December 16, 2009

Expanding Jewish Learning and Leadership Among Indian Jews

Building and maintaining Jewish cultural and educational institutions for India’s small Jewish community—some 5,000 people in a sea of 1.1 billion—can, naturally, be a challenge. There is no Jewish day school in Mumbai, where most of the country’s Jews are concentrated; Jewish education is almost entirely informal and there is a paucity of local teachers to do the work.

Filling this void is a prime objective of JDC in India, and was the impetus for the recent Jewish Educators Seminar and Workshop.

Conducted over four days this past October at the JDC-supported Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center (EPJCC) in Mumbai, the forum was organized by the Buncher Community Leadership Program and drew educators, volunteers, and individuals representing JDC, including two Jewish Service Corps volunteers currently working in India; ORT India; and the local community—a dynamic group diverse in experience and background, ranging in age from 17 to 70.

“We identified quite a few volunteers who had the potential to become teachers,” said EPJCC Chairman Samson Birwadker, a member of the Educators’ Forum committee, speaking of those invited to participate. “We discovered two categories of people: Group A was older, retired people who had over the years spent time studying and had deeper knowledge of Judaism but did not know how to impart their knowledge to others; and Group B, young people whose knowledge of Judaism was not deep but who were keenly interested in learning.”

Noted Jewish educator Steve Israel led an inspirational workshop that brought both groups together in spirited collaboration. He said the wide divergence in age was a first for one of his sessions but he found that old and young had much to offer one another.

“The experience and the knowledge of the older group actually guided the youth, who respected and appreciated the help given by the seniors,” said EPJCC Director Leora Joseph, adding that “the youth, knowledgeable in computers and the internet, were full of creative ideas and they helped the seniors in making presentations. Their comfort with one another was absolutely amazing.”

The age range perfectly underscored the larger aim of the forum and of JDC’s work in the region—to ensure a self-sustaining continuum of Jewish knowledge and identity through informal Jewish education programs.

The JCC is the center of Jewish life in Mumbai and is committed to developing local leaders to take on this critical responsibility. Based at the JCC is the 100-strong Jewish Youth Pioneers (JYP), a vibrant youth organization that promotes volunteerism, Jewish literacy, and communal life involvement. JYP had a strong presence at the event.

One of the younger participants was 23-year-old graduate student and JCC volunteer Sigalith Isaac. She chose to participate because she “values education” and recognizes the importance of the passing on of Jewish knowledge to the future of Jewish life in her country. “I believe education to be the core of human life,” she said. “Jewish education is not available in India, and this seminar was a unique opportunity for me to enrich myself and, more importantly, to learn how to impart Jewish education to others.”

This forum marks nearly one year since Jews were among those targeted and killed in the horrific terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Ongoing efforts by JDC and the local community to develop local Jewish community life and learning, such as this successful education workshop, are positive harbingers that this small but vital 2,000-plus-year-old Jewish community is moving forward.

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