Orthodox Union Relief Mission to India a Life-Changing Experience for Both Participants and Tribal Villagers

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06 Jun 2024

Group Acted As Emissaries for Israel on Weeklong Mission Centered on Tikun Olam (Repairing the World)

As an EMT at Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps (TVAC) and student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Nechama Deena Korenblit is used to interacting with people affected by poverty. But on her recent travels to the slums and rural villages of India, the 27-year-old soon-to-be Emergency Medicine resident witnessed poverty on a whole new scale.

Korenblit was among nine young professionals ages 18 to 29 who participated in a weeklong mission to Mumbai as part of Orthodox Union Relief Missions, and says that although she was emotionally prepared for the impoverished lifestyle, experiencing it firsthand through the eyes of those suffering was entirely different.

“The extent of the poverty in the villages is beyond what most Americans can truly grasp,” she notes. “The average income is about $250 a year, a home consists of a mud hut or tent, beds are simply mats on the ground, and women walk to and from the well to get their families water. Witnessing the villagers’ resilience in the face of obvious impoverishment was inspiring. It would be an honor to care for such strong individuals and communities as I move forward in my medical career.” 

Since 2005, the OU has run over 250 relief missions to over 20 national and international locations, including Israel, Romania, Rwanda, Kentucky, Texas, New Orleans, and Puerto Rico, among many others. This was the organization’s first trip to India, which was led in conjunction with Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM), an Israel-based nonprofit. Founded in 2012 by Israeli social entrepreneur Jacob Sztokman, GPM works with communities in Mumbai’s underserved urban communities and Maharashtra’s historically-marginalized rural tribal villages.

Through innovative programs and the provision of basic educational, health and nutritional resources, GPM empowers communities to break the cycle of poverty and helps them to thrive via its support of sustainable livelihood initiatives that empower women in particular.

“We’re always looking for new projects and ways to help others,” says OU Relief Missions Founding Director Rabbi Ethan Katz. “GPM is an exciting one. Our group stayed and worked in the Mokhada Village, where everything has an Israeli connection. Their field hospital has an air purification system donated by GPM with a bunch of Jewish names attached to it. People there know who we are.”

OU Relief Missions Founding Director Rabbi Ethan Katz erects a mezuzah at the Mokhada guest house

Home to about 150,000 people mostly from the indigenous Adivasi tribes, Mokhada Village is a rural region in India’s Maharashtra state. It is located four hours north of Mumbai, where the group spent the first leg of their trip touring various sites, including two active shuls and Elephanta Island, renowned for its caves containing sculptures that merge Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. They also learned about Mumbai’s rich Jewish history in an engaging session led by Sztokman.

“India’s Jewish history is fascinating and dates back to Churban Habayit Rishon,” says Rabbi Katz, referring to the destruction of the first Temple. “There are less than 4,500 Jews in India, and it’s questionable how many people are actually Jewish. The communities of Bnei Menashe, Bnei Ephraim and Bnei Israel each have completely different minhagim (traditions). We were exposed to a completely different world.”

Over the course of their stay, the group participated in a number of exciting projects, including working at two women’s manufacturing collectives; one, Sundara, manufactures soap, while the other, Naya, creates products including bags, stationery, and placemats from recycled paper. 

“One of my favorite projects is the soap collective,” says Rabbi Katz. “Hotels give visitors a fresh bar of soap every day. GPM collects hundreds of used bars, which they scrape down and sanitize. They then create new ones and distribute 300,000 bars throughout the school system as part of a program that teaches kids about proper hygiene, which we led as well.”

The team also ran two camps over three days for children in Kindergarten through high school, and led math, science and art programs and other activities. 

Twenty-two-year-old Joseph Segal of East Brunswick, New Jersey, holds a BA in Biology from Yeshiva University and, like Korenblit, is pursuing a medical career. Segal, who resides in New York’s Washington Heights, was touched by his interactions with the young Indian students.

“After teaching them how to make origami hats out of newspaper, we helped them decorate their creations,” he reflects. “Even in a place that is essentially cut off from the rest of the country and where food is scarce, the children’s faces lit up with wonder at the idea of drawing and coloring.

During this activity, I sat down with a group of kids and taught them how to write their names in English onto their hats while they taught me how to write mine in Marathi, their native language. Seeing the pure joy on each of their faces will be etched into my memory for a long time.”

L to R, in the Mokhada Village: Ariela Guakil and Shayna Sklar play with schoolchildren

The experience also contributed to Segal’s feelings of self-empowerment.

“I found myself leading the charge during some of our group’s activities,” he says. “While I am generally an enthusiastic person, I have previously been uncomfortable at times to lead groups. In overcoming that discomfort and being a leading voice and contributor in all of our activities, I have cleared an invisible barrier with my newly-developed leadership qualities.” 

Rabbi Katz notes that the group’s initiatives largely centered on systematic change, which is a core objective of GPM’s mission.

“An average high school there has between 700 and 800 students and one math/science teacher for all of them,” he says. “Among GPM’s goals is to get one or two kids excited about math or science. In turn, they might pursue higher education in the future, which may ultimately bring more money and opportunities back to the village.”

Mission participants also visited the Mokhada Rural Hospital and the Mokhada Community Healthcare Center clinic.

“Visiting the hospital and seeing the limited resources and substandard environment that the medical staff have to work in was humbling,” says Korenblit. “The staff’s persistence in providing the best possible care they can in such conditions is encouraging.”

The group also visited a tribal village called Vijpada, where its leaders shared that a river separates them from prime land that could otherwise be cultivated, were it not inaccessible. While the villagers owned a single canoe, the team learned that a second one would double their productivity.

“Their dream was to own another canoe so that they could farm and fish,” says Rabbi Katz. “But at $330, it was unaffordable. Our group discussed this problem and unanimously decided to buy them one. We believe in paying it forward. In exchange, the village leaders agreed to supply the villagers with tools to grow peanut oil which will one day be given back to GPM’s Dr. Gerald J. Freedman Infant Malnutrition Intervention Program.

Ariela Guakil and Nechama Deena Korenblit pose with a school student after making origami hats

With Israel at war, Rabbi Katz believes the OU’s relief mission to India was more imperative than ever.

“It is because of everything going on in Israel, that we have to lead a mission to India, as well as to New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and other places,” he says. “We’ve run missions to Israel nonstop, both before and after October 7. But part of our objective when leading missions outside of Israel is to educate others about the State, and to serve as positive emissaries of the Jewish People .”

Rabbi Katz says that no matter where the OU runs a relief mission, the group is entirely transparent about their Judaism and pursuit of chessed (kindness) as a fundamental value.

“Over 100 times, people have approached our mission group, and told us that they stand with Israel and pray for our homeland at their churches. When we go out and do these chessed activities, we show that’s what Israel and the Jewish people are all about — helping others.”

Their advocacy work for Israel continues, says Rabbi Katz, once participants return to work and share their experiences with their colleagues.

“The world may be biased against Israel, but we just spent the past couple of weeks in Mumbai, doing chessed and Tikun Olam,” he says, referring to the Jewish value of repairing the world. “While there are those who may want to stereotype us, we’re showing people who we really are as a nation committed to acts of kindness.”

For both Korenblit and Segal, the mission was life-changing, and made them appreciate their blessings even more.

“I gained so much respect for the Mokhada villagers, which can be generalized to individuals with cultures and traditions differing from my own,” says Korenblit. “ I also increased my gratitude for all of the privileges that are so easily taken for granted personally, such as a roof over my head, food on the table, clean water so easily accessible, and professionally, including a clean hospital, access to advanced medical technologies and medicines.”

Segal adds, “While the mission was only a week long, it enabled me to realize how manageable my problems are compared to those of the Mokhadan villagers. From our point of view, they lead extremely difficult lives. Upon visiting the different villages, however, it became readily apparent that people were content and happy with their lives. It goes to show that all the luxuries back at home are not needed for happiness in life. The mission also made me more appreciative of those at home whom I love, and who have been there for me through thick and thin. I plan to increasingly express my gratitude to those people, and, of course, to God.”