India is a popular destination for college-age Israelis, but if American University Hillel has anything to do with it, it may soon become the "it" place to travel for American Jewish college students, too. Ten AU students recently returned from 15-day trip to India, where they not only saw world-famous wonders like the Taj Mahal, but they explored the richness of Jewish life across the country.
The genesis for the trip came from Nissim Reuben, a former graduate student at AU who now works at the American Jewish Committee. A native of India, Reuben approached AU Hillel Program Director Amy Levine with the idea, and together they planned an itinerary spanning six Indian states. Although many people discouraged her from moving forward, Levine said that because the Jewish population in India is decreasing, she felt it was important for the trip to take place.
"I had this feeling we just needed to do it," Levine said. "There used to be 200,000 Jews in India, and now there are only 5,000. If we waited a few years, it could be gone."
So with Reuben's cousin Rephael as their guide, the AU students traveled from Delhi to Mumbai (Bombay) and many places in between, where they visited several synagogues, Jewish organizations, the Israeli embassy and consulate and even a Jewish wedding. They also toured many of India's well-known attractions, such as the Agra Fort, Red Fort, the island of Elephanta and numerous temples and markets. But no matter where they were, the students were struck by the welcoming nature of everyone they met.
"India is one of those places that has a reputation – the beggars, the slums, the dirt – but the friendliness and hospitality surprised me," said Dan Zuckerman, an AU senior who was one of the trip's student coordinators.
The trip had special meaning for AU senior Simona Samson, whose father grew up in India. It was her first journey there, and she met relatives all over the country with whom she previously only had relationships over the phone.
"I can't even describe the feelings I had," Samson said. "Everywhere we went, I felt like people knew me. They treated me like I lived there."
A descendant of the Bene Israel community of Indian Jews, Samson was thrilled to see that the itinerary included a visit to a Jewish cemetery in Alibad, where the Bene Israel claims to have first arrived in India more than 2,000 years ago. The group was touched to find that a local Hindi man has been tending to the cemetery for years without compensation, purely out of respect for the site.
The caretaker's reverence for India's Jews is not unusual. The students were pleased to discover that anti-Semitism is essentially non-existent in the country since Jewish culture has been infused with many elements of Indian culture.
"The Jews of India are unique in that they're Indians before they're Jews because their society is so welcoming toward them," Zuckerman said.
While anti-Semitism is not a concern to the community, the issue of Jewish continuity looms large. Emigration has reduced the Indian Jewish population dramatically, and just as American Jews may feel pressured to marry within their faith, the situation is even more imperative for their Indian counterparts, Levine said.
"It was a big reality check for the students that passing on these traditions are so important," she said.
Levine hopes this trip will be the first of many for Jewish college students, and she plans to market the program to other campus Hillels. The students also plan to keep a strong connection with the people they met and encourage their peers to consider India when making travel plans so they can experience the country for themselves.
"India is a place that's really hard to put your finger on. When people ask me about my trip, my responses can't really convey what I got out of it," Zuckerman said. "It puts a lot of things in perspective in terms of poverty and wealth. It helps you understand your own place in Judaism."
"Once in your life, visit India because it changes your perspective on life," added Samson, who is hoping to return with her family soon. "People here don't appreciate what they have."