Poverty is something Rabbi Adam Feldman has long understood intellectually, but his recent service trip to India with the American Jewish World Service exposed him to what it means on a daily basis for millions of people.
As the delegation drove from the airport through the city of Lucknow, he said, they saw “the filth and the poverty — tremendous garbage in the streets, cows walking in the streets of the city, people sleeping all over.”
And later, in the village of Bakari Pur(wa) — where Feldman and 16 other rabbis from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements spent five days doing serious physical labor on behalf of the village school — he saw people living in mud huts, with exposed sewage and no electricity.
“It was not the cinematic India — we saw real-life India said Feldman, spiritual leader of the Jewish Center in Princeton. “The people we met have no life that is glamorous at all.”
His interest in the trip grew out of his belief in tikun olam and the importance of caring for the less fortunate, but he had also begun thinking about expanding his role as a religious leader beyond ritual observance to leadership in social justice.
As he wrote in his application to the service program, which took place July 21-Aug. 1: “Recently I discovered that I can probably have more of an impact on people’s lives in my community if I can inspire them to be more involved in helping others.”
To prepare for the trip, the rabbis studied relevant Jewish texts and viewed videos about India, including one on the caste system, which — even though the government outlawed it in 1956 — still exists. The discrimination against the lowest caste, the dalit, reminded Feldman of how African-Americans and Hispanics, and even women, have been treated in the United States.
“There is work only they do because no one else will do it,” he said.
The rabbis also attended a one-day orientation at a Newark Liberty Airport hotel.
Four planes and one bus later, they arrived at their lodging, Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra, a community center on the outside of Lucknow. After a ceremonial welcome from the center’s staff, the rabbis were asked to each plant a tree in the center’s garden. “We want you to leave something here,” they told the rabbis. Feldman recalled, “We sat on the ground, got muddy, and planted a little sapling — it was like JNF” — in India.
The principal of the school welcomed the rabbis before they set to work. “She was very proud of her school,” said Feldman. “She talked about how great it is when one of the kids goes to high school.”
The rabbis laid a brick patio in the school courtyard, reinforced a cement slab in the school kitchen, and removed and replaced the cement floor in a classroom — all while school was in session. Feldman rode back and forth on a bicycle to fetch sand that was mixed with dry cement and water.
“I became the shlepper,” said Feldman.
Taking it home
In the afternoons, representatives of grassroots organizations spoke to the rabbis about the impact of their work. One involved in water rights talked about how the corrupt government officials often grabbed land and water from the people; Feldman said he suggested he get in touch with Israelis involved in desalinization and cleaning waste water for irrigation.
A woman working for women’s rights described how she one-upped the caste system by giving her children a made-up last name. Another woman talked about how she had to run away from a husband she had married at 12 or 13 to go to high school.
The rabbis’ living conditions were comfortable, but “showers” meant a big bucket and a smaller hand cup, also used to wash their work clothes. Water for drinking and brushing teeth came from a filtration machine in the kitchen.
On the group’s last day, villagers held a ceremony to thank the rabbis, which included conversation with villagers, men with men and women with women. The male villagers expressed pride in their farming and children, and said the thing they wanted most was electricity.
As the men compared family life in the two countries, the Indians expressed surprise that most people in America move away from where their families live when they marry. They asked, “Who takes care of their parents if the children move away?”
Feldman said that the Indian government is not fulfilling its responsibilities. “It is amazing to me that people live in this level of poverty, and a country that has the wealth that India has allows this to go on,” he said. “I saw no government officials, sanitation department, police checking in with the homeless on the streets.”
He is still thinking about what exactly his obligations are to the people of Lucknow and India. “In our global world, are they my neighbors? Am I obligated to take care of them? Am I more obligated to take care of the poor in my own town than in the next town?”
“If a poor person is in front of me, I have more obligation,” Feldman continued. “At the same time, these people are my fellow citizens.”
Feldman said he plans to teach about what he learned — in classes for high school students using a new curriculum from the AJWS about tzedaka and from the pulpit. Feldman said he will explore issues about social justice obligations in the Jewish and non-Jewish community, locally, or globally.
Feldman said he wants to inspire people to find an organization they are passionate about and donate their time.
“It is not just about giving tzedaka; hesed should not be just for bar/bat mitzva kids,” he said. “Not only are we obligated, you’re going to feel pretty good about it. I had more impact on those kids by building their school than by sending them $100.”