Sunday, July 28, 2013

Passion and Inspiration at the ROI Summit-Jerusalem 2013

Sigalith Isaac Kurulkar, GPM's Program Coordinator shares her reflections on her participation at the recent ROI Summit 2013 in Jerusalem:

Sigalith with her ROI Summit ID packet
Last month I had the privilege of participating in the ROI Summit in Jerusalem, the pinnacle event of the ROI Community, a group dedicated to supporting Jewish social justice activists from around the world. I was accepted because of my work with Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM), a local Jewish initiative providing nutrition and literacy support to vulnerable children in the slums of Mumbai.

The ROI Summit brought together 150 of the brightest stars in Jewish social justice causes and it was truly an honor to be counted among these talented and dedicated young Jewish personalities. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Connect and Create’, a very fitting tagline for this amazing social justice platform that fosters strong supportive professional relationships between conference participants.

My first hint to the fact that this was a really special event was the view of the lobby of the Crown Plaza Hotel filled with hundreds of people - participants, speakers and facilitators - hundreds of people from different nationalities. I had the opportunity of representing India and the Indian Jewish community during the 5 day summit. 

The ROI Summit cultivated a continuous flow of positive energy about being Jewish. It was fascinating to see Jews from such different places, Jews with distinct traditions, Jews with varying religious affiliations all gathered together for the main purpose - to make this world a better place. For me, the event demonstrated Judaism’s quintessential message of making the world a just place; a society that would make God proud.
The event’s Opening Ceremony featured Nancy Lublin, CEO of the inspirational social justice organization ‘Do Something’. This keynote speaker immediately made it clear that we all are on a momentous mission to help the disadvantaged in society.  With a mixture of humour and passion, she injected fervor and excitement to the idea that every person has the potential to change the world for the better. She made us feel special and motivated us to excel in our endeavors.
Sigalith at the ROI Summit opening ceremony

Without really understanding its scary implications, I volunteered to be one of the participants in the summits “You Pitch IT” program.  I was one of thirty individuals that spoke for two minutes about the work we do and the organizations that we work for. I didn’t really realize that I was about to speak in front of more than 250 ROI participants, staff and guests!  I spoke about the work we are doing for the children in the slums of India and it made be proud of the good work the Jewish community is doing for the vulnerable and underprivileged. Immediately after “You Pitch IT”, and throughout the conference, people came over to me interested to discuss our work and share ideas. 

One of the most innovative parts of ROI Summit was the ‘Open Space Technology’ - a platform where anyone can bring up a topic of interest, write it on a board and others can chose to join in a spontaneous discussion on the topic that interests them most. The “Law of two feet” gave us the freedom to change the discussions at our discretion. This was a a great opportunity to set our own agenda and to share ideas with the people who are passionate about the same subject matter. 

Group discussions after peer led skill sessions at ROI Summit 2013

A great feature of ROI was peer led skill sessions. Colleagues proficient in various fields conveyed their expertise to their fellow participants. Two of the peer led skill sessions that I attended were Jamie Suskind’s Fundamentals of Speech Making and Raphael Ouzan’s ‘How to Build a Killer Team’. I chose these two sessions as they benefited me professionally. These were practical organizational skills which I needed to perfect because this is what I was actually doing with volunteers, staff and speaking in front of audiences like the recent AIPAC delegation to India. I found this so helpful as the speakers were passionate and authority’s in their respective fields.  Actually, all the various lectures and workshops were helpful in my work and gave me tools to be more productive. More than anything else the program was motivational. Just seeing so many Jewish people doing so much gave me a boost for a lifetime. I learned that I can do more and that I am part of a greater whole. By the end of the ROI I was inspired and enthusiastic, and these feelings I will carry with me for years to come and hopefully throughout my professional life in social justice causes. 

My birthday fell on the second day of the conference and I didn’t tell anyone about it. During one of the sessions before lunch I was surprised (and a little embarrassed) when a cake was brought out and all the participants sang happy birthday TO ME! Special thanks to ROI’s Elissa for making me feel so welcome and giving me a home away from home on my 27th birthday.  And ice-cream cake is my favorite!

One evening was ROI Variety Showcase where some very talented ROI’ers showed off their entertaining and musical gift. There were comedians, rappers, and other musicians. Iin particular I was enthralled with Jay Stone’s vocal performance Guy Seeman’s amazing hip hop prowess – it was incredible how these talented individuals use comedy and music to express their Judaism!

It was so inspirational and moving to hear Joshua Prager’s speech on despair and hope and how the city of Jerusalem was the catalyst for his emotional recovery after a horrifying accident that took both of his legs. His is a story of inspiration and optimism in the face of great loss. 

Anyone who has visited the stunning Israel Museum is immediately faced with the incredible history of Israel and Jewish People. For me this was a great example of how our history effects our collective past, present and future.

The inspirational Lynn Schusterman stood up at the closing ceremony and publicly adopted us all. Jewish social justice is her life and she spoke about how important it was for us to be ‘change makers’ and how she and ROI will do everything to enable us to achieve our goals. Seeing this inspiring woman who has dedicated her energies to the Jewish people was rousing and motivating. She encouraged us to do more and she spoke with enthusiasm and we were encouraged and moved.

ROI is a great all-encompassing platform for Jewish social justice and I thoroughly enjoyed, connecting with other social justice minded talented Jewish people. I received organizational tools that will propel me in to a more professional career in service. The Summit was inspiring and motivational and I have made many amazing contacts with Jewish peers from around the world. I am looking forward to consulting and receiving guidance from these accomplished individuals. In particular, I enjoyed the summit’s camaraderie, mutual respect, supportive and positive energy.   

For me, ROI Summit 2013 was not just a 5 day event, it is much much more – a powerful force of good and a community of supportive relationships that will change my life forever and encourage me to follow a career of social justice, chesed and care.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Meet David Ramrajkar, GPM Volunteer Liaison and Security Officer

“The best part of my day happens after trekking through the muddy slum alleys with the volunteers and we enter the class rooms to teach the kids!”

David, 31, is a man of many talents. David graduated the Jacob Sassoon High School close to where he lives in Byculla, Mumbai. A former sales executive at RITA manufacturing company, David has chosen to dedicate his time and effort to social justice causes. Not only does David act as Volunteer Liaison and Security Officer at Gabriel Project Mumbai, but he is also a security volunteer for the IJS group (Indian Jewish Security) whose members guard and protect synagogues and Jewish events around Mumbai. At GPM, David accompanies volunteers in the slums and throughout the city, teaches classes and handles all security matters. Not having any teaching experience before starting at GPM, he finds teaching vulnerable children, alongside the volunteers, the most rewarding part of his job. David is a fantastic sports ‘all rounder’ and enjoys, cricket, football, basketball and the Indian board game, ‘Carrom’.

David, Effie and the kids

David, Sami and a happy child

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My Tisha Be’Av in the slums

Spending Tisha Be’Av in a Mumbai slums is quite surreal. Tisha Be’Av, the 9th  day of the month of the Hebrew month Av, commemorates the destruction of  both the First Temple and Second Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred about 655 years apart, but share a common calendar date. We fast to remember the great national loss, a loss that led to a people’s expulsion many terrible persecutions and Jewish statelessness for 2000 years.

Traditionally, we read the Book of Lamentations that outlines the tragedy of the destruction of the Solomon’s Temple (6th century BCE), the crippling siege on Jerusalem, the pain and suffering of a people massacred and enslaved. Written by the prophet Jeremiah, details of the war, the suffering of innocents are detailed in heartrending detail.

This Tisha Be’Av,  after reading the Book of Lamentations at the local synagogue, I joined the volunteers at Gabriel Project Mumbai in the nearby slums where we help support nutrition, health and literacy efforts for hundreds of vulnerable children. It soon became clear that I couldn’t stop thinking about Jeremiah’s description of pain and suffering of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction of the Temple to the sights and reality around me in the slums of Mumbai.

Now I must emphasize that the slum that we work in is an enormous district with many communities. There are people of different faiths and it is a place of hardworking people struggling to survive in their limited financial reality. The slum is not a depressing place nor is it a place of crime.  It is home to many hundreds of thousands of people who live day-to-day, vulnerable, illiterate overall and marginalized by society around them.

Some of Jeremiah’s description of the aftermath of the destruction and siege of Jerusalem resonated with us this Tisha Be’Av. Chapter 4 Verse 4-5 of Lamentations describes the hunger and prolonged malnutrition of the people “The tongue of the sucking child cleaves to the roof of his mouth for thirst; the young children ask for bread, and none gives it unto them…they embrace dunghills.”  This description of hunger is evident in the slums. We provide daily nutritious meals for hundreds of children attending class in the slums. The classes operate Monday to Saturday and not on Sunday so the children do not receive food from us on Sunday. Many times children tell us on Monday morning that their last meal was the meal we provided on Saturday…
Chapter 5 Verse 13 describes the breakdown of education for the young and the prominence of child labor. This too is a reality in the slums. “The young men have borne the mill, and the children have stumbled under the wood.” Parents in the slums are in a constant battle for survival. Some send their children, as young as 4 or 5 to work as sewerage cleaners, rag pickers and other menial jobs where small bodies and thin limbs are an advantage - the few pennies earned stave off family’s hunger. As with the people of Jerusalem at the time of the ‘Destruction’, children  in the slum are stripped of their childhood, forced into child labor and not encouraged to dream and hope for a better future. They stumble under the wood…

A particular poignant narrative in Lamentations is Chapter 2 Verse 19 “Arise, cry out in the night… pour out thy heart … for the life of thy young children, that faint for hunger at the head of every street.”  The US National Institutes of Health made the following report: “Chronic under-nutrition in childhood [in India’s urban slums] is linked to slower cognitive development and serious health impairments.” Also, regarding nutritional status, “prevalence of stunting (long duration malnutrition)" was found in children living in the slums.”Malnutrition also causes anemia, iodine deficiency and chronic diarrhea - one of the major causes of death for slum children.

Tisha Be’Av is a time to reflect on the pain and destruction endured by a people who lost everything.  It is also a time to become aware of peoples suffering and distress.  But this is not enough. Tisha Be’Av is, or should be, a call to action. Our goal in life should be to stop the ‘Tisha Be’Avs’ around us and to prevent suffering and servitude in our midst.  Commenting on the main cause of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, there was a consensus by all the great sages that ‘Sinat Chinam” loosely translated as ’indifference/hatred to our fellow man’ was the primary catalyst for the destruction.  The sages teach us that humanity prospers when we care for one another. Let us hope that when next Tisha Be Av comes around, we have made a difference and created a better world.

Jacob Sztokman is the director of Gabriel Project Mumbai. Jacob is currently volunteering with six JDC-GPM Entwine fellows and his son Effie in the slums of Mumbai! Please note that the thoughts expressed here are personal reflections and are in no way meant to offend anyone.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

'The little things in life'

The following blog post is by Sami Klazkin, a GPM summer 2013 participants. Sami is a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corp participant with Gabriel Project Mumbai. We think that Sami really captures the many feelings and thoughts that arise during service with vulnerable children in the slums of Mumbai:

"It’s the little things in life.”  I have heard that expression many times, but it is not until yesterday that I fully grasped the meaning of it. Take looking out the window during a bus ride for example. Or what about going on a field trip with your friends from school?  Things we have all experienced and most likely have taken  for granted. Well yesterday was the first time that many of the students from the slums have ever been on a bus or even left the slums at all. It was amazing to experience it with them. The bus took us all to the JDC offices where the Indian, Jewish volunteers planned a day full of fun for the kids. The bus ride was amazing in itself. I sat in back with 4 little girls who stared out the window the entire ride; each and every child was dressed in his/her best clothing for their special day. Mosma, a little girl who I have become particularly attached to, held my hand the entire time because she was not feeling well; I’m guessing that she had motion sickness because she is not used to riding in vehicles.

When we got to the JDC the children were so excited. There were about 35 of them. What amazed me the most was how well behaved they were. I have worked with children before, and it is interesting to see how these kids behave. There was not one temper tantrum or meltdown. The kids giggled and played the entire time! Something very interesting but sad was the fact that they each had brought about 10 Rupees (not even equivalent to 25 cents) with them. They were all clutching onto their money the entire day. Even when they asked to be spun around they would not let go of it. It’s so heart wrenching to see young kids (some as young as 4) being so concerned with their precious money. Mosma asked what she could buy, and to her disappointment there was nothing there since we were at the JCC and their breakfast and lunch were generously taken cared of by the JDC. When I think back to my childhood, I realize how lucky I am that I was able to be so carefree and looked after, which in itself is a luxury that half of the world is not able to experience.

The most touching part of the day was when the Gan Katan (JCC’s Sunday school kids) came downstairs to play with the children from the slums: two different worlds colliding--- kids from the slums and kids from middle class families, Jewish children and non-Jewish children playing together as children should. The Jewish children were dressed in very Western clothing while the children from the slums wore traditional Indian clothing and dresses.

It was so wonderful to see how blind the children were to the differences between them, but I guess that is the great thing about children. It made me sad to think that at the end of the day the kids would separate and go home to such different circumstances. I tried not to dwell on that though, and I must say that partaking in yesterday’s events was extremely special and something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

At the local JCC: Children from Gan Katan and Children from the Kalwa slums, playing together!

Enjoying her first bust ride

Mosma (on left, from the slums) and Emunah(from Gan Katan)

Sami enjoying the science lesson with the kids