When ten Hillel students from around the world landed in India in July 2009, they were amazed by its exotic sights, sounds and scents. But after four weeks volunteering with the country’s Tibetan community, the unknown was eclipsed by an unexpected kinship.
In its first year, Olamot (“worlds” in Hebrew) brought five Jewish Israelis and five Jewish Canadians to India to volunteer with some of the estimated 100,000 Tibetans taking refuge in its borders. The program, organized jointly by Hillel Israel, Hillel of Greater Toronto, and IsraAID and funded by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, aims to provide service learning opportunities in India with a Jewish dimension.
But groups of students were surprised at what else they learned during their stay.
Over their weeks volunteering with the Tibetan community in Dharamsala—teaching English, writing grant proposals, and doing field work in projects coordinated by Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People —the ten Olamot participants began to recognize that this unfamiliar culture wasn’t quite as unfamiliar as they thought.
“Even though the culture is different from our own,” said Toronto participant Shauna Lichtblau on the trip’s blog, “I believe that our underlying values are very similar and allow us to relate to each other on so many levels.”
Hillel of Greater Toronto’s Immersive Experiences Coordinator and Olamot madricha Rebecca Woods Baum felt that the familiarity Lichtblau mentions is borne not only from similar values, but also from a similar history.
“We were all struck by the parallel between the Tibetan and the Jewish stories,” said Woods Baum. “We’re both peoples who have been exiled from our homeland and who fight to keep our traditions and language alive. This common story was extremely powerful.”
The shared history between the two cultures was underscored in an experience Israeli participant Maayan Ravid shared in the program’s blog.
“On my last day I had lunch with a monk who I'd taught English at our conversational English classes. He made me noodles in his room- 3 meters x 3 meters. Simple, basic. His life in a matchbox.”
“As we had our last conversation he explained to me that the Jewish people are very strong- they waited for their homeland for over 1000 years, Tibetans only waited for 50- it's OK. Then he continued to explain how Jews say: Next year in Jerusalem- leading to our mutual rephrasing- Next year in Lhasa- the ancient capital of Tibet. This for me is a final reminder of why we are here.”
Experiences such as Ravid’s broke down barriers between the groups and provided fertile ground for students to explore their own identity, in both a universal and Jewish context.
“This program was about making us more aware of our place in the world,” said Hillel Israel’s Olamot Coordinator Dafna Regev. “It’s not just about helping this community, but about developing ourselves. Opening our minds and our hearts. Asking questions.”
“During the day we spoke with the Tibetans about living in India, and at night we had rich conversations within our own group—Israelis and Canadians—about what it means to be Jewish in Israel and what it means to be Jewish in the Diaspora. It was incredibly powerful for both sides.”
Now back in Toronto and Israel, participants are planning local programs to extend their experiences in India at home and to maintain connections to each other and to the Tibetan community.
“It was an amazing experience, and we are looking for ways to continue the powerful connections we built in India,” said Woods Baum. “And we would love to repeat it all again next year.”
For more personal reflections from participants, visit Olamot’s online blog.