A Birthright in Mumbai


By Lynn Schusterman and Sandy Cardin

Published February 25, 2009, issue of March 06, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On a recent month-long trip to India, we saw the expected: saris and kurtas of every color and design, magnificent Hindu and Buddhist temples, snow-capped Himalayan peaks and — of course — the breathtaking Taj Mahal.

We also witnessed something totally unanticipated and completely improbable: the rejuvenation of Jewish life in India, a transformation due in large part to the positive experience 167 young Jews from India gained as a result of their involvement in the Taglit-Birthright Israel program.

The first busload of Birthright participants from India arrived in Israel in 2003 and, as we learned, Jewish life on the Subcontinent has not been the same since. There is a renewed excitement and energy among the young Jews of India, and a 
special sense of belonging to a global Jewish community perhaps unlike anything 
in this community’s 2,000-year history.

We saw proof of this in Mumbai, where we were privileged to attend a wedding at the Magen David Synagogue. The ceremony featured traditional rituals of India’s Bene Israel community, including the groom singing to the bride as she approaches the chuppah, the placement of a gold chain by the groom around the neck of the bride (indicating that she has entered into the groom’s family), the dipping of the wedding ring in the wine cup just before the Kiddush (sanctifying the ring to make it more than a mere symbol of marriage).

The program noted that the couple, Yuval Moses and Celina Talkar, “met in the Sacred Holy 
Land.” We discovered that the couple met on a Birthright trip! At the reception, an outdoor affair attended by 1,000 people, we encountered four other couples that met on Birthright trips, including an additional set of newlyweds.

In Pune, an industrial city approximately 120 miles southeast of Mumbai that is home to fewer than 200 Jews, we met two
young men who are Birthright alumni at the Ohel David Synagogue. They 
explained to us that for them, and for the other young Jews of Pune, Birthright is their Jewish lifeline to the world.

Many here in the United States tend to think of Birthright Israel mostly as a program that provides young American Jews free trips to Israel. In fact, the more than 200,000 young Jews who have participated in Birthright trips hail from 52 countries around the globe.

Some come from small Jewish communities that have comparatively few resources and are isolated from the world’s major Jewish population centers. Birthright participants have included more than 130 Jews from Cuba, 400 from Azerbaijan, 160 from Venezuela, 1,050 from Hungary and young people from Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru.

Jews went global long before it was fashionable. That means we are perfectly positioned to take advantage of globalization, but only if we work hard to nurture our common heritage, honor our common ancestry and build a common future. Our young people are among the most mobile in the world, but there is a need to build connections that reach across borders and last a lifetime.

Birthright Israel does precisely that. From Mumbai to Melbourne, from Delhi to Dnipropetrovsk, from Pune to Philadelphia, young Jews are connecting with their peers, their people and their homeland. As we saw for ourselves all over India, Birthright has become an essential component of the Jewish future, a vital point of connection for a global people in danger of growing further and further apart.

Of course, along with Birthright’s tremendous success have come challenges. Currently, more young people sign up for trips within 24 hours of the opening of registration than Birthright can afford to accommodate. Many of those placed on waiting lists will sadly never make it to Israel on a Birthright trip. This is a disservice to them and a lost opportunity for the Jewish world. These challenges have been exacerbated by the current economic downturn.

Given Birthright’s central place on the Jewish communal landscape, it is all too easy to take its existence for granted and to forget the void that its creation filled. But if Birthright is to continue to carry out its vital mission, the entire Jewish community must invest in its success.

We have supported Taglit-Birthright Israel from the program’s inception in 2000, and we are more committed than ever to ensuring that Birthright continues to provide trips to Israel for as many young Jews as possible. Even in difficult philanthropic times, it is vital that we make the most of every opportunity to foster among young Jews a timeless connection with Israel and with each other.

Lynn Schusterman and Sandy Cardin are the chair and president, respectively, of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Schusterman Foundation-Israel.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.