In India, Connecting to the Local Community and Each Other through Service

Gabriel Project Mumbai 1By Hannah Hess

“I like to refer to God as a nudnik. A tikkun olam nudnik,” quips Jacob Sztokman, founder of Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM). The former Israeli hi-tech and marketing executive has made it his life’s mission to help children in the slums of Mumbai, India integrate into Indian society through inspired education. “God tells us over thirty times in the Torah to help the orphan, help the widow and leave food for the poor,” continues Jacob enthusiastically, “God just doesn’t let up with that.” About four years ago, Jacob sensed a divine nudging. He dropped his career after a fateful business trip to Mumbai in 2011. Exploring India’s greatest city and comprehending the depth of the challenges facing 70% of its 22 million inhabitants living in the slums, Jacob made a commitment to bring about change.

The thing that really sets Jacob apart is that he followed through on his pledge. Instead of donating a few shekels and heading home, Jacob returned to Mumbai and teamed with local NGO, REAP, to reinvent and expand the free education opportunities for slum children and simultaneously engage the local and global Jewish community in his work. To develop his own expertise, Jacob also began a masters in Hebrew University’s Glocal community-development studies program.

Gabriel Project Mumbai 2Walking through the slums, Jacob saw children as young as four working as rag-pickers and sewage cleaners. His first step was launching the ‘eat to learn’ program to offer nutritious meals to children who come to school to combat malnutrition while incentivizing education. Within a year, this initiative increased school attendance by 50%. Jacob then targeted the quality of the education itself, partnering with JDC to bring in both young Jewish volunteers from the local Indian Jewish community through the GPM Internship and from abroad through JDC Entwine’s Multi-Week Fellowship to mentor the children and run animated informal educational programs. The unique contributions of these two groups of volunteers form the backbone of GPM’s signature work. And, in Jacob’s eyes, the benefit runs two ways. No volunteer has gone back to his or her society unchanged.

For Indian Jewish volunteers taking part in the Internship, this is often their first engagement with the Jewish values of Tikkun Olam and Jewish service, as they’ve come to be understood in many western Jewish communities. The Jewish community of India is incredibly vibrant and “as individuals they have committed a lot,” reflects Jacob, “but this, I think, is the only time in India where we have designed a Jewish communal response or platform for helping broader society outside of a major natural disaster.”

Engaging with the vulnerable components of Hindu and Muslim Indian society has allowed many Indian Jewish volunteers to connect with their own identities in a new and meaningful way. Salome, a local lead professional for JDC, relates that “Tikkun Olam as a value is … strengthened” and “there is a strong sense of giving back that is activated” in the hearts of volunteers. To date, over 35 Indian Jewish young people have participated in the internship, many of whom have returned for a second time. Salome also says alumni have become more active in their local Jewish community as “they feel more responsible and capable to be the change they want to see around them.” This is due in part to the spotlight GPM and JDC put on Jewish service during the course of the internship, leading discussions on Jewish ideals of social justice and human rights.

These values have taken hold and spread to the greater Indian Jewish community. In the past couple of months, middle-aged and older women from the community have stepped up to volunteer. Even the youngest members now play a role. GPM runs activities in the local JCC’s “Gan Katan” Sunday school program combining Jewish and slum children. Jacob relates that watching the kids together is heartwarming. “It’s just kids playing, kids enjoying life. It’s one of my favorite times.”

The shifts in the Indian Jewish community’s relationship to its Hindu and Muslim neighbors is complemented by a newfound connection with the international Jewish community. Thus far, over 130 international volunteers have flown to Mumbai to aid GPM in their mission. JDC Entwine works with GPM to recruit talented Jewish volunteers from the US, the UK, Australia and across the world. Alongside volunteering, the internationals study Indian Jewish history, social justice, and global development. They also learn Hindi/Marathi and explore cultural sites in Mumbai. The initiative fosters a concrete appreciation for collaboration within the wider Jewish community and promotes dialogue and understanding between Jews of different backgrounds.

Each group contributes uniquely to GPM’s work. International volunteers bring knowledge of informal education, from their considerable experience in camps and youth groups. Engaging with the children through informal education is a crucial skill in the slum classrooms, which are often overcrowded with students of varying ages and wanting in basic facilities like desks, chairs and whiteboards. In this environment, creativity and unorthodoxy are golden tools for success. And, the international volunteers gain a lot of “street cred” among the locals for their commitment. Unlike other international volunteers who may show up sporadically to do relief work, GPM volunteers teach in the slums day in and day out.

Likewise, the Indian Jewish interns volunteer with GPM for significant periods of time, around four months, while balancing school or work. Because they are part of Indian society, they naturally bridge the cultural gap between the international volunteers and the slum community and are encouraging role models for the children. Salome relates that when JDC ran their first program “an 8 year old, Mousma, came up … looking confused and asked why are you doing this for us? You could have used this money and this time to go out with your friends … we do not even know you.” Salome answered simply and honestly “we really like spending time with you and getting to know you.” Mousma’s face lit up in a bright smile. She exclaimed that that day “was one of the most extraordinary” she ever had and she would “remember it forever in her life.”

Slum children like Mousma often grow up with the impression they are not worthy of achievement. Looking to their parents and grandparents, who lived in the slums all their lives, they assume the same will be true for them. The volunteers show the children that another reality is within reach. Attuned to the children’s cultural context, they can connect with them on a deep level and walk with them hand in hand, showing them the way to open doors and a better future. The kids look up to them as role models and say, “I want to be like you one day.” Bridging communities, societies, and countries, GPM’s diverse network of volunteers uniquely contributes to the lives and prospects of countless children and generates new hope and energy in the Mumbai slums.

Hannah Hess interned at OLAM this past summer and is a first-year student at Harvard University.