Jewish Peoplehood: A View From Mumbai

David a.k.a. 'Salman Khan'  teaching in the slums; photo courtesy Gabriel Project Mumbai.
David a.k.a. ‘Salman Khan’ teaching in the slums; photo courtesy Gabriel Project Mumbai.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Jacob Sztokman and Elana Maryles Sztokman

One of the most powerful messages in the Torah is the mission of the Jewish people to look after the vulnerable members of society. This is an integral theme – if not the most important theme – of the Bible: to care for all marginalized people, the poor, foreigners, and all those fates have left them vulnerable in this world. More prevalent than keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, or many other practices that we tend to use to define ourselves as Jews, this mandate connects us back to our basic origins, to our birth as a people during the Exodus, as the Torah repeatedly says that the commandment to empathize with the stranger is a direct result of our experience as strangers in Egypt. The practice of caring for others makes us the people that we are, and arguably has the potential to unite us as a people more than any other notion of peoplehood.

We would argue that the connection between caring for the other and Jewish peoplehood runs even deeper than that: the directive to take action to alleviate the suffering of the other is one of the prime contributions of Jewish culture to the world. Many eastern religions that took shape during the same centuries that the Torah entered the world describe the importance of self-awareness and bolstering our connection to our spiritual source, or to God. This is a very noble quest that finds expression in Jewish heritage as well. But this notion of spirituality as a personal journey often creates some questionable practices in interpersonal relationships. Eastern traditions often teach that the best way to create a better world is by bettering ourselves, that by striving for inner peace and balance we bring more peace to the world. Buddhism, for example, teaches that all suffering comes from the self and that the answer to our own suffering is to look within rather than intervene in another’s journey. We can’t change anyone else, some argue, so the best we can do is to work on ourselves.

But Judaism has a very different teaching about suffering. When we see an animal with a heavy yoke, we are told, our job is to go over to the animal and remove the yoke. When we witness the suffering of another – orphans, disabled, elderly or poor – our job is to take action and interfere. We do not accept the idea that all suffering is internal, self-imposed, or part of one’s journey. To be humanly connected means that another person’s suffering is like my own. We are enjoined to notice those who are often invisible in society, to give thought to the plight of that invisible one, and to actually take action and interfere in order to alleviate that suffering. The Torah tells us that we actually can change others’ lives and fates for the better. This radical idea, that we can and must intervene to alleviate the suffering of the other, is a defining concept of Jewish peoplehood.

It is with this mission in mind that Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) was formed. The program was established as a Jewish initiative to care for vulnerable children in the slums of Mumbai. It is a result of having witnessed the unnecessary human suffering in the Mumbai slums and the decision to work on alleviating children’s poverty and hunger through interventions around nutrition, literacy, health and hygiene.

In Mumbai, over 70% of the 22 million residents live in slums where they have limited access to electricity, clean water, food, and education, and suffer from overcrowded communal bathroom facilities, open sewage and contaminated drinking water. Some 700,000 Indians die each year from diarrhea. The slums are home to over seven million children under the age of 14 who are growing up in abject poverty. According to the World Health Organization, children suffer from this situation in some harrowing ways: 42.5% of the children in India suffer from malnutrition; 49% of the world’s underweight children and 34% of the world’s stunted children live in India. Because food is scarce and the need for families to pool their resources for survival is great, there is tremendous pressure on children – even as young as four years old – to work. Slum children work as rag pickers, sewage cleaners and other menial jobs all around Mumbai, earning a few cents a month in order to stave off their families’ hunger. Education and literacy are put off as parents struggle to balance the immediate needs for survival of the family over the need of a child to grow, develop, and study in order to build a different life.

Education is the key to saving children’s lives. Education in health and sanitation, skills training, and literacy are key components in breaking the devastating cycle of poverty and changing the trajectory of children’s lives.

We started Gabriel Project Mumbai two years ago in partnership with REAP, an award-winning NGO in Mumbai, that runs educational programs in the slums, and with the support and partnership of The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and Entwine. REAP was facing a great challenge in its amazing efforts to introduce education in the slums: parents, desperate for food, would often find themselves forced to send their children work instead of school – in order to have food to eat. GPM offers a simple but extremely effective solution: We bring Jewish volunteers to deliver hot meals to some 1000 children who attend classes in the slum, alleviating hunger and malnutrition while relieving the parents of pressure to find food, and simultaneously promoting the long-term solution of literacy and education. Volunteers, who come from all around the world as well as from the Jewish community of Mumbai, prepare informal lesson plans and use basic technology like laptops and iPads to enhance the children’s learning experience. The volunteers thus help stimulate and motivate the children’s learning while keeping their young tummies warm and full.

One of the most unique aspects of the GPM approach is this collaboration with the local Mumbai Jewish community. The Jewish community of Mumbai is a vital link between the Jews of the world and the population of vulnerable children in the slums. Members of the Mumbai Jewish community lead the program and teach the volunteers about India and Indian culture. This process breaks down cultural hierarchies and forges powerful bonds of connectivity. For the international volunteers, working side by side with co-religionists from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds is a vital, eye-opening and humbling experience. The diversity and multi-faceted encounter redefines Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood through the prism of care for others.

Furthermore, the program has a paradoxical impact that challenges some of our assumptions about Jewish identity. Our program evaluations have shown that the program increases both the volunteers’ affinity with non-Jewish populations and their connections with other Jews. How can that be? After all, we are often taught that a universalistic Jewish identity stands in tension with a particularistic Jewish identity. Either we are citizens of the world or citizens of the Jewish people, right? Not necessarily. Our program has demonstrated that both can be connected – indeed they must be connected. The impact of the program on volunteers’ Jewish identity is that they are more connected to other Jews and more connected to humanity. It’s a stronger humanity and a stronger Jewishness. It’s a profound identity change as humans and as Jews.

The impact on the Mumbai Jewish community is no less significant than the impact on non-Indian Jews. Building on these common Jewish values is empowering for everyone. It is by definition the core of Jewish peoplehood. It’s about connecting Jews from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds around the most fundamental aspect of Jewish heritage, which is the care for the other.

With that, we would like to clarify that we do not do this work with the primary goal of bolstering our own identities. We are not doing this for ourselves. The benefit to our own souls is a byproduct of the work, but it’s not the main objective. We are doing this because we have an obligation – as humans and as Jews – to take care of those who need help. We are not here to use the poor in order to feel better about ourselves. We are here to help alleviate human suffering.

The essence of Jewish peoplehood is this service to humanity. By doing this work to help vulnerable people – to remove their yoke, to alleviate hunger, to halt child labor, to promote literacy and education in order to enable them to change the trajectory of their lives – we end up not only changing the lives of the people we are helping, but changing ourselves as well. We come to understand what it means to be part of the Jewish people, and what it means to be a Jew in the world.

Jacob Sztokman is the founding director of Gabriel Project Mumbai, a Jewish volunteer initiative providing literacy and nutrition relief to children in the Mumbai slums.

Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author and educator and board member of The Center for Jewish Peoplehood.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 12 – For Whom Are We Responsible? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.