lives. As a representative of JDC, I have been given an opportunity to positively impact people here in many ways.

I feel that involving the Jewish youth more deeply in service programs can strengthen the community, as well as individual identities. I think the JDC-GPM partnership can provide the youth group and the community as a whole with an opportunity for exponential growth and awareness building.

JDC: Do the Jewish volunteers in the group you’re leading work inside the Jewish community too?

TM: Sure. For example, members of the youth group visit the elderly in the JDC-run old age home to spend time with them and sing songs. The facility recently moved to the suburbs so we need to make sure people are still visiting these seniors often and they do not feel alone.

Through the volunteering program for the youth group we’re starting to change the culture here. People want to be more involved and they’re starting to come to our programs more frequently. So in this sense we are starting to achieve what we set out to do when I first arrived.

JDC: Are you involved in the social entrepreneurship program that was initiated by JDC to empower local Jews to devise creative new ways for engaging more of their peers in Jewish community life?

TM: Yes, I’m serving as a project advisor to the Szarvas Alumni Social Entrepreneurship group. We are targeting young people in their twenties and early thirties who are looking to make meaningful change within the community.

Recently we went to Calcutta to visit the Jewish community. It once numbered 6,000 people but now has less than 30 (the majority of whom are elderly), largely owing to emigration.

It was an eye opening experience for the group to observe the Calcutta Jews’ challenges because the Mumbai community will have to adapt to similar sustainability challenges within the next few generations.

The group came away with a lot of great ideas and project models to fill the unique needs in the Jewish community. For example, one participant is a new parent who realized there was no Jewish group for young families, leaving a whole cohort out of the community. He designed a parent-toddler program called “Family Matters” at the JCC to help capture this age group and provide meaningful programming.

JDC: How have you applied your background in education here? Are you teaching Hebrew or other Judaic subjects?

TM: I teach two conversational Hebrew classes, one mostly middle-aged and older, and the second for Mumbai youth. Every student attends for different reasons: one is a hazzan (cantor); others have family in Israel or are making aliyah themselves; still others think learning Hebrew is an integral part of having a modern Jewish identity.

I doubted myself at first but once I actually started teaching it came naturally because I was able to see the progress the students were making. It’s very gratifying to see their growth and how much they’ve learned in the past few months!

I also teach a Torah class at the JCC. From day one it was about a philosophical and historical analysis of the Torah. Together we are trying to put things in context and learning how Judaism has evolved since the Torah was written. We discuss our role as a small community in the world and how we can make an impact.

Teaching is very humbling. I’ve never been able to teach on such a regular basis and create such a bond with my students before. I am so thankful to JDC for this fantastic opportunity to see my impact firsthand and integrate myself in the community.

JDC: How has this experience altered your sense of self?

TM: Coming here I had a very conflicted identity. My family is Israeli, but I was born and raised in the US. I grew up in a small town in Vermont, but for high school was selected to represent the US at the United World College, an international boarding school in New Mexico.

My family practices Judaism and I am very spiritual, but I do not consider myself religious. What Judaism means to me and what I take from it have changed a lot over the years.

My identity is very skewed in the sense that I don’t necessarily belong anywhere. When I’m in Israel I’m an American, when I’m in America I’m an Israeli.

Here in India, finally, as a JSC fellow I’m not confused because I’m just foreign. I stick out because I’m different. This experience is helping me learn about who I am—a global citizen.

JDC: What take-aways would you offer other volunteers interested in heading into the field?

TM: At the end of the day, the experience is largely about cultural relativity. Being in India, things take a long time to get under way and it feels like the country runs on a different clock.

Mumbai in particular is a very difficult place. On my way home I pass dozens and dozens of people sleeping in the streets. It’s very easy to look away and become blind to the extremes. It’s very humbling and hard to be here, but at the same time I could never have grown to become the person I am today without experiencing the full spectrum of India, from its highs to its lows.

I appreciate every day’s many adventures and positive experiences. And it’s inspiring to me that the Mumbai community is genuinely interested in Jewish life and maintaining their distinct identity, that they take Hebrew classes on Sunday evenings (their weekend) just because they want to learn and further their own personal growth, for example.

As a JSC Fellow here, I’ve learned that when it comes to the success of your placement or your project, attitude and perspective greatly influence the end result. Positivity has the power to make a project; negativity and complacency can break one. I’ve learned to always keep sight of my original goals and constantly re-evaluate my progress. This has been essential to getting my project off the ground, as it gave me the perspective necessary to surpass the hurdles along the way and implement it effectively.

There will always be flaws in taking a project from an idea to a reality and I have learned from making mistakes to be flexible and keep it all in perspective.

Being a JSC Fellow in India has been an enriching experience. Even with all of the ups and downs inherent to this place, I truly feel I am a part of this community.

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