Rabbi Mark Bloom wiped the sweat from his brow then sunk a trowel into the soil. The oppressive Indian sun shone down on him and 16 other American rabbis as they tried to make a difference in an impoverished village in Uttar Pradesh, India’s poorest state.
Bloom traveled to India with two other Bay Area rabbis, Marvin Goodman and Melanie Aron, on the recently concluded 10-day trip, sponsored by American Jewish World Service.
“It’s the kind of project I’ve never done before,” said Bloom, who serves as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative congregation in Oakland. “It’s about using Jewish values to be involved with problems in the world.”
The trip was one of several AJWS leads throughout the developing world each year. Goodman, the executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, said the purpose was “to show us the reality of that world, and the impact that organizations like AJWS can have using Jewish values.”
Participants departed July 23 for New Delhi and then on to Lucknow, a large city with a population of nearly 3 million. There the rabbis set up a home base and met with what Bloom called “mitzvah heroes,” local Indians who work with non-governmental organizations seeking to alleviate the region’s extreme poverty.
The rabbis divided their time between Lucknow and nearby Bikharipurwa, a tiny village with no electricity, running water or sewage facilities.
“In the mornings we did [manual labor] in the village, to help improve elements of the school,” Goodman said. “We did brick work and cement work on the patio and classroom floor.”
Aron, rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, was struck by what she saw as India’s widely varying levels of development.
“One moment we could be in a village with no electricity or sanitation,” she remembered. “Then we’d be in downtown Delhi, which could have been Silicon Valley.”
Like Bloom, she was impressed with the local Indians working to help their fellow citizens. “We met amazing idealists working with NGOs, bringing women’s rights and water rights,” Aron said. “It was interesting to see how a society progresses.”
All three rabbis experienced memorable encounters on the trip. Goodman and Bloom, for example, met with the men of the village, and although they lived in huts and had no electricity, they had certain advantages over their American visitors, Goodman noticed.
“People are very connected with each other,” he said. “Since it’s traditional in Indian culture for a woman to move into her husband’s parents’ home, the men asked us what we do when we get married: move in with the wife’s parents or the groom’s? We told them we move into our own homes. Their response was, ‘Who takes care of the parents when they get sick?’ ”
“What a moment,” Bloom said of the encounter. “We were there to help with poverty, and they were richer than we are.”
Aron said she wouldn’t soon forget one woman who came from one of the lowest castes in the region. She told the rabbi she had refused to give her sons last names (as surnames are an indicator of caste) because she did not want their destinies predetermined by outmoded prejudices.
Another memorable moment came during Shabbat services at a retreat center in Lucknow. The 17 rabbis, who collectively represented all streams of Judaism, were singing enthusiastically when an Indian woman wandered in and started dancing. She was “dressed like a painting,” Bloom said.
The three local rabbis said they found India exotic, but it was the rampant poverty that made the biggest impact.
“I experienced an otherness,” Goodman reflected. “I wonder how much poverty I miss around the United States.”
For follow-up to the trip, the two pulpit rabbis plan to deliver sermons about the venture and what they learned.
“It awakens a concern for global justice,” Bloom said.