As simple as soap Mission to India shows ways to make purposeful connections by Joshua Rubenstein Special to Southern Jewish Life
I hadn’t given much thought to soap until I learned about Sundara. Something that may seem so trivial is having an enormous impact on the livelihood of India’s most disadvantaged and has inspired me to make a difference at home as well. Sundara, an Indian nonprofit, has produced a recipe that starts with soap and hopes to end the cycle of poverty in India’s slums. By employing in-need women to recycle scraps of hotel soap, which usually go into landfills, Sundara allows children the chance to go to school — children who would otherwise forgo their education to sustain their family’s income by working as sewer cleaners and rag pickers. These soap products are then given out during educational hygiene lessons, perpetuating the importance of solving problems at their root. I was able to meet with these impressive working women of Sundara while co-chairing the Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet study mission to India. The NYL Cabinet mission, with 110 participants, was the largest ever, as well as the first Jewish Federations mission to India, a country that has strong military ties and trading partnerships with Israel, and is home to the Bene Israel, one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. Sundara partners with the Gabriel Project Mumbai, which receives support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a Federation-funded partner. The interconnection between this low-tech program and its environment amazed me most and truly got me thinking about the ingredients necessary to bring about positive change. Over the course of my eight-day journey in India, learning from a culture so different than my own, I realized the most important ingredient: purposeful connection. Jacob Sztokman, GPM’s founder, taught us about the challenges of extreme urban scarcity and showed us the efforts of his organization to tend to the educational, health and nutritional needs of children. We volunteered with GPM participants as they spent their morning teaching in the slums and preparing nutritious meals for children to take to school. In this country of both extreme poverty and great wealth, it surprised me how little it costs to feed a child: just 19 cents per day. Also inspiring were the members of the Jewish community whose connection to their faith has endured for over 2,000 years while, at many times, cut off from the Joshua Rubenstein is a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and is beginning his sixth year in the National Young Leadership Cabinet. He cochaired the 2017 NYL Mission to India in February. 42 Southern Jewish Life • September 2017
rest of the world’s Jewry. The Bene Israel have both successfully assimilated and retained their culture in a country where Jews are vastly outnumbered. Like Sundara, these Jews are able to make purposeful connections between their community and the landscape around them. The places we visited saw Jews getting along, living together, conducting business, and helping others with varying backgrounds. I even learned how the Jewish community doesn’t eat beef to show respect for their neighbors, and about the various festivals where Jews invite their non-Jewish friends to celebrate together. For centuries, this minority community had been held together by just four Jewish traditions: Shabbat, Sh’ma, kashrut and b’rit milah. With the help of the JDC, they now have programs like the Jewish Youth Pioneers, which trains young Jewish leaders to deepen these traditions through community engagement. Indian Jewry is stronger for those efforts, whether its members continue to live in Mumbai and Delhi or move to Jerusalem and Beersheba following Aliyah under the auspices of the Jewish Agency for Israel. We had the opportunity to spend significant time with the JYP members, learning about their communal dynamics and the challenges that they face. It was fascinating how our cohorts were able to relate to one another so easily. I soon realized that my fellow Cabinet members were feeling similar senses of connection. When we came together with the Bene Israel Jews for Shabbat, we overflowed Delhi’s Synagogue, Judah Hyam Hall, with people spilling into chairs in the synagogue’s courtyard. During services we heard their stories and shared in singing Hebrew songs both in our melodies and in theirs. Saying the Sh’ma together, we internalized its power to connect all Jews; whether in Hebrew, Yiddish or another local tongue, the Sh’ma and other basic prayers transcend language to bring people and their faith together. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been reminded of the different circumstances of our global people. The struggles of the Indian Jewish community are unique as they are ones of isolation and of responsibility to their neighbors. Collectively, as a Jewish people, we have survived through many challenges and triumphs over thousands and thousands of years. It is incumbent upon each of us to learn from each other so that we continue to grow, to endure, and to make purposeful connections; when we do so, we have the power to strengthen our identity and better the world around us. I hope to better the world around me through my new connection to soap. As a hotel owner in New Orleans, I found and engaged a U.S. organization, similar to Sundara, to repurpose partially-used soap and other discarded hygiene products to give them another life. After all, it is important to remember that you don’t have to travel all the way to New Delhi to foster purposeful connections; one can start with a bar of soap at home.
Published on Sep 7, 2017
September 2017 New Orleans edition of Southern Jewish Life, the official publication of the Greater New Orleans Jewish community