Meeting the World: A JDC Entwine Alumna Encounters Her Global Jewish Family

Jill Rubin didn’t expect to find family in India. But a JDC Entwine trip, and an unexpected encounter along the way, changed her life.

By Jill Rubin - HUC-JIR Rabbinical Student | March 8, 2021

Jill Rubin, second from left, enjoys a Shabbaton with some Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP) friends in Cochin, India.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

“Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God. “— Martin Buber

I had been in India for just 48 hours. 

Our tour bus took us outside Mumbai and pulled into an empty parking lot surrounded by humble apartment buildings. Hannah, our local educator, told us we were going to Bayiti, the JDC-supported Jewish home for the elderly, but the building in front of us looked nothing like the assisted-living home in St. Louis where my grandfather once lived. After climbing two flights of stairs in the sweltering heat, we entered a large common room. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and saw elderly men and women sitting across from us, wearing gowns and large smiles. Hanging above their heads was a quilt stitched with the Magen David and the Hamsa. I knew we were in the right place even though it felt so foreign.

Jill, left, and her friend Michelle Chajet pose for a photo with Sophia, a resident of JDC’s Bayiti old-age home in Mumbai.

After a few minutes of shy introductions, we began to speak with the residents of Bayiti, and we began to identify similar themes in many of their stories: their family members had left for Israel, and they were either too old or too ill to join them. They had very little money, and JDC not only helped sustain them physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. As a group of future rabbis and cantors, we of course broke into song and encouraged our new friends to join us. We danced around the room, holding the hands of the Bayiti residents and smiling so hard our faces hurt. We asked our new friends which Hebrew songs they knew, and we repeated “Oseh Shalom”over and over again until everyone in the room was singing.

After the singing quieted, I sat down next to a silver-haired resident wearing a gown with pink roses, something very similar to what my grandmother used to wear. She told me her name was Sophia, and it happened to be her 76th birthday. She smiled a huge smile and nodded along as my friend and I told her about our first day in India. As I looked into Sophia’s eyes, the eyes of a woman whose life could not have been more different than mine, I suddenly felt as if I knew her. In that moment, this holy interaction made me feel like the world had order and meaning. I felt connected, even for a fleeting second, to something much larger than myself. In that moment, I sensed God’s presence. I had opened my heart fully to Sophia, a woman I hardly knew, and I encountered God.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, the people of Israel experience God in a very similar way. After suffering a momentary loss of faith while waiting for Moses to come down the mountain, they recommit themselves to a God they cannot see or touch — for while Moses speaks to God panimel panim (face to face) the Israelites experience the divine presence only as a pillar of cloud. When this amorphous object descends upon the Tent of Meeting so God can speak with Moses, the people “rise and bow low” at the entrances of their own tents. They cannot see God, for “a person cannot see God’s face and live,” but they are clearly aware of the divine in their midst. This small sign of God’s existence is what the Israelites needed in order to restore their faith and move together toward the Promised Land.

We can’t control how we confront the divine: My encounter with Sophia sparked a deep appreciation for Jewish peoplehood. 

I am sure the Israelites did not expect to experience God’s presence in the form of a cloud, just as I did not expect to experience God’s presence at a home for the elderly in India. But we can’t control how we come into contact with the divine: My encounter with Sophia sparked a deep appreciation for Jewish peoplehood, a concept I’d never fully understood before, and greatly impacted the rest of my trip in India.

A few days after visiting Bayiti, we flew to Cochin, a city in the south of India, with members of the Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP), the JDC-supported Jewish youth group based in Mumbai. We attended an amazing Shabbaton together, ate delicious food, learned new rituals and customs, and opened up about Jewish life in our respective countries. My favorite activity was our post-Shabbat dance party; our Indian friends taught us Bollywood dances, and in return we taught them line dances from our b’nai mitzvah party days. We laughed all night long.

Jill, left, and Scott Goldberg, another JDC Entwine participant, pose for a photo with the leader of Mumbai’s Reform Jewish community.

Thinking back on my experiences in India, I owe a lot to my initial encounter with Sophia. My experience of God in that moment opened my heart to the possibility of truly connecting — panim el panim — with people who come from a different country but hold the same shared story of the Jewish people.

There was something divine in my connection with my new friends, just as there had been with Sophia. In India with JDC Entwine, I had the chance to meet the world, as Buber writes, with the fullness of my being. In return, I found my Jewish family.

Jill Rubin is a fourth-year rabbinical student and second-year nonprofit management student at HUC-JIR. Jill received her BA in history and Spanish from Duke University. She is interested in American Jewish history and wrote her senior honors thesis on the black-Jewish coalition that formed during the Civil Rights Movement. She worked for the Union for Reform Judaism before entering rabbinical school, and has since worked for multiple Reform synagogues in the New York area. She is an alumna of the Weitzman-JDC-HUC partnership, having traveled to India with JDC Entwine in 2019.

Passionate about food justice, she sits on the student leadership committee for the HUC-NY Soup Kitchen, which has been serving the local Greenwich Village community for over 30 years. She loves travel and everything food-related, so her 2019 JDC Entwine trip to India was a dream come true. Jill lives in Manhattan with her fiancé Ryan. 

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories