Raquel Benguiat

The road towards a renewed Jewish community - Jewish in India

Posted: December 29, 2013

On a sunny and humid day in December 2013, a group of Jewish young adults from San Diego and Mumbai traveled on a full size bus through the windy and narrow roads of Cochin, located in the state of Kerala. It was the second and last day we would spend together and we all wanted to make the best of it by connecting with each other.

On the trip between visiting two synagogues, I randomly sat with Shimon, a 24 year old Indian engineer from Mumbai. I could tell Shimon was fun, open, and friendly. Shimon and I embarked on the "getting to know each other" road by asking the usual questions. I learned about Shimon's career, family, and friends. He learned about mine. As we conversed, we stumbled upon one thing that we are both passionate about: Israeli dancing. We started to name tunes we knew and to my surprise he had a playlist on his phone. We played the songs and compared notes on which choreographies we both knew. The bus was moving fast and the roads kept getting windier and more difficult to navigate. Yet, that did not stop Leya, a Cochini Jew and Kimberly, a JDC Jewish Service Corps volunteer from Orange County from showing us some moves to the Israeli and Indian tunes at the front of the bus.  

During our time together, we learned that Mumbai and San Diego Jewish young adults share similar challenges. In Mumbai (as in other cities in India), the Jewish community is rapidly dwindling. Many moved to Israel while others have assimilated. Nevertheless, JDC is providing an independent and secular space in Mumbai (Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center) as well as staff support to implement a leadership development program for young adults: Young Jewish Pioneers (YJP). YJP is led by Salome Abraham, a vibrant, smart, and passionate young woman who is the driving force behind it.  

Back in San Diego, our Jewish community is also threatened by assimilation. Yet, JDC Entwine is revitalizing the San Diego Jewish young adult scene by providing us with opportunities to explore Jewish communities around the world. As we learn and explore, we find ourselves reflected in them, strengthening our sense of Jewish global responsibility. 

By the end of a full and meaningful day in which each and everyone one of us made a conscious effort to connect with one another, we gathered at the hotel multipurpose room. Shimon connected his phone to the speakers and played Israeli and Indian songs. Leya, Shimon, Kimmy, and Salome showed us different choreographies. Some, more than others, graciously succumbed to the music and effortlessly connected with each other by dancing and laughing.

Both Mumbai and San Diego Jewish young adults face narrow destinies, but we've learned that we have each other and JDC to help us navigate the windy roads. 



El Joint - Jewish in Cuba

Posted: February 21, 2013

Participating in Shabbat services at El Patronato, a beautiful synagogue in Havana, Cuba, was the highlight of my last traveling adventure. My experience included chanting Shabbat prayers among dozens of Jewish locals and visitors, weaving in sections in Spanish sparkled with a charming Cuban accent. The services were led by a Cuban young woman and man, and at the end we listened to the array of programs offered to the local Jewish community (from Hebrew classes to Israeli dancing workshops). All these were tangible proof to me that El Joint (as the Cubans warmly refer to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) has been able to effectively revitalize Jewish life in Cuba. 

Through my work at Federation, I have had the opportunity to experience the impact of El Joint in Israel and heard about their work all over the world - from responding to crisis in Haiti to caring for our seniors in Ukraine. Clearly embodying the Jewish value of “being responsible for one another”. Still, it wasn’t until now that I could appreciate how their operations are sustainable and cultural competent. El Joint has been revitalizing Jewish life in Cuba from within. 

I learned that due to the Cuban Revolution there was a mass Jewish exodus in the late 50’s and it was not until the beginning of the 90’s that El Joint was asked to intervene and help keep Cuba’s Jewish community alive. Since then, El Joint has worked using the community’s strengths, rather than implementing their own way of “doing Jewish”. Their role is to provide vital resources to make Jewish life happen in Cuba - from offering transportation to attend services and programs to serving free Shabbat dinners.

Other valuable resources are the representatives of El Joint on the ground who live and work in the community. A charismatic Argentinean couple, Alejandra and Luciano, are dedicated to Jewish life. Cuban Jews feel comfortable interacting with them as they share similar cultural values. From casual conversations, I learned that their purpose is to empower its members to take leadership and be in charge of all that “happens Jewish” in their community. I believe this is a vital sustainability strategy of El Joint. By empowering local leaders to take ownership, it prevents the community from becoming dependent on El Joint’s presence and services. During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet these dedicated and passionate Jewish leaders and was extremely impressed with how empowered they are as they shared their insights on Jewish life in Cuba. It gave me the impression that El Joint and these leaders have created a partnership that is dependent on resources that would not be available otherwise, but without crossing the fine line in which a partnership becomes paternalistic. 

Now that I have witnessed how El Joint does its work in a sustainable and culturally competent way, I believe in their mission more than ever. While I was in Cuba experiencing how El Jointrevitalized a Jewish community, I learned about the extreme weather conditions in Eastern Europe and how El Joint was literally saving lives there simultaneously. El Joint has wide arms and a reach that makes it possible to care for all our brothers and sisters who are in need, wherever they are. That is why I encourage everyone who believes in the Jewish value of “being responsible for one another” to become familiar with the amazing work that El Joint does on our behalf. At any given moment, on any given day, for millions of people around the globe, El Joint is there. 



Tales from Ethiopia & The Starfish Tale

Posted: February 25, 2013

“You are like Angelina Jolie!” a friend commented on a Facebook photo of my most recent overseas adventure, JDC Entwine: Inside Ethiopia. The truth of the matter is that I felt nothing like the exotic and sophisticated Angelina Jolie. Quite the opposite in fact; to this day I am ashamed to admit that I had a really hard time on this trip. I was constantly worried about what I ate, what I drank and how determined I was to keep my hands clean. Even worse, I feel guilty for having sadness for the Ethiopian people, believing they could not possibly be happy with the life they lead with such harsh living conditions. I would certainly not be happy living without access to clean water, wearing torn clothing, walking barefoot, living in a shack, not knowing how to read or write, being exposed to many diseases including malnourishment and having to walk for miles to get anywhere. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not a hiker!

Thankfully, I do not have to face these challenges every day of my life. But I am  grateful that I had the opportunity to experience them for at least a few days, along with a group of smart, fun, socially and globally-aware Jewish young adults from the US, London, Canada and Australia. Here I’m sharing a few of my reflections in an effort to tell a story that not many people have the privilege of experiencing themselves.

My first few hours in Gondar, Ethiopia were epic. After spending a day in Addis Abba, a city that can be compared to Tijuana, Gondar felt like traveling back in time. Very few roads are paved and the views are breathtaking; gorgeous and plentiful green fields.

Our first stop was at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Health Clinic, which tends to the medical needs of those who are waiting to immigrate to Israel. We were welcomed by dozens of children running towards us yelling and screaming: shalom! I was surprised and overjoyed when listening in broken Hebrew.  That day was “Deworming Campaign Day”, and dozens of families were waiting for us to make that happen.   This was something like I never experienced before!

Traveling with us was the legendary Dr. Rick Hodes, head of the Health Clinic, who has been saving lives in Ethiopia for over 20 years. We were given very specific instructions on how to perform the deworming campaign successfully and the importance of tracking the clients and keeping records up to date.

It did not take long after we officially started that we were immediately surrounded by a lot of people who were impatiently demanding the pills. In no time we lost control and we were giving pills away with no tracking system whatsoever. I felt extremely overwhelmed at that point, although we were told that the pills were not toxic.  I stepped away from the table and asked someone else to cover for me as I took a deep breath.

In that moment a question entered my mind - an unanswered question that continues to follow me to this day. I wondered what it would take for these people, with such different culture and norms, to be integrated into a Jewish western culture, such as Israel. Furthermore, I wondered how Israel, with all its current internal and external challenges, could take this enormous and difficult task.  Before the trip, I would proudly and fiercely defend Israel’s role in rescuing and providing a better future for every Jew on earth. Quite honestly, after experiencing the magnitude of the gap between the cultures, I began questioning my own beliefs and assumptions on this matter.

Later that day, I experienced something beautiful that soften my view on this questioning. After a couple of hours traveling on rural roads, witnessing magnificent views, sporadically passing villages and barefoot young children herding cattle, feeling car sick and all that goes along with this kind of travel, we arrived at our destination, Teda Village.

This is a small village that was home to the Beta Yisrael Ethiopian Jews prior to their emigration to Israel. We entered the village and walked up the hill. At the top of the hill, I saw something that was completely unexpected and that made the uncomfortable two hour trip, completely worthwhile: an unpretentious cement structure with a Star of David on the top. I was mesmerized as I stared at the Amboder Synagogue. Suddenly, I felt a strong connection with the people that lived here, even though they looked completely different than me and are living such a different life from me.

The following day we visited a school. When we arrived the students were in their classrooms, but nothing like I had ever seen before. The classrooms were shacks made from sticks and mud. Some students were sitting on rocks, others sitting on broken chairs. At the far end of the school yard, there was a cement building with three classrooms. That’s when we learned that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been building dozens of these buildings in Gondar.

Our assignment was to decorate the school building facade. We were given brushes and few buckets of paint. We decided on an educational design: numbers, the English alphabet, animals and the world. We divided into small groups and started to paint. In the meantime, the kids were in their classrooms learning and repeating out loud the “ABC’s”. After an hour or so, the kids came out to see what we were doing and were happily surprised.   They ran right up to us, and one boy in particular was getting really close to me, curious as to what I was doing. I extended my brush and pointed to the yellow tulip I was painting. He looked me in the eye with a big smile and started to paint. After every brush, he would turn to me and look for my approval. I kept nodding with a big smile on my face. We were communicating even though we did not have a common language; art connected us. He was so happy painting that flower. I was no longer overwhelmed at that moment by the crowds, the aromas or my own assumptions of what happy looks and feels like. It was a brief but beautiful moment.

Ethiopia faces tremendous challenges and even though the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is doing a magnificent job providing access to water, granting university scholarships, building schools and offering lifesaving healthcare services; the task seems to be never-ending.  When I expressed this overwhelming feeling to Rob, a member of our group from London, he shared with me a tale. It was about a boy who was at the beach and discovered hundreds of starfishes on the sand. The boy knew that if starfish did not return to the ocean, they would die. He desperately ran and threw as many as he could back into the ocean. When his father saw him so overwhelmed, he stopped him and said: “I’m sorry son but there are too many starfishes and there is no way you can save them all”. The boy wisely responded: “I might not be able to save them all, but to this particular starfish my help means a world of difference”.

I left Ethiopia with more and different questions than I had upon my arrival. I feel connected to Ethiopian Jews in ways I never expected. I have a new, different perspective of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s role as the largest Jewish international humanitarian aid organization. I have a new appreciation for Israel’s efforts integrating Ethiopian immigrants into their society. I’m comforted to know that there are many Jewish young adults around the world that care about our global Jewish community just like I do. And most importantly, I left Ethiopia knowing that we might not be able to care for them all, but that for each and every person that we touch, it means a world of difference.

Are you a young adult who is interested in being part of JDC Entwine overseas experience and explore Jewish communities around the world? Contact Jonathan Goldstone, JDC Entwine West Coast Program Specialist at jonathan.goldstone@jdcny.org or visit http://jdcentwine.org/trips.



Oct 29, 2014 12:51:17 AM
Raquel Benguiat uploaded new photos into Clinic
Feb 25, 2013 11:38:53 PM
Raquel Benguiat uploaded new photos into teda village
Feb 25, 2013 10:47:47 PM
Raquel Benguiat uploaded new photos into Ethiopia
Feb 24, 2013 12:32:18 PM


Raquel Benguiat
Joined: August 22, 2012






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