Wednesday, September 17, 2014 Elul 22, 5774

Finding New Challenge With Service in India

September 4, 2013 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell (left) works with AJWS president Ruth Messinger during a recent mission in India.

Most rabbis spend the summer months preparing for the High Holidays. This summer, my High Holiday preparation included travelling to Lucknow, India, with 16 rabbis representing Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal communities across America. Together we became RD4, the fourth rabbinic delegation of the American Jewish World Service to immerse in a “service learning” approach to increasing global justice.

We readied for our trip for six months by studying texts on development, international human rights and responsible ­traveling. On Sunday, July 21, we gathered in a hotel near Newark International Airport and began with song, ­setting a pattern of sharing harmonies that nourished us throughout our 11 days together.

We then dived into an activity beloved by rabbis: text study. Our text for the morning was the AJWS mission statement; “Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, American Jewish World Service works to realize human rights and end pov­erty in the developing world.” How would our few days working in a remote Indian village increase justice and contribute to ending poverty? 

Hours later, when we assembled at the airport gate, Adina Mermelstein Konikoff, an AJWS staff member and Philadelphia native, encouraged us to choose a method for “counting off.” With aspirational chutzpah, we settled on the first lines of Arik Einstein’s song, “Ani v’Ata: You and I will change the world.” We each claimed one word; together we became the hope.

Each of our days in India began with a breakfast of strong chai, chapatis, lentils and yogurt, and then we boarded a bus to the village of Bikhari­purwa. The 25-minute drive was an adventure; the roads were clogged with automobiles, auto-rick­shaws, open and closed trucks, and bicycles, scooters and motorcycles. Vehicles and pedestrians were joined by cows and water buffalo wandering in and out of traffic, herds of goats and an occasional pig. The honking, braying and snorting created a cacophonous highway symphony. 

On our first morning in the village, we were welcomed with songs and ritual. The village children presented each of us with a garland of marigolds, dabbed henna on our foreheads and wrapped our right wrists with red thread. I felt the connection to the millions of souls throughout history who have worn protective amulets. I am still wearing my bracelet of protection.

Every morning after that, we joined the master mason and his crew in the village schoolyard. Over the course of our week together, under their guidance, we laid a brick patio and created new floors in one of the three classroom buildings and in the tiny kitchen area where village women prepared government-sponsored lunches. We also built and paved a drainage area around the school’s water pump. For most of us, pumping and carrying water, laying brick, sifting sand and mixing cement were new experiences.

All of us are teachers, but none of us had ever had a hand in building a school. We were privileged to invest our modest sweat equity into this rural school, and in the children of Bikharipurwa. On our last day, we delighted in sharing songs and an impromptu recitation of the hokey pokey with the kids who had, day after day, peeked through the school windows and around the doors at these odd, sweaty foreigners who labored with little grace but with determination and high spirits.

I returned to Philadelphia on the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul. The next morning, I slipped into morning minyan, and sang these words from Psalm 118, “Min hametzar, karati Yah. An­ani v’merchav Yah: From a narrow place, I called out to God, who answered me with spaciousness.” I thought of my 16 rabbinic colleagues with whom I had worked, studied and prayed. Together, we transformed a narrow space and created an expansive patio for children’s play. Our labor renewed my commitment to work Marge Piercy calls “com­mon as mud.”

But God’s answer to me increased my sense of the possible, expanding my sense of both family and obligation. Our trip to the Global South reminded me that borders are human creations; we traveled many miles to meet sisters, brothers, friends with whom we share a destiny.

Together, you and I, ani v’ata, can create a more spacious, just and compassionate world. Brick by brick, song by song, our efforts can make a difference. God welcomed me to this new month, and to this new year with a clear challenge: to find ways to extend the generosity and passion that was shared with me, and to invite you to join me in this urgent work.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell@urj.org.

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