Saluting India’s Children

Grand Tour

By Joseph Spitz

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.
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Joseph Spitz is a 16-year-old high school student from California spending the year traveling the world with his father, a Conservative rabbi on sabbatical. At each of his destinations — a list that includes Australia, Japan, China, Singapore and India — Spitz has tried to track down people and places of Jewish interest.

NEW DELHI — It’s the eyes. The eyes are round, dark, full of life. The children stand around me, touching my hands, always smiling, asking my name, waving hello. I walk behind an abandoned train station toward a “contact point” in the city’s poverty-stricken depths. A contact point is a place where street children can come to get help from the Salaam Balak Trust. (Salaam Balak is Hindi for “salute the children.”) Alongside me is a child running, clutching my hand with one arm while holding a goat in the other. Walking past mountains of garbage and dirt, we get to a play area where deprived reality can momentary be transformed into hope and happiness.

I try to listen to everything the children who are huddled around me say. The greatest gift I can give here is my care, my presence, an open ear and an open heart. Despite the late afternoon hour, a good number of those here have just woken up. Many have trolled the streets all night searching for scraps of food from the past day, only to come back early in the morning to go to sleep. My brother, Jon, and I play games with them. Many of the children here, some as young as 4 years old, have run away from (or been expelled from) their impoverished homes, becoming enslaved to the street and its cruelties.

I am led by Dina Shwartzberg, a recent nursing school graduate. Dina has spent the last six months volunteering with the Salaam Balak Trust, an organization that invites children from the street to receive food, medical care and, for those who wish, an education and a home. The Trust, which I learned about through the American Jewish World Service, with which it is affiliated, has five shelters and four contact points, and helps hundreds of New Delhi’s street children. Dina is a Jewish day school graduate from Miami who translates the teachings of tikkun olam, repair of the world, into her daily life by

helping the ailing with vaccines, emergency medical care and preventive health-care. When the children see Dina, they rush to her for a hug. She calls them “my kids.” I was fortunate enough to spend five days working with Dina in New Delhi’s Salaam Balak shelters.

At the main shelter, I met Akshei, age 10 with the body of a 5-year-old. Though quiet, he never fails to show his smile full of missing teeth. Akshei has dark brown eyes, eyes that have seen the cruelties of the world at much too young an age. Cast from his home, he was found homeless in the dark treacheries of a New Delhi train station. He had not eaten in days when he was brought into the shelter. There, he shares a bare room with close to 40 boys. They eat, sleep, sing and play together like a big family. Many go to school while others learn with a home-school curriculum.

Each day as Dina and I got ready to leave, all the children from the shelter ran to give us hugs and shake our hands. Their beamed with happiness. Many ran up to us and said, “Don’t forget us.” With sadness I am aware that there are 10 million homeless children in India. I only made a couple of days better for a few children, but to take care of one is to take care of the world.






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