When we learned that Jewish Federation of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet would be taking its annual Study Mission to India, honoring 25 years of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, we jumped at the chance to represent Atlanta. Our first impression of India was stunning — there’s virtually no anti-Semitism! India is a diverse and crowded nation where 1.2 billion Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, and roughly 5,000 Jews, get along. What sustains this 2,000-year-old Indian Jewish community that is losing population? We were moved to learn that it is their connection to Israel.
The tiny Indian Jewish community, known as Bene Israel, ties its ancestry to one of the Lost Tribes of Israel and is centered today in Mumbai and Delhi. We spent Shabbat at the Judah Hyam Synagogue in Delhi, which does not have a rabbi, so services were led by young Indian Jews who traveled from Mumbai. Singing Ashrei together, our melodies were different, but we still felt like one people.
The poverty in India took our breath away. Families and individuals look out for each other and somehow the slum ecosystem works. India’s Jews also rely on the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) for community and infrastructure. We saw this in Mumbai where a JDC community center provides elder care visits, Meals on Wheels, bar and bat mitzvah training, and a venue for Jewish holiday celebrations. JAFI has helped resettle Indian Jews in Israel, where the Indian-Jewish population now exceeds 70,000. Just before our mission 102 Indian Jews made aliyah (emigration to Israel).
For those Jews who remain, Israel is a source of inspiration. Young Indian Jews connect with Israel through Birthright Israel, Masa, and other study opportunities. The trip reinforced so many core Jewish values and taught us that, through the work of Federation’s overseas partners, we are having real impact in India.
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