It was the most-asked question whenever we mentioned our Study Mission for the National Young Leadership Cabinet (NYLC) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). It's the question I kept asking myself. Yes, I was excited. India is a place I have always wanted to see but I never made it a destination. Still -- why India for our NYLC Study Mission? Why would we be the first to visit of any JFNA group?
Preparing for the trip, we learned there actually are Indian Jews (not only expats) found in six cities. The smallest groups are in New Delhi (12 Jews) and Cochin (28 Jews); then there is a vibrant Jewish community of 3,000 in Mumbai.
The Jews of India arrived in three waves, beginning 2,000 years ago with 14 survivors of a shipwreck off the coast of Mumbai. These Jews -- the Bene Israel -- are thought by many to be one of the lost tribes. They were followed by the Cochini Jews, who arrived around 1520, expelled from Spain. The third to arrive were the "Baghdadi" Jews, coming from Persia in the 1830s, initially as merchants.
Our mission began in the footsteps of the Bene Israel on the beach near Mumbai. They survived a shipwreck but were left without Torah scrolls, books, or any ritual objects. Maintaining their Jewish identity in such isolation is truly remarkable. The Bene Israel were sustained by their oral tradition and observance of Shabbat, above all, plus circumcision, kashrut, and reciting the Sh'ma , the only prayer that was known from memory. Standing on that beach 2,000 years later and thinking of their dedication to the religion we share with them was truly moving.
At its largest point, there were 30,000 Jews living in India, forming a successful and prosperous community. After the British departed in 1947 and after Israel declared its independence in 1948, many Indian Jews started making aliyah . In 1961, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) arrived to support India's Jews. We heard from Elijah Jacobs, executive director for JDC-India, about programs that sustain the remaining Jews of India.
Our JUF dollars help Jewish elderly live in dignity in Bayiti Old Age Home, help fund Gan Katan (basic Judaism study for youth) as well as Hebrew/Torah study for adults to supplement their Jewish-Indian traditions. With our assistance, JDC is molding young adult leaders for their community through the Jewish Youth Pioneers.
Selected youth gain skills and knowledge-and learn important Jewish values-as part of their formal and informal Jewish study programs then enhance those skills by going into the community through JDC partner programs like The Gabriel Project Mumbai, Sundara, and the Naya Initiative. These young adults learn important Jewish values-Jewish study, helping others, helping your own community but also helping the wider community around you, no matter the religion. It's certainly something we work to teach here at home.
We also had time to see some amazing sites across India, the colorful faces of India, and to experience the kindness of so many people. There is no history of anti-Semitism because the majority population is polytheistic and has no problem with Jewish belief. They value kindness and compassion, for anything else would burden them is this life and in their future lives.
I decided Indians must have supernatural serenity to survive typical, everyday city commuting. Their traffic jams make rush hour on the Dan Ryan look like warp speed. And for them, red lights and crosswalks are, at most, advisory.
Our NYLC Study Mission India experience showed us a story of perseverance, a story of living Jewish values. Maintaining their Judaism for 2,000 years as a tiny minority took strong commitment and deep belief. Now, the JDC, through the Jewish Youth Pioneers, is helping women and children of the slums, supporting programs to teach health, education, and the skills to make a living. We were so inspired by their work that together, NYLC members are raising funds for two of these programs: Gabriel Project Mumbai and JDC's Youth Pioneers Program. To date we've raised over $37,000.
As members of NYLC, we learn from our peers, strengthen our own Jewish communities, and see firsthand the impact of our gifts through partners like JDC. Experiences like this trip to India make me confident of our Jewish future. We are a people who persevere. Just ask India's Bene Israel.
Jen Leemis, a Chicago resident, is a JUF board member, chair of the Marketing & Communications Committee, and a past president of YLD. She joined JFNA's National Young Leadership Cabinet -- the premier leadership philanthropic program for Jewish men and women ages 30-45 across the U.S. and Canada -- in 2013.
National Young Leadership Cabinet is now recruiting new members. To learn more about Cabinet, email SallyPreminger@juf.org.