The following are remarks shared by Michael Gropper during Shabbat, February 10, 2012 as a part of our Sharing Our Stories from Within Series.
When the plane touched down in Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, and the doors opened, I knew I would never be the same. I was about the experience the sights and the sounds of one of the most densely populated areas in the world, home to both the second largest slum and most expensive private house. I was about to taste authentic Indian cuisine from street-food delicacies, to the myriad of options available to the urban dweller. However, as bright colored saris, Bollywood movies, thick clouds of pollution, and swarming mosquitoes were fleeting through my eager mind, I knew when I stepped off the plane onto the sweltering heat and inhaled that first pungent aroma; this was to be no ordinary adventure.
My story to India actually began here at Temple Beth Shalom and I’d like to thank Rabbi Cohen and Sunny for this wonderful opportunity, as well as Cookie Stern, Rabbi Donnell and Cantor Thompson, for inspiring my Jewish journey and the subsequent experiences as a young Jewish professional. I hope that the young people here can learn my experiences and the older generations can appreciate them.
First let me tell you a bit about myself.
I grew up right here on these benches of TBS and after moving to and from New Jersey, our family settled in Mission Viejo. I studied trumpet at OCHSA, continuing the journey from my first proper instrument, the shofar, something I picked up following a tour of then Rabbi Donnell’s office at the age of 4. My family was and continues to be supportive of all my endeavors. After a Bar Mitzvah on Mt. Masada, I shifted away from involvement in a Jewish life, but went along with my family’s affiliation. When I left to San Diego for college, I didn’t think too much about connecting with the Jewish community. I leaped into my new independent and degree-driven life head first. I was swimming in options. From a full plate of classes, a new social scene, flush with life choices and responsibilities, I was just buoyant enough to finish my first year intact and didn’t really think about my Jewish identity.
That summer, I followed my sister, Amanda, to work at and experience my first Jewish camp in northern California. I spent this summer teaching archery and sharing a room with three Israelis – getting to know Israeli people, culture, and perceptions. Through these relationships, my life turned towards a deeper appreciation of community and my Jewish culture.
After spending a month living with my family, my Israeli brothers returned to their “real lives.” I immediately applied for my Taglit-Birthright trip and went that winter to see Israel from a new lens: one of self exploration, reflection, and independence. I returned and decided to study religions and subsequently spent a year studying at Tel Aviv University to continue this path.
I’d like to just take a moment to pause – and, in following with tradition, frame my thoughts around this week’s parsha– Yitro which speaks about Moses’ father-in Law Jethro, and the bestowing of the 10 commandments at the base of Mount Sinai.
In the beginning of the story, Jethro asks Moses about how the newly freed Israelites are expected to resolve their disagreements. I’m not suggesting that the transition the Israelites underwent from generations of slavery to freedom is similar to the shift from living at home to going away to college, but there are certainly elements of newly attained freedoms that pose challenging.
Moses explains to Jethro that, in addition to serving as our fearless leader, he oversees the community for all internal disputes. Jethro advises Moses to choose capable individuals and appoint them as “heads over the people” to “assist him in the task of governing and administering justice.”
It is in this recognition, of shared responsibility and the importance of leadership that begins the foundation of a healthy community. I find this section of the parsha to particularly resonate with the journey I’ve taken as a Jewish professional, focusing on the development of young adult leadership.
Now, back to my story…
The reverse-culture shock I experienced wasn’t easy upon returning to San Diego State University from this incredible year in Israel.
I had cultivated meaningful relationships and redefined what friendship could be. I explored our people’s history and modern culture, cherished my newly found freedoms, and felt a sense of Israeli invincibility stemming from the vast amounts of hummus pumping through my veins.
As graduation loomed near, I struggled to find something to do. I had to “do” something, and I felt the urge to make “it” meaningful. So I began to talk with friends, family, teachers, and anyone who would listen about my desires to do something with meaning. Much of the opportunities I was finding weren’t resonating with this internal compass guiding me towards a life path which I was having difficulty defining.
It was one ordinary day, just weeks before commencement that a former supervisor, mentor and friend of mine, Robyn Faintich, recommended I look into the JDC.
“The JDC, what’s that?” I typed into the facebook chat window. She responded with a website, and I was immediately enamored that the dream I couldn’t articulate was in fact real and hiring.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also known as the JDC or Joint, is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization and is there wherever a Jew is in need. Established in 1914 as the “9-1-1” in times of Jewish emergency, the JDC, in thanks to the partnership with North American Federations, is one of the most trusted partners in building and maintaining self-sustaining communities – both in the Jewish and non-sectarian spheres.
The JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters.
After a short application process, background checks and interviews, and just a month after I had graduated, I found myself in New York for orientation. The following weekend, I was on a plane to Mumbai, India
Nehru, India’s first prime minister once said about India, and Mumbai, “It is a land of contrasts, of some very rich and many very poor people, of modernism and medieval ism…India is not a poor country. She is abundantly supplied with everything that makes a country rich, yet her people are very poor.”
India is the world’s largest democracy, with 1.3 billion people – or 17% of the world’s entire population. It’s a place where two wheels are better than four, rickshaws are a way of life, and trains can move and employ millions of people everyday. Incredibly, India is home to 18 official languages, 1,650 dialects, and is the birthplace of many of the world’s major religions – although most Indians would consider cricket as their preferred religion.
Interestingly, India shares many similarities with Israel. They gained independence from the British just 9 months apart and are both deeply religious and democratic. They contain an 80% majority of Hindus and Jews, respecitvely, and a nearly 20% Muslim minority. The two countries are accustomed to separation and the law of polarity.
India generally and Mumbai specifically, showcase exemplary examples of polarity. Mumbai is the richest city in India, yet the majority of its estimated 20-30 million residents live on less than $2 per day. Formerly known as Bombay which is where the “B” in “Bollywood” comes from, this metropolis is made up of seven small islands the British literally filled in with sand about 400 years ago. Today, Mumbai is the commercial and entertainment capital of India – and yet accounts for over a third of the 150,000 traffic deaths per year.
Much like Los Angeles, Mumbi’s suburbs are spread out, unspeakable traffic makes them seem much farther than they are, and everyone goes to the movies.
Bollywood permeates every crevice of society. It is as close to living in a musical as one could imagine. People love to escape, and the movies are unquestionably their number one choice. But for all the dancing ability and love of music, the reality is – like a musical, much of life is openly expressed for all to see, on the street. On my numerous walks and drives, I often saw life at its most vulnerable. The intense poverty is unlike any place I’d been or imagined. Like India’s corruption, the poverty is not hidden away but a fundamental part of the social structure. While I don’t want to focus on this aspect of Mumbai’s make-up, it is an undeniable element of any traveler or citizen’s experience. And, the approach people in Mumbai, or Mumbaikars, take to celebrate humanity and their embedded responsibility to community gives me hope for the future.
Many basics of everyday life seemed a bit strange to me. From the visual overload of colors, and movement by endless cars and buses, people and goats, carts pulled by horses, oxen, and mules, the sea of compact black and yellow taxis intersected by weaving motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and hand carts all avoiding the waves of pedestrians not to mention the sacred cows that occasionally decide to stop in the middle of traffic is enough to drive a person mad, fleeing the city without ever looking back.
The ever changing odors were always impressionable – not all bad (such as the small garage-like workshop-neighboring my building that prepared the waffle cones for the half dozen ice-cream shops in my neighborhood). In my year of living in this challenging city, I found that unlike the aesthetic beauty of Paris or the organization of New York, Mumbai’s beauty lies in its hidden layers. As I began to peel away my initial reactions to the disorder, I was able to see the beauty hidden beneath.
I lived in Dadar-west, the last stop for both the central and western railways. Like Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, Mumbai rises as a metropolis out from the west coast. Unlike LA or Tel Aviv, I only saw people go to into the water, in this case the Arabian Sea, once during the year, for Ganpati – an auspicious day to celebrate Ganesh the elephant-headed Hindu deity. I should note that I witnessed approximately one million people enter the sea that day. This however, was not the only one million-strong crowd I would witness gather during my year.
My focus tonight is to discuss my experience with and the story of the Indian Jewish community. I’m sure many of us are aware of the many distinctions within Judaism. We have the orthodox, ultra-orthodox, reform, conservative, reconstructionist, secular, traditional, cultural, post-denominational, the list goes on and on. In addition to the religious affiliations, we have ethnic and cultural distinctions. Some of us listen to the expressive melodies of Klezmer music, dream of our grandparent’s brisket, and remember stories about the old country; while others may dance to the Mediterranean rhythms and crave those wonderfully spicy foods. The Jews of India are neither Ashkenasi nor are they Sephardic.
From a music stand point, Jewish Indian music is classified as Mizrahi, literally meaning Eastern… this is the music from the interaction between Jewish people and the cultures which include areas such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the sinai peninsula, the Persian empire, and as far east as India.
There are actually three branches of Jews in India: The Bene Israeli, Cochini, and Baghdadi. The Bene Israelis are the most ancient Jewish community of India, who today constitute about 80% of the Jewish population. Tradition recounts that their holy books were lost in a shipwreck over 2000 years ago and therefore forgot all the Hebrew prayers except the “Shema,” but observed and kept Shabbat, circumcised their sons, and celebrated the major festivals. They adopted the local dress and local language – Marathi- and their main occupations in the early years were oil pressing, later holding high posts including army generals and even Mayor of Bombay in 1937.
India’s tolerant spirit has allowed Jews to make incredible contributions to the development of the country, yet after Independence many of India’s 50,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, leaving around 5,000 today. All-the-while, there has been no internal discrimination or anti-Semitism against the Jews in India. The horrific terror attacks on November 26th 2008, locally known as 26/11, which struck the Chabad house and Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, were carried out by Pakistani militants targeting all foreign influences in the region, including the Jews.
My experience with the community is they live by the teachings of the Torah, love and support Israel, and question the status quot! There are 9 working synagogues in the city of Mumbai, two community centers, an old age home, and even Jewish periodicals.
I didn’t know what to expect about the expression of Judaism in a world with an entirely different narrative than that of American, Israeli, or “Western” Jews, so I went in with an open mind and ready for an adventure.
My role with the community was not clearly articulated before I arrived. I spent the first month observing and asking questions. I worked within walking distance from my apartment. The Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center is a small facility, smaller than the Temple Beth Shalom Social hall, and includes a partitioned space for activities and events as wells as office space catering to all the communities needs. When I arrived, the JCC was in the process of condensing its two floors of office-space and general-use facilities into this one floor multi-purpose area. This transition was causing a great amount of movement and political posturing; it is after all a Jewish community. There were many programs that my fellow JDC colleague Jeanine and I were accountable to uphold, and yet we needed time to adjust to our new environment and roles.
My responsibilities included curriculum building and teaching Gan Katan, a weekly Sunday school for all the 4 to 11 year olds in both the city and the major Jewish suburb of Thane.
I cherished these Sunday mornings. We would start with some simple prayers and tefilah, continue with music (my guitar and debbie freeman melodies were an instant ice breaker), move on with either a biblical story or holiday discussion, and wrap up with an activity and the always anticipated snack time.
It was difficult to gauge what would be taught, due to attendance fluctuating based on the weather (lower during monsoon season with transportation challenges) or exam season, the age of attendees (quite a different class with 2 four year olds and ten 11 year olds, or visa verse, and other factors. Yet I loved spending time with these adorable bobble heads. For those who haven’t spent time with people from India, there is this unique head wiggle that indicates an affirmative response. So imagine a group of 15 Indian children sitting on the floor and shaking their head in unison as they respond to questions about the story of Noah.
I was also responsible for continuing a weekly Tanakh Class for adults. Every Tuesday, 5-10 adults ranging in age from 19 – 90 would show up ready to dissect the next story of the sacred texts in Judaism. We would read and discuss the words, bring some insight of the talmudic scholars when needed, but mostly talk about the meaning of the meaning between the lines. This group peeled back the layers of Indian life like nothing else by sharing with me their stories, giving explanations to help me understand the new surroundings, and always teaching me.
I gave a workshop on the Shofar – bringing my life full circle from Temple Beth Shalom – led a seminar on Jewish music – which gave me quasi-celebrity status with the youth – and shared Challah making techniques. Jeanine taught Hebrew classes, worked with the Beni Mitzvah kids, and was painfully stricken with an infection keeping her out for a couple months. We provided support for each other, in addition to the weekly and monthly publications, meals-on-wheels, welfare programs, and Bayiti, a residence and space for study, arts and crafts, gardening, and festive gatherings for elderly residents and community members.
We were asked to orchestrate community events and celebrations, such as a Yom haAtzmaut trivia night, and the major Hanukkah production of Khai fest
– you see it should be pronounced ckhai fest – but native Hindi and Marathi speakers have a hard time with the “kchhh” sound and Chai is already taken, so the solution is to pronounce it Khai fest –
As the real-life version of India’s Got Talent, Khai Fest had been an annual tradition, until the community called off the event due to the 26/11 terrorist attack. We really had to put on a show. We booked a local theater, cleared it through security, invited the entire community to attend, and even brought in the Israeli consul general and JDC representatives. Jeanine joined the youth group dance troop while I played guitar and prepared the finale which featured a full participant rendition of a few Israeli.
We developed and implemented two themed 5-day Camps for children that always began with competitions and ended in a giant Bollywood dance party.
And two week long Youth Retreats and Leadership programs – for the 15-35 year-olds that make up the local youth group, the Jewish Youth Pioneers. The second camp was in collaboration with Tufts University Hillel and the 30 American students who came on an alternative spring break service trip. We facilitated this week long retreat, which had an adventure theme, in an effort to allow Indians and Americans to find commonality across cultures in a fun and dynamic way. With the help of the American madrichim, we had the unique opportunity to reflect together on our similar and varied Jewish backgrounds, identities, and experiences. We saw a powerful transformation of perspectives occur naturally and moderated to help spur dialogue and skits on themes such as patriotism, spirituality, and culture.
My days were never ordinary. But no matter what, we always gathered for an hour long lunch and shared our food.
Identity crises, sickness, isolation, and confusion intersected in the first months on the job. However, as I continued to push forward, I found the fun in the unknown.
I was never afraid to make a mistake, because I would always learn from them. Whether I hugged a young girl “hello” in the presence of her family, which was interpreted by some as a marriage proposal, neglected to remove my shoes before entering auspicious and holy places, or used the wrong Marathi word; I could always count on being corrected and sharing in a laugh.
What I took away was that living in this environment necessitated an acute sense of openness, willingness, and patience. The supplies and skills required changed with each passing moment, but with the acceptance of the lessons learned from both mistakes made and goals accomplished, I think this incredible place helped me uncover success in chaos.
As my year of service in India concluded, I was fortunate to lead the Indian delegation of young leaders to the largest International Jewish Summer Camp in Szarvas, Hungary. This JDC funded facility is more than just a summer camp, but an oasis of Jewish education and expression. From planning camp-wide cultural events, learning team-building exercises, and training in formal and in-formal education, we learned the importance of organization and resourcefulness and returned to India as a team committed to enable others.
I left India and took my Shofar workshop on the road. I spent time with the Jewish communities Eastern and Southern Europe as I reconnected with fellow Jews I met in camp Szarvas while traveling in Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Greece, Poland, and Slovakia.
I continue to utilize the lessons learned from Israel, India, and beyond as I currently work for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as the Director of the Taglit- Birthright Israel Program. Los Angeles has its own challenges and chaos, but I am much better prepared to manage it all.
It is great to be able to continue my development of self and community by sharing my passion for Israel, love of travel, and importance of young adult leadership. Feel free to join me after services tonight, as I am happy to share pictures, additional stories, and enjoy delicious oneg together. Shabbat shalom and Shukria.