California Volunteer Finds Community in Mumbai

September 9, 2014

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When Kimberly Duenas arrived in India last year, she didn’t know what to expect.

The 24-year-old Californian – who had never been to the country prior to her posting there as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) fellow – decided the best way to cope with the inevitable culture shock was by immersing herself in her new surroundings.

“I had to accept the world around me and put myself in the mindset of embracing everything and going with the flow,” she recalled in an interview over the phone from Mumbai. “It’s helped me adapt very quickly and develop a strong relationship.”

JDC’s Jewish Service Corps (JSC) offers young Jews the opportunity to directly engage with JDC’s global mission and actively fulfill the value of Jewish responsibility through a year-long, paid, service opportunity connected to JDC’s overseas programs.

The Global Jewish Service Corps is an initiative of JDC Entwine, a one-of-a-kind movement of young Jewish advocates, influencers, and leaders who seek to make a lasting impact on the global Jewish community.

Now, more than 12 months later, Duenas has become a valued and integral part of the Indian Jewish community — so much so that she agreed to sign up for another year in residence.

“I don’t have any non-Indian friends,” said Duenas proudly. “My life is entirely Indian and I feel comfortable now.”

At the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center in Mumbai, the hub of Jewish life in the bustling Indian metropolis, Duenas does “a little bit of everything.”

She teaches Torah and Hebrew, organizes cultural events, works with children, takes part in courses empowering women, and even edits the community’s quarterly magazine. During lunch, she socializes with colleagues over a shared meal of delicious homemade naan bread or rice and vegetable stews.

Outside of work, she often goes out and around the city with friends or does yoga, where she delights in being the only foreigner in class. For her, the JSC fellowship has been an excellent way of combining three important aspects of her life: her pursuit of a career in international development, passion for Jewish activism, and love of travel.

“The JDC Entwine JSC Fellowship has given me a golden opportunity to contribute to the future of our global Jewish family and develop my own Jewish identity in so many ways,” she said. “This service work is a testament to just how powerful it is to connect with other communities and celebrate our shared story and traditions.”

Duenas’ unexpected journey to Mumbai began in El Salvador, where she volunteered with the tiny Jewish community during college. It was a homecoming of sorts: Her father was born and raised in the country, which he left for the U.S. after discovering his Jewish roots and converting to Judaism. Spending time there, she got to know her relatives and make a contribution to the local Jewish community and the country in the spirit of “tikkun olam,” the principle that challenges Jews to repair the world. It was a pivotal experience, and after graduation she sought a similar position overseas.

When she heard about the JSC fellowship, she applied and was picked out of hundreds of applicants.

JSC fellows are sent to countries all over the world from Argentina to China, Rwanda to Latvia. India is considered one of the more challenging postings and Duenas credits the local Jewish community’s warmth for her relative ease of integration.

“They treat you like family,” she said. “Indian Jews are unique and very proud of their heritage.”

She soon became acquainted with local Jewish customs. For instance, on Rosh Hashana local Jews eat “halva” — not the Middle-Eastern dessert made of sesame seeds but rather a sweet gelatinous dish made of almonds or coconut milk. Every Shabbat, after lighting candles, Indian Jews go around touching hands, kissing their own, and greeting each other.

“It’s called “Hath boshi, a hand kiss” explained Duenas.

And on simchas, the prophet Elijah is honored with a ceremony and a special sweet rice dish made with dried and fresh fruits.

Asked about her future, Duenas said she plans to head back to the U.S. at the end of her second tenure in India. She knows she’ll miss the country dearly, but being away from her family is difficult and she would like to pursue a masters’ degree in international development.

With another exciting year ahead, it’s too early for her to sum up. Nonetheless, Duenas already knows she’s learned some valuable lessons that will stay with her forever.

“There’s something special about the richness of the culture,” she said. ‘People are curious about what it’s like for me to live in a place that is considered to be in the developing world, but theres so much more than that, this country is diverse and developed in so many ways. Being surrounded by all walks of life, from the streets to the cosmopolitan high-rises, is a humbling and inspiring experience all at the same time. And everywhere you find beauty, history, and life that creates a distinct spirit of India.’

JDC’s global programs are made possible by the generosity of our supporters.

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