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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News March 2005

March 15, 2005

THE NAHUM GOLDMANN FELLOWSHIP IN INDIA

The fifteenth Nahum Goldmann Fellowship which took place in Mumbai, India, from February 28-March 6 was truly a memorable happening. The logistics of the organization for any meeting in India, including the provision of kosher food, are exceedingly complicated for obvious reasons.

The Indian Nahum Goldmann Fellowship was a remarkable event, firstly that it happened, and secondly, because of the level of success we achieved there, a truly unique accomplishment in the history of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, as I will explain in this report.

I visited Asia in October 2004 to plan that meeting. All decisions about the seminar, including choice of site, plans for recruitment, the program, and even the menu of the seminar were made during that visit in consultation with the Indian alumni from our previous seminars in Australia.

In addition to the input of the Indian fellows, we reached out to the professional and lay leadership of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint) and ORT, the two major international bodies operating in India, as well as the rabbinic leadership there.

The Indian community was thus deeply involved in planning the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship XV from the outset. Saul Aptekar of the staff of the Joint, who was appointed on-site coordinator, and Meyer Moses, a lay leader in ORT, were designated to represent the Indian community in implementing the plan agreed on during my visit.

The great level of success we achieved at Nahum Goldmann XV was wholly due to the remarkable partnership we shaped together, one of the most effective between the Memorial Foundation and host community in the history of the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship.

Thirty-six fellows from Jewish communities on four continents, including North and South America, Australia and Asia participated in the seminar, with the largest contingents from India and Australia.

 

Regional Cooperation

Three components of the Indian Nahum Goldmann Fellowship contributed to the success of that enterprise. From the attached program you can see that the academic program in India matched the level of excellence of our previous seminars. What was special about the academic facet of the fellowship in Mumbai was that this was the first time that such a distinguished team of academicians visited India.

No less impressive, from our perspective, was that all the faculty immersed themselves totally in all the non-academic aspects of the program, thereby enriching the personal dimension of the “fellowship” experience for the participants.

What was unique about the Indian fellowship was the collective dimension that surfaced there, another first for the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, that perhaps can serve as a model for other parts of the world. On the concluding day of the fellowship, the Indian and non-Indian fellows held separate caucuses, where each proposed regional cooperation between the young Jewish leadership of Australia, the largest and strongest Jewish community in Southeast Asia, with its counterpart group in India.

A set of suggested proposals having to do with sharing and developing cultural resources and programs for the Indian Jewish community were discussed and approved by each group individually and then collectively. The Australian and Indian caucuses were chaired respectively by Yair Miller, the vice president of the Sydney Jewish community, and by Meyer Moses. There was also a consensus in both groups that the regional cooperation should flow in both directions. Both groups believed that the principle of “mutuality” is critical for the future success of this pioneering endeavor in their region of the world.

Concomitantly, the Indian leaders associated with the Joint, ORT and religious community agreed to set up an informal committee to coordinate, from their side, whatever initiatives materialized from this effort.

The organization of the Indian caucus and the informal coordinating committee was, in the eyes of the Indian fellows, one of the major successes of the Indian Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. It accomplished, in their view, the tearing down of the walls between their leadership – young and old - that sometimes disrupt Indian communal life.

 

Bonding

The decision to work towards regional cooperation was an expression of a fundamental change that was wrought in the relationship between the fellows during the seminar. The bonding between fellows, always intense at previous fellowships, was especially strong in India, both in, and between, the Indian and non-Indian groups.

The integration of the Indian contingent with the other fellows was almost instantaneous; the Indians and non-Indians were intermingling at meals by the second day. The character of that bonding was most fully expressed in the Sabbath program, which is always the high point of the fellowship.

When we began the outdoor Friday night service, the low mountain range in the West behind which the sun had set toward which we were praying, was already enveloped in a tranquil orange glow. The whole beautiful Indian landscape before us was steeped in complete silence as Dr. Gidon Winter, a pediatrician from Sydney, stepped forward to lead a beautiful Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat Service.

Faculty and fellows, Indian and non-Indian, all joined together enthusiastically in song and dance. This was followed by the Shabbat Maariv service, in accordance with the Bnei Israel liturgical tradition, beautifully rendered by Mr. Sharon Galsurkar, a Jewish educator from ORT. As dark descended, the voices and the traditions of both groups mingled harmoniously.

The group then proceeded in the dark along a path decorated on both sides by the fellows with beautiful orange flowers native to India. The Sabbath tables and the floors were also strewn with red and yellow flower petals, also unique to India. With strings of small orange, green, red, and white bulbs hanging from the open porch, an Indian Sabbath ambiance was created that none of us from the West had ever experienced.

The meal itself was preceded by Shabbat zmirot from the Bnei Israel tradition, together with traditional western religious and Zionist songs, in which all joined. One of the Indian leaders told me that it was an experience he would remember the rest of his life. So would I and all the other faculty and fellows.

 

The Indian Jewish Experience

The Bnei Israel community, with a current population of 5,000, has been facing acute challenges since the 1950’s, when 50,000 Bnei Israel, together with their traditional leadership, left India, mostly moving to Israel. They are enveloped in a powerful, but tolerant Hindu culture and society, consisting of a population of nearly one billion. The young leadership of the Bnei Israel is deeply desirous of reviving and maintaining their community and heritage. Our seminar was a small step in helping them articulate that desire and mobilize resources for that purpose.

Less known in the outside world is the second community in India, the Bnei Menashe, who consider themselves part of the lost tribes of Israel, but whose status as Jews is questionable. A number have studied in Israel and undergone conversion there. Two young leaders, Jesse Gangte and Caroline Touthang from that community located in Manipur in Northern India, also were present at the Indian Nahum Goldmann Fellowship.

They enthusiastically participated in the seminar and demonstrated to the fellows and faculty their fierce determination to become Jews. To the Western fellows, the encounter with the Bnei Menashe was a provocative paradox, in that so many Jews in the West are currently opting out from Jewish peoplehood.

Our presence in India was indeed an immense psychological and spiritual boost to these proud tribes who have maintained a separate and often problematic existence in India for centuries.

But wonderment of wonderments. We, who came to give, were the greater recipients.

We left greatly inspired by the passion of the Bnei Israel and Bnei Menashe to preserve their heritage. The bonds of fraternity and brotherhood that emerged at Nahum Goldmann Fellowship XV helped us achieve in India a higher and more profound level of “fellowship” than in previous Nahum Goldmann Fellowships. May that spirit continue to animate their joint ventures in the future.

Best wishes for a happy Purim.

Warm regards.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President