Lessons learned from unexpected places
Written by: Alec Leve, JDC Entwine-Gabriel Project Mumbai Multi-Week Fellow
I gained a lot from my six weeks as a JDC Entwine-GPM Multi-Week Fellow in India. I met and built relationships with numerous people, I learned how to live on my own in a big city and foreign country, I had my first experience teaching, and perhaps most surprisingly, became more connected than I had ever been to Judaism and community.
I came into India with a basic knowledge of Judaism. I was bar mitzvahed at a reform synagogue that I never felt particularly connected to - I didn’t enjoy learning about Judaism and in turn didn’t try to learn about the religion. Despite this lack of interest in Jewish content, I always felt a connection with Jewish people, which informed my Jewish identity and pride in being Jewish for most of my life.
I didn’t sign up for the program with the intention of becoming more Jewish. On our first Shabbat in Mumbai we attended synagogue and Chabad for dinner. I spent this first service doing what I usually do during services, thinking about whatever crossed my mind, unable to participate in the prayers. While I enjoyed talking to the community around me, my inability to relate to the religious aspect made it unfulfilling and a bit uncomfortable. Sometime after this first service, for no conscious reason, I downloaded an English translation of the Torah onto my phone and read it in about two weeks.
It didn't take me long to decide why the Torah is cool for so many reasons. I found that it’s a well told story of G-d’s relationship to people, and gives practical guidelines for how to live a moral life. With this newfound appreciation for the Torah, I decided to try out actively practicing some of its teachings, most notably, the Commandment to keep Shabbat holy. For my last three Shabbats in Mumbai I attended local services, and embraced it as a day of rest by not doing any work. One of many things I gained from this was a deeper appreciation and love for Shabbat.
Another great outcome was building of relationship with synagogue congregants. On Fridays I attended a Baghdadi Indian synagogue in downtown Mumbai, where I got to know a diverse group of Friday-night regulars. On Saturdays, I attended a synagogue in the same compound as my guest house with a core group of about ten Indian Jewish men. At first some were more welcoming than others, but towards the end of my stay the entire group had accepted me as part of their congregation. I look back on the relationships I formed very fondly – it’s so meaningful that these old men took me in as their own.
In addition to my newfound synagogue connections, I spent time with a woman who lived at the same guest house, as well as her son who is my age and would come over regularly. She took care of me as my mother or aunt would have, making me tea and making sure I was well fed. I never thought that I would have an adopted Jewish mother halfway around the world. Reflecting on the experience, I find the connections even more powerful because they were forged through a shared global community, despite different personal histories and thousands of miles.
I have to thank JDC-Entwine and GPM for putting me in a situation where I had the opportunity to become a part of a relatively small Jewish community. In such a big city where pretty much everything was new to me, it was nice to spend some of my time being with people who I have always felt a connection with. The volunteering and travel was great, but I know the program would have had a very different impact on my life without the local Jewish community.
I just returned from India with a lot to think about, but two things I know for sure are that I need to learn more about Judaism, and that I now have an extended Jewish family in Mumbai.