In India, A Pioneer of Jewish Life and Leadership

What will India's Jewish future be like? Look no further than Sharon Samuel.

By Sharon Samuel - Youth Program Manager; EPJCC, Mumbai | July 10, 2023

Sharon Samuel (front row, far left) visits the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India, with other members of JDC's Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP)

Sharon Samuel’s full-time job is to power Jewish life in India. As youth program manager at JDC’s Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center (EPJCC) in Mumbai, he helps develop initiatives that engage and inspire young Jews. In this post, Samuel reflects on his Jewish journey and the road that led him to the very heart of his community. 

Members of a JYP youth camp enjoy a day at the beach.

Here in India, Jewish life is precious — so few spaces exist that allow us to embrace and explore our Jewishness. Though we’re a small community — roughly 4,500 individuals in a city of 21 million and a country of 1.4 billion — we have an incredibly long and rich history. Over 2,000 years ago, we arrived here in Mumbai, and we’ve been going strong ever since. 

I myself grew up in a traditional Jewish family; as a child, I’d always visit the synagogue during the High Holidays and attend Shabbat services here and there. Though I never experienced antisemitism, which is a largely unknown phenomenon in India, it still felt like being Jewish was a challenge: no kosher restaurants or grocery stores, no days off to celebrate Jewish holidays, and no real visibility in the broader culture. 

That’s exactly why the Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP), JDC’s program for young adults in India, has become so essential to me. It’s one of the only places I can feel Jewish and forge connections with people like me. I went to a secular school and didn’t have Jewish friends until I was 15, when a local JDC representative recommended that my parents send me to a JYP camp. As a kid, I was a true introvert and said no — I wouldn’t know anyone. 

“We are one big family,” the JDC representative told me. “And everyone will love you there.” 

I went — and my life changed completely. Since age 15, I haven’t looked back. At that Jewish summer camp, I made Jewish friends, spent numerous Shabbats with them, and learned more about Jewish life. Pretty soon, I joined JYP. (Even just thinking about this group gives me hope and makes me a little emotional … in a good way!)  

Over the years, these connections enhanced my knowledge about Judaism and helped me grow as a person. JYP conducts regular activities for young Jews in Mumbai, helping us to learn about Judaism, leadership training, and socialize with other Jews. Mumbai’s youngest Jews are our future, and JYP offers a platform for these youth to develop exciting programs, volunteer at Bayiti (the nearby JDC-supported Jewish home for elderly Indian Jews), and organize fundraising programs for the most vulnerable members of our community. 

In short, JYP is both a vital resource and a gateway to Jewish life for us in India. To my knowledge, there are no other organizations in India that provide a platform for Jewish youth to be close to their community and culture.  

One way we do this is through youth camps. JYP recently hosted a camp in Pondicherry and Chennai — two cities in southeastern India — and 24 people participated. For many, this was their first time attending a Jewish youth camp and also getting to know other Jewish people. The youth camp always strives to give participants a full Jewish experience — holding Shabbat services and seminars on Jewish topics. For a few campers, this was their first Shabbat ever. 

In our time together, we connected, told stories, explored areas of challenge and joy, and shared resources. We felt seen, honored, and included. These camps are important for shaping the future of Jewish life — for shaping usas people and giving us a sense of community. 

If JYP is a hub for young Jews, then JDC’s Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Centre (EPJCC) is a hub for the entire community. The EPJCC is one of the very few institutions that cater to Jews of all backgrounds and ages. For anyone who walks through our doors, we provide social, educational, cultural, religious, and recreational events.

No matter where you are in your Jewish journey, there’s a place for you at the EPJCC — all Jews are one and they are given the Torah by the same G-d. The EPJCC brings the Jewish community together and cultivates the love that every community needs.  

JYP is one of the only places I can feel Jewish and forge connections with people like me.

Even during the pandemic, we saw this love on display. EPJCC’s services went completely virtual and continued to promote Jewish culture and heritage through holiday celebrations, Israel-related programming, and informal Jewish education. When we were apart, we stayed together.

And we’re still together. Fifteen years ago, JDC and JYP nurtured me and impacted my Jewish life in a big way. Today, I’m proud to work with JDC as EPJCC’s youth program manager. I couldn’t be happier than to be associated with the very organization that looks after my community’s welfare — and the welfare of Jews in so many different countries around the world. 

Being with JDC gives me the chance to do more for my community, to ensure that our Jewish traditions, culture, and history are passed on, and to be a pioneer of Jewish life here in India.

That’s work that makes me proud.

Sharon Samuel joined the JDC team in 2022 as the Youth Program Manager for JDC’s Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center (EPJCC) in Mumbai. He is passionate about preserving the rich history of the Indian Jewish community and feels privileged to join the effort to ensure that his community remains strong and vibrant.

An active member of the Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP) committee for five years, and having served for one year as the president of the committee, Sharon is now excited to join the JDC family, grateful for the opportunity to empower his community. Over the years, Sharon has organized youth camps and a myriad of events for Jewish youth, including Khai Fest and other programs conducted by the JYP and JDC. Additionally, Sharon participated at the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) Conference in Israel, representing India. Sharon is a motorcycle enthusiast and enjoys traveling and discovering new cultures. 

This Voices post is a supplement to the 2022-3 Annual Report.

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