For many young Israelis, going to India is one of the most coveted dreams. The magic of this faraway country appeals to the nomadic and free nature of Israel's young men and women, and they stream in great numbers to explore the mysteries of India. Little is known about the other side of that coin − the young Jewish people in India who find the prospect of coming to Israel no less appealing.
This is the story of 12 post-college Jewish Indians, aged 19 through 29, who decided to leave their homes and come to Israel for a five-month program with Masa Israel Orot India (Hebrew for Lights of India ). The program, which is fully sponsored by Masa, is designed to teach the participants − some of whom are visiting Israel for the first time − the gist of Judaism and Zionism, as well as to give them a profound knowledge of Jewish tradition in India.
Back to basics
In Israel, the 12 excited university graduates became full-time students again, joining the World Union of Jewish Students program
in Arad for spring semester. WUJS, which is part of Hadassah, brings young people from all over the world to learn about Jewish tradition and culture as well as Israeli society. Alon Friedman, director of WUJS Arad, says Orot participants studied Hebrew through the ulpan program, taking different Jewish courses and participating in seminars and hikes around the scenic surrounding region. "The best experience for them was integrating with the other Jews studying at WUJS," says Friedman. "There were students from the United States, Canada, Argentina and Estonia, and it was very interesting to witness the interaction between all these youths."
For the participants in the Orot India program, every day in Arad was a thrilling new experience. The students are from different regions in India, including Mumbai (Bombay ), Ahmedabad, Puna and Cochin − a city with a total Jewish population of 18. All the participants have bachelor's degrees but little to no knowledge of Jewish tradition and culture.
During their two and a half months in Arad, they learned a lot about Israel and the Israelis. "The WUJS program was absolutely fantastic," says Zohar, a participant. "It was an exhilarating experience to be with the WUJS people; we enjoyed it a lot, and had a lot of experiences involving the Jewish people, Israeli culture and Jewish ideologies."
Tackling the food problem
The interaction with Israeli society was sometimes difficult for the Orot participants, yet they all laugh when looking back at some of the more awkward experiences. Tzofia, who was their counselor in Israel, says the Indians still find the issue of food to be problematic. "The first day they came to Arad," recalls Tzofia, "they met the reality of Israeli food face to face ... they were given trays and plates in the dining hall, and when they got to the salad bar they put the salads on the trays rather than the plates ... The kitchen workers were furious," laughs Tzofia. "They didn't understand that in India you put your food on trays and not on plates. Since then, the guys are really careful whenever it comes to food."
Among their many activities, the Orot India participants have met the Indian ambassador to Israel, Ramidar Singh Jassal. When the ambassador heard a group of young Jewish Indians was participating in the Masa program, he decided to invite them to meet him. The ambassador was impressed by the idealistic group, and even invited the participants to his home.
Having finished the first half of the program, the 12 students will now be participating in a variety of activities, from attending Jewish seminars in Jerusalem, working at kibbutzim, volunteering to help postwar rehabilitation efforts in northern Israel, and more. Some of them are already planning to stay and study in Israel, and to live here. As Zohar puts it, "It's good to be home, where it's okay to be Jewish."
The students are from different regions in India, including Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Puna and Cochin − a city with a total Jewish population of 18.