Digging Ditches, Building Trust: AJWS in India 2012

Our first day in the village: 19 other college-age Jews and I stood around the water pump under the searing 112-degree Indian sun.  We hoped to make a good first impression on the villagers, since we’d be working with them for the next two months.  They handed our group leader, Dan, a coconut.  One made a motion suggesting he should throw it onto the flat metal base of the water pump. Another, exasperated at Dan’s confusion, made a motion suggesting he should knock it against his bald white head.  Our interpreter said, “Dan Ji, [Ji is a suffix showing respect], “they would like you to split the coconut with this shovel for good luck in the project.”  Dan set the coconut on the metal base of the pump and took the shovel that was handed to him.  Nothing moved, not even the flies, as Dan raised the shovel.  He paused at the top of his arc…and the metal blade slid harmlessly down the wooden handle.  The entire village broke into peals of laughter, and after an awkward pause where we weren’t sure it was culturally appropriate to laugh, we followed.  This was clearly going to be a great start to our volunteer work.

This was a volunteer summer program run by the American Jewish World Service . Its programs stretch from Peru to Uganda to South Asia and involve partnering with local organizations to bring about tikkun olam, repairing the world.  BUT, this hadn’t been my first choice.  For my entire time in college I’d been hoping to tour India to experience the entire country, not just one village.  I was afraid that being confined to one village for eight weeks would take away from my experience of such a fascinating country.

Still, why India?  Even with all of my positive experiences at TBS, firmly rooted in my Judaism from my bar mitzvah to Confirmation and beyond, I’d felt a connection to India that might have had something to do with my pursuit of anything unique, non-Western, different from the norm.  It led me to be the only white guy in the dance groups I joined in high school and college—whether in the traditional Western Indian stick dance of Raas, the powerful moves of North Indian bhangra, or the simple melodrama of Bollywood dance.  I’d watched many musical Bollywood movies, and taken Hindi language classes to actually learn what the lyrics meant on all those songs that had ended up on my iPod.

First, it was the differences I was interested in.  But then I realized my attraction also had something to do with so much I saw that was paralleled in my own soul as a Jew.  The hospitality, the overbearing but well-meaning families who value communal traditions, the passion for knowledge and exploration, even the fried food. So within myself there was a contradiction—these differences and similarities had actually drawn me to the same place.  I had originally planned to visit with my fusion band, Hinjew, and see India from a self-designed itinerary on my own time.  But things change, and I went on the AJWS trip.  Like our group leader with the broken shovel, quite regularly I learned nothing goes according to plan.

This trip changed me in ways I wouldn’t have expected.  As one participant put it, “always expect the unexpected from the unexpected.” As my group and I fumbled our way through our project, we were forced to question some of our preconceived notions about Indian culture. It even started with my own realization that the Bollywood songs I’d learned had little value in a traditional village where the “old Indian classics” of the 1970s were much more widely known.  I got to know my fellow travelers as individuals, learning that in my quest to break down stereotypes between peoples, I’d neglected to deal with my stereotypes about my own people.  I also learned that changes in plans can actually be good things: being “confined” to village life helped us focus on our task better and opened up unexpected opportunities.  There’s even a linguistic parallel between villages and learning: The Hindi word for “village” is gaon; in Yiddish, gaon means “eminence” or “wise one,” as in the Vilna Gaon, a respected rabbi of Eastern Europe.  As a group, our experience taught us much about not only how we can best help others in tikkun olam, repairing the world, but also why we should even do so in the first place.

AJWS works with about 400 local organizations internationally.  We partnered with one of these organizations, called Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra, or “Participation and Teaching Center.” SSK is an organization that trains other Indian groups on its campus to work for grassroots change in society, primarily through education and teaching.  SSK believes that empowering people at the local level is key to improving the lives of millions of Indians who live in poverty.

My fellow participants were 19 other Jews from the US, Canada, and South Africa, assigned to work in a village outside of Lucknow, in northern India. Together, we experienced the “hardships” of alternating between digging with hand tools in the village heat, living in a rural, high-walled compound shared by flying insects and the lizards that ate them, or shuttling between these two locations trapped inside a Soviet-era tour bus with no air-conditioning, no suspension, and a leaking roof…not to mention dealing with the various illnesses each of us enjoyed at one time or another.

So you see, the potential for kvetching was astronomically high.

SSK supervised and facilitated our interactions with the village they had paired us with.  Throughout the summer we undertook several improvement projects working alongside the villagers.  Their village frequently suffered from flooding, so our main task was to build three 50-foot-long drainage canals using bricks and cement so the water wouldn’t pool in front of their houses and attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes.  We would also build paths in front of the government-built two-room school at the village entrance, and finally, repair parts of potholed road into the village.  (We thought we couldn’t do it without power tools. We were wrong!)

How did SSK know that this would be a worthwhile project?  Had they gone into the village with plans of their own?  To give you an idea of what SSK does and how they conceive of successful projects, it might be helpful to give you an example of what they are not.  Ernesto Sirolli is the founder of the Sirolli Institute, an international non-profit dedicated to training community leaders as entrepreneurs.  As an idealistic young man, he arrived in the African nation of Zambia with Italian seeds to teach the Zambians how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini.  He says, “Instead of asking them why in such a fertile valley they didn’t have food, we simply said “Thank God we’re here, just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.”  Of course, when the tomatoes were ripe, 200 hippos came out of the nearby river, and they ate everything. Sirolli exclaimed to his Zambian friends, “Look what just happened!”  They replied, “Yes, now you know why we don’t have any agriculture here.”  “Why didn’t you tell us!” he exclaimed. “You never asked…”

As anyone who has done social justice work abroad or in America will know, the first rule of helping others is to, simply, “shut up and listen.”  Even Judaism’s main prayer, the Shema, calls upon us to open our ears, rather than our mouths . It’s only by listening that we can know how to respond.

And I’ll tell you how this connects directly with our work.  The great thing about our construction project was that SSK had already done some building of their own.  Before we had arrived, they’d built up a relationship with the village. Instead of marching into the village with plans ready—as so many development organizations do—SSK had consulted with the village elders to see what they were most in need of and if SSK could provide them with the tools to accomplish their goals.  By beginning their relationship by listening rather than talking,  SSK positioned itself as a friend and resource for the village instead of an all-knowing outsider group.  This helped them gain the villagers’ trust and respect, which would be necessary when a group of 20 white Jews showed up in the summer with no idea how things worked in a rural Indian village.

When we arrived, my group learned quickly that gaining the villagers’ respect would be an extremely important part of our work as well. It started with conservative, modest dress.  This wasn’t too much of a problem for the guys—I just made sure to leave my favorite midriff-exposing blouse at home.  But for the girls it was more of a challenge.  The goal was to make communication easier, and earn the villagers’ respect.  Just like it would generally be bad form to go shirtless to an important job interview or first date, the villagers might be seriously offended by our first impressions if we refused to adjust to their traditional expectations.  So we had arrived in a strange land, like our ancestors before us when they left Europe…but rather than finding the limits of the Old Country removed, we found new limits within ourselves to contend with.

But I’ve discovered that you can be a much better listener and a more respectful human being if you have an understanding of a people’s language and customs.  Language is so important in any interaction.  Even knowing just a few key phrases like “how are you,” “I’m fine” and the most essential one, “where’s the bathroom”…can mean the difference between a frown and a smile from the person you’re addressing.  This belief led me to study as many languages as I could in college, from conversational Hebrew so I could speak with my cousins while visiting Israel on Birthright, to Arabic, which helped when I studied Arabic and taught English in Egypt, to Hindi, for my time in India.

When you can speak a few words in another language, you may not be able to discuss the U.S. deficit, but you can build a bridge to engage in conversation with others.  Working in a village every day for two months forced me to use Hindi all the time, even having just taken a year of it in college.  It meant I became an interpreter between my group of English-speaking Jews and the Hindi-speaking villagers when SSK’s translators weren’t available. Being interpreter carried its own set of responsibilities.  I remember the first day my group started working on our drainage ditch: I began by introducing myself in Hindi to our supervisor, Lakkhan, a short, mustachioed man of about 35. Lakkhan shook my hand forcefully with a broad smile, and introduced himself as Amitabh Bachchan. (Amitabh Bachchan is one of the most famous names in all of Indian cinema.)  I think that was the exact moment I learned he was widely known as the village joker.  I called him out on it, and instead of laughing at me, his friends laughed with me.  Over the next few weeks we learned not to take each other too seriously, and his enthusiasm to have someone from our group he could speak to and laugh with in his language spilled over to the rest of us.

The village was called Bhikaripur, which literally means “place of beggars.”  These were people from the lowest castes of Indian society. While much of the government’s money was siphoned off by the higher-caste village just next door before it got to Bhikaripur, we felt an immense richness of community was always offered to us. I think the villagers were glad to be treated by us as equals in a country where white skin is commonly seen as “better.”  The hospitality of these villagers was immeasurable.  During breaks from our work in the hot sun my group was often offered freshly made rice and dal, a lentil dish, and even got a chance to make our own flatbread. The villagers even put together a huge meal for us in thanks for our work.  They cooked delicious grilled eggplant, potatoes, and chilies that took them the entire afternoon to make.

I can’t underline how important it was that the villagers of Bhikaripur were open to us working alongside them to help them improve their village’s drainage issues.  But that wasn’t the only reason we were there.

Being able to work together had more importance on this trip than you might have expected.  It might seem like we were doing simple tasks—mixing cement, hauling bricks, digging trenches—that wouldn’t have required 20 Americans to fly halfway around the world, when the villagers could have just done it themselves.  But in its discussions with the villagers, SSK had found that the underlying problem was a very human one.  The villagers, busy with their own families and work in the fields, refused to give their time and energy to make compromises for the collective good.  Sound familiar? They would ask, why should I have to let a drainage canal touch my property, when you could just ask the guy across the street instead?  So maybe our true purpose for being there was to help develop community spirit and show an example of how things can be done when people work together.

So our team had to work together, despite the fact that there were so many things to potentially kvetch about: the weather, the tools that broke frequently, the language barrier.  We were role models and ambassadors of trust.

In the short time we were there we saw a big change in how the villagers interacted with one another.  The women who had previously stayed in their houses took an active role in helping shape our work by standing outside and discussing the direction of the paths we were building.  One day it rained and we took a day off from work.  To our surprise when we returned the next day, we saw that a path was several feet longer: the villagers had taken the initiative to complete a section of the work themselves.  This became a recurring pattern whenever we were unable to visit the village.  Finally, one of the most inspiring things I saw was on our last day as we laid down bricks for a path.  We had to move several pounds of dirt and stones and spread them across the freshly laid bricks to make them stronger.  A basket full of the mixture lay on the ground.  The villagers and I looked over and we saw a blind man lift the basket, slowly feel his way across to the path, and dump the mixture on the bricks. He then shuffled back to the dirt pile to repeat the process.

He did this for the rest of the afternoon.

Our experience had taught us that working for development to eliminate poverty is a process, not an end in and of itself. In life, too,  it’s not about the destination, but about the journey you take to get there. As Americans and Jews, an understanding of our history and our journey as people is so essential to understanding our destinations.  Those destinations—a good job, a healthy family, educational opportunities, to name a few—would not be nearly so valuable if we weren’t conscious of the hard work and planning it took in the first place.  In the Torah, after saving the Israelites from slavery, giving them God’s laws, and leading them across the desert for 40 years, Moses doesn’t even get to his destination.  He just gets a long journey.  Like Moses, our group won’t have the opportunity to fully realize the results of our work.  And remember the Eagles who rescued Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings?  If they’d just flown the Hobbits to Mordor from the Shire, the whole story could have been finished in half a page!  (But then we wouldn’t have had three awesome movies.)   Instead, Tolkien forces them to go on an arduous journey so they learn something along the way.  Our own personal journeys have the potential to shape us in ways we could never have imagined, and can give us an understanding of who we are in relation to the world around us that merely being handed success can never do.

Here, we had an opportunity to be ambassadors: not just of Western values, but as Jews of all socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds.  In our group discussions throughout the trip we often hashed and rehashed the relative merits of the diverse identities that each of us had to offer.  We celebrated Shabbat every week—outside while hearing the loud music of a Hindu festival as background, lighting candles in a humid training room at SSK, or singing the Shema on the banks of the holy Ganges River.  But because we were a mix of Orthodox, Reform, and agnostic Jews, every week was a struggle for compromise and accommodation.  This plurality of views was both a maddening phenomenon, and a pretty good affirmation of what it meant to be Jewish.  At the outset of the trip, nothing really united us except the fact that we had signed up for the trip hoping to get something out of it. At the end, many of us still disagreed on many things.  But we were united by our pride in our work, our positive experiences with the local villagers, and the fact that all of us had gotten sick at some point during our trip and survived.

While the common denominator was that we all considered ourselves Jews, this definition did not limit us at all in India.  In this corner of the world, prejudice against Jews is nearly nonexistent.  For hundreds or even thousands of years, Jews have lived free from discrimination across pockets of India, from Bombay in the north to Cochin in the south.  Their communities often were located in majority-Muslim enclaves, where the halal community had nurtured a positive relationship with its kosher cousins.

But in the rural village we worked in, nobody really even knew what a Jew was.  Our explanations often involved extreme oversimplifications; as one participant put it, “like Christians but without the whole Jesus thing.” And that was when the topic of religion came up at all.  The fact that we were Jewish was not something that we always externally emphasized on our trip, but instead something that we showed in our actions rather than our ideology–actions that motivated us to behave as moral human beings.

And this is actually the mission of AJWS: not to spread any particular religious ideology, as other volunteer groups often do in other countries, but to support local groups to be responsive to their needs, their cultures, their goals, to make the world a more sustainable place through tikkun olam, where human rights and greater opportunities are extended to all regardless of one’s beliefs.

The work of the American Jewish World Service is only one small way to improve the lives of others and strengthen the bonds between us as human beings.  Global development is obviously a huge task, and our efforts were really just one drop in the ocean.  But what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?  Judaism teaches us: “It is not upon you to complete the work, yet neither are you free to desist from it.” If we are capable of helping others, we should, while not being overwhelmed by the immensity of such issues as poverty, disease, and hunger. It’s about taking it step by step.

Helping others in our world without any ideological or religious agenda also makes us trustworthy ambassadors both for America and for Judaism.  As Americans, we hope everyone can be blessed with the same opportunities we had—to get an education, to raise a family, to make the choices that will make us happy and our parents proud.  As Jews, our responsibility goes even further.  Generations of injustices have been seared into our collective memory, the backdrop shaping what we have endured as outsiders, as a minority people.  Today we enjoy the blessings of being Americans, coming to temple to worship freely, having the opportunities our ancestors did not.  But we must not forget that once we, too, were slaves in the land of Egypt.  Hillel once said: If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?  Through our lessons and questions, our group learned about our responsibility to the world around us.

Last summer, AJWS sent another group to Uganda while my group was in India.  This group built a radio station and they had a similar experience interacting with the locals, who had little knowledge of what it meant to be a Jew other than their perceptions of the Jewish students helping them on this project.  At the end of their experience, one villager who had been pleased with their work went up to one of the group leaders.  He said: “I’m Jewish.”  The group leader looked at him.  The man repeated: “I’m Jewish…I also would like to leave the world better than I found it.”

This philosophy is a central idea of our faith, but it is not just limited to the Jewish people.  We are all citizens—citizens of our communities, of America, of the world, and with the privileges of being such citizens comes a great responsibility.  Which is to respect others’ beliefs, be listeners as much as we are talkers, and above all, to leave the world a little better than we found it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Jacob Kohn