Down and Dirty: US and Indian Jews Play Hokey Pokey in The Slums

Shayna Lebovic does the Hokey Pokey one last time

Thane, INDIA — Inside the narrow alleys of the Kalwa slum, past the shanties abutting the train tracks and the stray pig rummaging through garbage scraps, Pramila Mane rattles her rice dish and gently blows on the kernels on the second floor of her home. Across the room, Shayna Lebovic, 19, a volunteer with the Gabriel Project Mumbai, a Jewish nonprofit working to reduce hunger and provide educational services in Kalwa, crouches in front of a small chopping board diligently chopping onions.

Mane, a member of a local women’s group partnered with the Gabriel Project, and Lebovic would not be cooking partners in this enclave north of Mumbai were it not for Jacob Sztokman. The director and founder of the Gabriel Project, Sztokman toured the Dharavi slum during a business trip to Mumbai in 2011 while working for a data security company. Sztokman, 42, did not visit just to pay homage to the slum that inspired “Slum Dog Millionaire.” While doing research prior to the trip, he watched YouTube videos and read up on poverty in India and felt inspired to work in the slums.

His mind churned out ideas on how to empower slum residents as he saw 8-year olds sweat through each exhausting day of work and residents walk through seemingly endless puddles of standing water.

“I had a feeling that this was a very different place where people worked very hard but did not make enough money for necessities,” Sztokman said about his visit to Dharavi. “Afterwards I told my wife that we could do something. We can give a helping hand. We can’t necessarily solve their problems. It’s especially important for the Jewish people to lend a helping hand. It’s important for communities to support other communities.”

After speaking with the local nonprofit community Sztokman connected with Reach Education Action Programme (REAP), a Mumbai nonprofit dedicated to eradicating illiteracy and hunger in metropolitan Mumbai and surrounding rural areas, and chose to partner with the organization. The Gabriel Project formally launched in June when its first batch of volunteers, a mix of American Jewish college students and recent college graduates, arrived and began preparing hot lunches for students to eat at REAP schools and assisting with English lessons in REAP classrooms.  Sztokman chose Kalwa because REAP already had an established presence there.

“I believe there’s a lot to do here. I wanted to help in a way that really helped and not just think, ‘I’m a guy from the West and I can come and impose my ideas.’”

Another factor in selecting Kalwa was its proximity to Thane, a city about 20 miles north of Mumbai with about 200-250 Indian Jewish families. The Jewish community in the area dates back to the 16th century. Gabriel Project volunteers attend Shabbat services at the synagogue in Thane, teach Hebrew to the Jewish community and visit Jewish nursing homes around the Mumbai area in addition to volunteering in Kalwa.

Every day thousands of men of the estimated 80-100,000 people in Kalwa leave their homes hoping to find work; many, return home dejected and frustrated that their quest for employment was fruitless.  While fathers hustle for work, their children file in to schools with names like “New English School” and “Great English School,” where, according to Sztokman, the teachers do not know English. Many parents must choose between sending their children to school and sending them into the workforce. When children return home from school there is no guarantee that there will be food on the table. If there is food, it is usually the cheapest available and of little nutritional value.

“They’re in a constant battle for survival. Parents are in an awful dilemma,” Sztokman said.  “If they send their kids to get an education they’re going to have a future…. We’ll make sure they get nutrition. We’re going to give the children the carbohydrates, vegetables and grains. It’s a small, little help.”

The meals are only a temporary solution. Sztokman hopes that the English lessons will empower the students to continue their education and one day move out of the slum.

“English is a passport. The only way out is to learn,” said Sztokman.

Kalwa is about a 15-minute rickshaw ride from the heart of Thane, and only one stop away on the local train line, but few of Thane’s residents know about daily life there. Sigalith Ghosalkar, 26, the Gabriel Project’s program coordinator and a lifetime resident of Thane’s Jewish community, had never visited Kalwa prior to working for the Gabriel Project. Ghosalkar said that most Indians who do not live in slums are only aware of the poverty, the poor education and that some slum dwellers might have questionable morals.

“People don’t really know there is talent, that there are kids that are intelligent, creative and mechanically minded,” she said.

Two months of working in the slums has given Ghosalkar a new perspective about the extreme poverty that exists minutes away from her home.

“Being there is a total experience. People in the slums are very aware of their situation,” she said. “There are a lot of things they know and I don’t know how. There are a lot of things we can learn. Financially, they have a low status, but their hearts and minds are much more refined than we would imagine.”

It did not take long for REAP students to smash the stereotypes Ghosalkar and other members of the Gabriel Project team had about the people of Kalwa.

She spoke of a new student, Badshah, who the Gabriel Project staff believes to be around 11 years old. He started attending lessons taught by Gabriel Project volunteers a few weeks ago, but refused the free meal on his first day in the classroom. “We told him to get his stuff for eating [utensils and plate] from home. We kept saying how he was a good boy because he studied but he wouldn’t budge. He told the teacher that his mom had food at home and was preparing a midday meal. I was stunned he didn’t want to take anything. It’s a normal tendency to want to take it home for dinner. He chose to be honest,” Ghosalkar said. “It took a lot of maturity and concentration, especially because he might not have food everyday.”

Badshah was not the first REAP student to impress Ghosalkar with a strong moral compass. When the Gabriel Project first started serving meals, students rejected them because they knew some of their friends would not be eating that day.

“It’s hard to believe kids would think so much and say no to getting a meal. They don’t even know if they will have a meal back at home or if they will be getting a meal tomorrow, but they still said that to me. They show a lot of sensitivity and sensibility about life,” she said.

Standing next to the community’s water reservoir, Sztokman emphasizes that his goal is not merely to provide Kalwa residents with free services, but to empower them with skills that will allow them to join the growing ranks of the Indian middle class.

Sztokman’s philosophy of empowerment is seen through the Gabriel Project’s involvement with Pramila Mane. Mane and her friends are members of one of eight women’s groups that the Gabriel Project works with in Kalwa. The Gabriel Project pays Mane and her colleagues a small fee every month to prepare meals for the children.  Each woman contributes money to a communal pool that the group uses to purchase supplies for cooking and making candles, handicrafts and items for religious festivals. Many of the women, including Mane’s group, initially face resistance from their husbands, who are skeptical of their wives’ ability to earn money, as they usually have no previous work experience.  But instead of faltering, many of these groups eventually earn enough money to set up bank accounts, allowing them to take out loans to finance other ventures.

“At first we weren’t sure about forming a group because of the money involved, but after seeing the success of two or three other women’s groups we decided to give it a try,” said women’s group member Inda Mane.

It is difficult for the Gabriel Project to gauge what the Kalwa community thinks of their work. Ghosalkar said many slum residents feel that those who live outside the slum are very selfish and uninterested in helping residents of the slum.

“I have encountered people who think the Gabriel Project is just coming and looking,” she said.

But the sentiment is different among some residents, such as members of the women’s groups who have worked with REAP, Ghosalkar added. “They see that people really care for them,” she said.

Sztokman says he can sense that the women’s groups understand the importance of REAP and the Gabriel Project’s greater mission in Kalwa.

“It’s beautiful to see the women always grab more vegetables. They always say things like, ‘The children could use more potatoes and other vegetables,’” he said.

Members of Inda Mane’s women’s group echoed Sztokman’s sentiment.

“At first we thought it would be very difficult for them [the Gabriel Project volunteers] because they are used to having all the facilities, but when they started working with us and doing the things the way we do them, we were really happy and proud of them,” she said.

Hours spent chopping onions with the women’s group and helping students learn the names of different body parts in English has taught Gabriel Project volunteers many unexpected life lessons. For Ghosalkar, working with the residents of Kalwa has made her realize that slum citizens, though sometimes portrayed as immoral and dishonest, are some of the warmest and hardest working people she has ever met.

“It’s easy to be frustrated with life. It’s brave they just know how to put a smile. It’s not possible they don’t have problems.  I don’t know how they manage to work and keep calm,” she said. “They don’t stop because of their problems. They pick up what life gives them. They do what has to be done. They’ve never complained about anything.”

A 10-minute walk away from Pramila Mane’s kitchen, about 20 REAP students sit on the floor of a tiny classroom scribbling their ABCs on mini chalkboards. Lebovic and fellow volunteers Leora Chefitz, 22, Sara Birnbaum, 21, and Fanny Briceno, 23, disperse throughout the room, giving handwriting pointers and telling their students to show them a hasso, the Hindi word for smile. To their students they are no longer a teacher but a didi, the Hindi word for older sister.  When the volunteers hear their students blurt out, “Orange!” after seeing a picture of an orange t-shirt and count the number of school days the volunteers have missed, they are reminded why they are willing to put up with the unfamiliar hardships of the slum environment – such as the necessity of strategically placing their shoes to ensure students do not urinate on them when they use the bathroom outdoors.

“At first they [the students] were stragglers, but now we have regulars, which is a start,” Birnbaum said. “I was surprised at how strong of a connection we were able to make.”

Today is the final day Birnbaum, Lebovic and Chefitz will be in the classroom as their program with the Gabriel Project is scheduled to end the following week. Bricero plans on volunteering with the Gabriel Project for a few more months. At the end of the class, the three volunteers head up to the front of the class to address their students for the final time and give them school supplies as parting gifts.

“Dear students, today is our last day. We are so proud of everyone. You have all learned and we know that you will continue to learn. We are going to miss you so much,” the volunteers tell their students.

After their speech Birnbaum, Lebovic and Chefitz huddle up with their students for the hokey pokey, a staple of their daily teaching routine. This is the final time that these volunteers will put their right feet in and out, and shake them all about. But for the children of Kalwa, the final dance is the beginning of what the Gabriel Project hopes to be a waltz toward educational and economic empowerment.

Gabriel Weinstein is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. He is studying abroad in Mumbai, India for the fall 2012 semester. 



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