Tuesday, September 30, 2014

IDF Soldiers, “Fighters for Life,” volunteer teaching Krav Maga in Mumbai

Fifteen soldiers spent two weeks volunteering in a community center catering to underprivileged children of Mumbai in September, thanks to the coordinating efforts of GPM and the Israel Consulate in Mumbai. The soldiers, men and women who recently completed combat duty with the Israel Defense Forces, spent ten days in Santa Cruz, Mumbai, teaching Krav Maga, First Aid, English and other empowering coursesto disadvantaged children in the neighborhood. The group, called “Fighters for Life”, worked in conjunction with the socio-humanitarian service organization in Mumbai called Triranta Prerana Mandal, and also utilized their time painting and offering light external repairs to the local community center building.

“Fighters for Life” was formed earlier this year by Captain Gilli Cohen who had been listening to many of his soldiers discussing their plans for travel after the army. The soldiers expressed interest in doing something meaningful while backpacking overseas – and he decided to take action. He met with people, formed a committee, and opened a Facebook group which quickly garnered over 4,000 members. Finally Gilli contacted GPM for assistance, as well as the Israeli Consulate in Mumbai, and all together they formulated a plan and launched their project.

The cohort of Fighters for Life, consisting of fifteen soldiers and officers from many sections of the IDF called themselves “Team Pomerantz” in memory of the late Staff Sgt. Daniel Pomerantz who was killed in the Gaza war in July.

GPM staffer, David Ramrajkar, was happy to assist in group logistics while they were in Mumbai."The Israelis were so nice and professional in teaching their classes, I really enjoyed spending time with them."

A highlight of the experience was the two weekends the group spent with the Jewish community of Mumbai. The group taught self defense to the community's youth and adults at the Mumbai JCC, taught about Israel, learned about India's Jewry and shared in fascinating cultural exchanges.

IDF General (res.) Eliezer Shkedi, who now serves as the the Board President of Fighters for Life, met with GPM Founding Director Jacob Sztokman and commented on this endeavor. “It’s so nice to see such a large group of socially-minded young people, who want to include a meaningful volunteer experience as part of their travels.” 

Gilli was happy to share his thoughts and impressions at the completion of his time in Mumbai. "We were so amazed by the help we received from GPM and inspired by what they are doing with children in the slums of Mumbai. While we volunteered, we learned a lot, gave of ourselves wholeheartedly and have been changed forever."

Teaching about human anatomy

Class on hygiene and health

Part of the painting and gardening project at the community center

Understanding the challenges of life in the slums with Gabriel Project Mumbai

With the Jewish community at the Mumbai JCC

Some media attention

Painting outside walls of the community center

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Interview with Leigh Evans, GPM-JDC Entwine volunteer, Summer 2014 Cohort

Leigh Evans, a second year student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a recipient of the Brawerman Fellowship for emerging young Jewish leaders from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, participated in the 10th volunteer GPM cohort in Mumbai this past summer. (Harmony Richman, of the same cohort, was also a Brawerman Fellow).Leigh, who is pursuing a double major in Sociology and Psychology with a minor in Education, works part-time as a paid intern at the UCSB Alumni Association. She is also involved in a variety of activities including the College of Letters and Science Honors Program, the Isla Vista Tutoring Program, Active Minds, Hillel, and “Gauchos for Education”, an organization she cofounded. Leigh hopes to apply her passion for education and background in Sociology and Psychology to her future career in education reform. Leigh is deeply passionate about civil rights, social reform, education, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, arts and culture, and the promotion of tolerance.

Jacob Sztokman sat down with Leigh for a chat a few weeks after the program finished, where she reflected on her experiences at GPM:

How did you enjoy the program?
It’s been really great. It put into perspective how much I’ve grown as a person. It also put my career aspirations in perspective, because it helped me focus on what I really want to do. Before the program, I thought I wanted to go into education but not necessarily working with the people, more like writing legislation and being a lawyer. But now it made me realize that I really do want a day-to-day job of working with students and with kids. That’s definitely important to me. I enjoyed it so much. 

Now that you’re back home, how do you feel about what you experienced?
With everything going on in Ferguson and everything going on with race and difference in the media, it showed me just how important it is to go and put yourself in a place and a culture that you’re not necessarily comfortable in. And I’ve been to Israel but in that case I was completely comfortable from the moment I walked into Ben Gurion airport. This is a totally different thing, and I totally stepped out of my comfort zone being in India. And I didn’t realize how big of a shock it would be. I always had this very idyllic vision of how it would be to study abroad and live in a totally different culture. I listened to what everyone said to me before I left but I didn’t really think it would apply to me. They said it would be difficult and you’ll see some really tough things – and I did. And a lot of what everyone said would happen happened.

What were the hard things for you?
I think what gets everyone is that the poverty was very difficult. And the stray animal problem was really difficult, maybe more for me than other people just because I do a lot in animal care and that’s a very big issue for me – that is, for it to be normal to see starving, emaciated dogs in the middle of the street. But then you see a starving man or woman in the middle of the street and it’s all really difficult. Those things – the human poverty and the animal neglect – both were so much worse than anything I’ve ever seen before.

And then the lack of health care, the physical issues that people dealt with every day, like the amount of polio that I saw, it was a huge shock for me and I was really unprepared for that. Because this is something so simple over here – you just get a vaccine and it’s all taken care of. And then you can’t even access that over there. But then you have antibiotics being administered over the counter and being used irresponsibly, and it’s just such a weird juxtaposition that people aren’t getting what they need but they have lots of extra stuff around, and it becomes a huge problem.

Probably the hardest thing I saw was acid survivors. I remember this one day walking back from the Byculla train station and a man was coming towards me on the sidewalk and at first I thought he was wearing a mask because it just looked so strange to me. But then as he got closer to me I saw that his skin just sagged all the way down to his collarbone and his eyes were gone, and it was a really tough thing to see. 

What also hit me is that you see people with polio on the train just working, doing anything they can to help themselves and survive,  and selling all those trinkets and the little hair accessories, literally dropping their bodies on the floor but being so persistent, and go on another day to make a living and make a life. That is just so incredible to me. You don’t see that here out in the open in that way.
I took a class on African studies, and there is so much aid going to Africa, but in India the striking lack of aid was really difficult. You don’t see clinics in the slums, or at least I didn’t. When I talked to local people, I didn’t hear about clinics. Maybe there are a few in Mumbai, they said, but they’re not totally free and not totally subsidized. I feel like India needs a lot more attention from NGOs and people who are just there to help.

Tell me about the Brawerman Fellowship that you received.
When I was in high school, I applied for the Brawerman Fellowship from the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. I was the first year of the fellowship. It was donated by Geri Brawerman who is a major supporter of the Federation. She and her late husband did a ton of philanthropic work, and she had this vision for young Jewish leadership work. So she gave a donation that was the largest donation in the history of the Federation. It’s a four year fellowship, it means I get financial aid every year, and on top of that I participate in facets of the special program – for instance in the summers, we have a travel-work experience. The first year we went to Israel because they try to foster our connections to Israel as leaders of the Jewish community. Then we are doing a volunteer experience abroad, which was originally meant to be one or two weeks, but luckily Harmony and I were approved for this program even though it’s longer than two weeks. The third year is going to be a local internship with the Jewish Federation because they want us to be involved with the Federation and know what the Federation is doing for the community. It’s a fantastic program.
Leigh and Harmony in Mumbai
Leigh and some of the children
Leigh and a student

Leigh with some of the children

Leigh with the REAP teachers and other GPM fellows

Taking time out to charm a snake...

On the train...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Week 5. Meeting the ambassador, a village “tea party”, and other adventures

Adina Lichtman, a proud member of the 8th Cohort of JDC Entwine-GPM volunteer program in India, chronicled her experiences in a series of evocative letters to her friends and family.  Adina, a student of Social Work and Art at NYU and is Hillel Community Service chair on campus, captured some powerful and touching moments during her time on the program, caring for vulnerable children living in the slums, connecting with the Jewish community with the JDC and experiencing the wonders of India. GPM will be publishing excerpts from her diaries in a series of blog posts and photo essays.

--Read Adina's 1st week here-- --Read Adina's 2nd week here--
--Read Adina's 3rd week here-- --Read Adina's 4th week here-- 

Week 5. Meeting the ambassador, a village “tea party”, and other adventures

Namaste to all my family and friends!

First of all thank you so much for helping donate to HEAL – a hygiene program for children in the slums with Gabriel Project Mumbai. If you haven't done so already - you still can! Here's the info! Watch the video we made!
And donate here!

This week in the slums we had a special visitor come to see our classes in the slums. His name is Matan Zamir, he is the Israeli ministry for foreign affairs. It was nice to have someone so important who came with body guards come see our class. It really empowered us and made us feel that the work we do is important. He even invited us to come visit the Israeli consulate here in India! It's hard sometimes to really feel like we are making an impact. It's a conversation we often have with each other - is our work making a difference? Will teaching them that butterflies come from caterpillars or that frogs come from tadpoles make a difference for the future of our students? We taught about frogs and butterflies on Friday and it was a completely new concept for our students- they were shocked. So while I do feel what we are teaching is new and informative, I always wonder how my work will impact their futures and if it will at all.

On Tuesday this week was a really special day, one little boy who isn't in school and always stands by the door to listen actually came into class today and joined us for the whole lesson! We decided it was important to talk about their aspirations. We asked them all what they wanted to do when they grew up. They all had different answers, one of our brightest students said an engineer for buildings! He's ten years old! We were blown away! The boy who stands by the door who joined our class that day said "a politician" one of our girls said she wanted to be a police so she could make the hard times into better times!

And while Tuesday was such a great day in the class because of all the answers our students were giving us - it was hard to hear our students and what they were saying. It was hard because of all the banging and yelling going on next door. The walls are made of tin flimsy walls. And there was a very loud argument which sounded like a husband and wife yelling and it sounded like the women was being pushed against the wall and that there was abuse going on in the home. One kid sat with his hands over his ears for most of the class. Unfortunately this isn't so rare and has had happened before.
In other news; I am learning to write Hindi but it's a very very slow process! It's a very complicated language to learn how to write but hopefully I'll be able to read it by the time I get back; right now I can only do it if I have the alphabet next to me!

On Thursday our students in the slums had off for a holiday so we went to go visit a girls boarding school that REAP (Gabriel Project Mumbai’s partner organization) runs. In the villages (very rural - few hours from Mumbai) the girls often get married at age 12 or 13 and go move in with their husbands family and often receiving no education. Families here don’t like to have girls because they don't really work, they don't make money, and when they get married they will move into the boys family's home. So to them, girls are just taking up resources. Therefore marrying them off early will save them money and resources. The families in this village in particular are usually nomadic families that travel from city for 6 months and rural lands for 6 months to sell crops and when they go to the city their education stops for six months. So REAP started this boarding school for girls in order to create education that is consistent throughout the year as well as preventing the girls from getting married at such a young age.

We walked into the school in the charming and quaint little village; we walk in and see about thirty beautiful girls dressed in beautiful colors and dresses - it was as if they put on their best dresses for us coming! The school is a house and feels so bright and filled with light from the sun pouring in! They brought us tea and biscuits. I felt like I was at a tea party with the most beautiful, spectacularly dressed girls!  We played some "getting to know you games" an also asked these girls what they wanted to be when they grow up. One girl said a police to "stop violence against women"! We told them where we were from but none of them had seen a map before so we got a map to show them where America/Australia/Slovakia/UK and India were on the map. We also taught them about recycling. Although the villages are much cleaner then the slums, we still felt it was a very important lesson to give. We taught them that an apple takes 2 months to turn to dirt, a plastic bag takes 20 years and glass takes a million years! I often find myself learning cool facts as I prepare lessons for the students (so I figured I'd share some!) We also had an activity that made them take trash and turn it into things! With newspapers, toilet paper rolls, boxes etc they made bags, hats, games and more! They're so creative!!!

Then at lunch we ate with them- I had rice with Dahl, and I ate it with my hands! Cause thaaaats how it's done here!

Then after lunch we danced the day away with the girls! They taught us lots of Bollywood dance moves while we taught them the cotton eyed Joe! The girls braided our hair and giggled with us for hours! At the end of the day - one girl was going home to her village for her brother’s birthday so we drove her there and she showed us around her village. It felt like a movie. She was dressed in this bright yellow sari and she's around 9 years old. Jaya showed us where the four toilets are located for the whole village, she showed us where they get water from ( a well provided by REAP because the one the government  provided stopped working a long time ago.) the houses were all like huts you would imagine in a village with roosters, goats and cows running all around. She invited us into her home which was bigger than any home you would see in the slums but it was very simple looking with one bed, one table in the main room. Probably had 2 or 3 rooms in it. The she introduced us to her mom who was lovely and kept offering us food and drinks even though they had so little themselves. When we asked why she sends her daughter to a reap school she said "education is important for her future, even though I never had it". Jaya introduced us to her sister who was about a year younger. We asked her mom why only one of them was sent and she replied "I can't afford it and I need one daughter to help me at home." That was really hard for me to hear; I could never imagine having to choose which child to send to school.

The villages compared to the slums feel a lot more peaceful. It seemed to me a lot more like very simple living. It felt like I was almost in a different time period, whereas the slums I feel almost sad for the conditions. In the slums you feel and see the poverty; in the villages you feel a completely different lifestyle, one that's old fashioned and like you’re in a different era! I loved visiting the village it was so peaceful and simple there.

This Shabbat we went to Mumbai - we prayed at knesseth eliyahu and they always have a communal meal afterwards so I stayed for it. All the girls sit at one table and the boys at the other, and all ate Shabbat dinner together! I loved it! They sang Shabbat zemirot i knew and were all so friendly, treating me like family even though they had just met me! Then afterwards we walked to Chabad.
At Chabad we heard a man talking about how he converted to Judaism and is a doctor. This doctor was very close with Rabbi Gabriel who was killed in the 2008 attacks. He was the one who identified the body at the hospital. He was also the doctor for their kids. He lives in Israel now and has a fascinating life story.

There was also another couple who was at the table. They were from the south of India. They live in a community of 1200 people now in India who aren't Jewish but all practicing Judaism. They follow the Ten Commandments very strictly and keep kosher as well. They keep on learning more and more about Judaism. They plan to all convert to Judaism. It's fascinating to me; they were all looking for something deeper and started to practice Judaism.  These 2 families traveled 27 hours by train to spend Shabbat by Chabad and meet the rabbi! How crazy is it that there is a whole community of 1200 people all practicing Judaism who aren't even Jewish?! It really makes me appreciate how special Judaism really is!

The longer I am here, the more connected I feel to Rabbi Gabriel and his wife Rivky. Everyone here has a personal story connected with them and they had such a beautiful impact on the community. A part of me feels like I knew them because of the way everyone talks about them and how much they are still in everyone memories here.

It's crazy to me that my volunteer time in the slums has reached its halfway point. I love it so much here and am still learning new things every day. And every time I think I have gotten totally used to the culture I see something else that shocks me. Today I saw someone sitting on top of a moving train; not hanging out the door or standing between to carts. Literally sitting on top of a moving train as if it was any ordinary seat!!

As for living in Thane - I really feel this town is another home. I was walking to the shul the other day to teach my Wednesday class and I got lost because I made one wrong turn and I asked somebody on the road where my street was and he said to me "oh were all the Americans live? Make a right at the end of the street and go straight" yes. A random person I asked on the street knows where all the Americans live: we stand out ALOT. As I was walking I guess my facial expression looked a bit lost because after that a few different people all standing in their own little shops kept pointing the direction of our apartment. And another time my friend left her bag in her guitar class down the road and somebody brought it all the way back here! I guess our light colored skin makes us easy to find in a town where we are the only westerners! But everyone here is just SO nice, how often do you hear that someone walks to your apartment to bring you the bag you left somewhere!



GPM is partnering with Sundara Soap for women's empowerment, health and environmental sustainability

GPM is working with Sundara Soap on a new hygiene initiative with the women in the slums that advances health, environmental sustainability and women's empowerment. The soap recycling idea comes from Sundara founder Erin Zaikis, who decided to take action upon learning that over one million children die every year from diseases resulting to poor hygiene.

The Sundara company has hired ten women and men of the Kalwa slum to work on a soap recycling project. A portion of the soap that is produced will be given to children in slums and rural villages as part of a hygiene education program to children. The rest of the soap that is produced will be sold at heavily subsidized rates within the slum, and proceeds will go directly back to support hygiene education in the slums. Earlier this year, GPM partnered with a cohort of GPM volunteers and Sundara to launch the H.E.A.L Hygiene Education initiative that teaches the children the basics of hygiene, and provides soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste to all the children.

"This project is such a win-win," says GPM Founding Director Jacob Sztokman. "Everyone benefits -- the women who are working in a sustainable income generating enterprise; the men, women and children in the slums who receive better hygiene and health; and the environment as a whole by reducing waste in overcrowded landfills. 'Win-wins' are our favorite way to operate!"

According Zaikis, "Sundara" -- a word which means "beautiful" in Sanskrit -- is all about advancing hygiene and health around the world. "We believe that doing good is beautiful," she says. "Personal hygiene is not a privilege but a right. Preventable deaths caused by poor hygiene can be a thing of the past."