Israelis Invade India

May 17, 2006 10:05 PM |

PAHAR GANJ, INDIA -- Shai Levi spent three years in the Israeli army, a mandatory requirement for all Israeli citizens. As soon as his service was over, he fled Israel and spent the last five months traveling in India, a popular post-army activity for an estimated 30,000 young Israelis every year.

Levi, 23, came to India to unwind, relax, and forget the horrors he witnessed during the height of the Palestinian intifada, when blood stained the streets of Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods on a regular basis. He came to escape responsibility and the stress of Western life.

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Pahar Ganj bazaar, where Israelis have formed a distinct enclave (Carolyn Slutsky)

Inside the Chabad House in New Delhi, a Jewish community center set up by the Lubavitcher sect of Orthodox Jews, Levi looked calm. He wore a red zip-up sweatshirt, warm-up pants and sandals even though it was raining outside and the unpaved roads of the Pahar Ganj bazaar had turned into a slippery maze of mud. He hadn’t shaved in days and his shoulder-length brown curls were in disarray.

It was Friday afternoon and two Orthodox Jewish men were bustling around preparing a Sabbath dinner for the unknown number of Israeli tourists that would be dropping by that evening for a taste of home. A huge pot of Matza Ball soup was simmering on the stove while one of the men kneaded a bowl of dough for the challah, a rich bread eaten on the Sabbath. The Chabad House serves as a meeting place for Israelis, who travel to India alone or in pairs, but hope to link up with others along the way. The religious center also provides meals, advice and prayer services.

“I started to pray here in India,” said Levi, who admitted that he rarely goes to synagogue in Israel. “You start missing Shabbat dinners when you’re away from home,” he said in Hebrew. “You miss feeling Jewish.” He has come across other Israelis during his travels across northern India who had the same experience of rediscovering their religious connection.

As for the connections they make with the Indian culture, Levi characterized them as mostly superficial. Although he found the people to be very open and easy to get along with, he noticed that Israelis tend to keep to their own kind, only interacting with Indians in matters of business. They communicate with Indians in English and barter, sometimes aggressively, over goods. His impression of Israeli-Indian relations was one of mutual respect and warmth. “Indians love Israelis,” he said. “We’re noisy and crazy. They love our energy.”

Ramesh Choudharg, a room service attendant at the Hare Rama guest house where the Chabad center is located, had mixed feelings about the Israeli guests he encounters.

“Sometimes they make big balagan,” he said, using a Hebrew word meaning “mess.” He was reluctant to elaborate on the specific problems that Israelis cause, except to say that they are sometimes loud and difficult to handle.

The Hare Rama is known for housing Israelis; if you ask an Indian rickshaw driver to take you to the Israeli area of Pahar Ganj, he will most likely take you to this guest house. Word of mouth keeps young tourists coming to the cheap and bustling part of the market, located within walking distance of the New Delhi railway station.

Israeli tourists have so firmly established their presence in the area that signs in Hebrew have been set up outside many shops and the Indian shopkeepers have picked up a few key Israeli words. They call out “Shalom! Shalom!” to passers-by who look Israeli. One woman ran her finger above her upper lip, saying “safam,” – mustache – meaning she waxed facial hair, and “gabot” – eyebrows. The book store around the corner from the Hare Rama guest house displayed 20 or 30 books in Hebrew.

Choudharg is a Hindu and has been working at Hara Rama for two years. He said the Friday night gatherings on the rooftop of the hotel occasionally get rowdy, but he has enjoyed learning about the Jewish religion and the Israeli culture. He’s even learned some of the Sabbath songs. Just as he was starting to sing one in the third floor hallway outside the room Chabad rents, he was drowned out by a much louder singing. A circle of five young Israeli men had formed inside the Chabad House. Their arms around each other, they danced and jumped and sang joyously:

“Mishe, mishe, mishe, mishe
Mishe, mishe, mishe, mishe,
Mishenichnas Adar.
Mishe, mishe, mishe, mishe…”

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Singing group of Israelis (Carolyn Slutsky)

Two young women who were rolling dough into mini challahs stopped their work and clapped along. The song was in honor of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates the deliverance of the Persian Jews from persecution in ancient times. The words were about the happiness of the Jewish month of Adar when Purim falls. Choudharg remained in the hallway, watching the boisterous group from the doorway.

Naresh Fernandes, the editor of Time Out Mumbai, has been observing Israelis in India for almost 10 years. An article he wrote several years ago for Man’s World, an Indian publication, explored the relationship between Indians and Israelis: “Paradoxically, while Israelis came to India to seek peace and spirituality, Indian tourism industry workers came to regard Israelis as being loud, unruly and possessing a healthy propensity for aggressive bargaining.”

Asaf Shema, a 23-year-old Israeli traveling in India with his girlfriend, Maria Samyonov, 22, thinks that the only reason Indians might dislike Israelis is because unlike American or European tourists, Israelis love to haggle over prices. Picking up the glass of water in front of him as he sat at the Chabad House in Mumbai, Shema said, “If a European buys this glass for 20 rupees, I can buy it for 10 rupees.” He explains that bargaining is not as much about saving money as it is about not being a friar, or fool. Israelis hate feeling like they’ve been swindled.

Fernandes discussed his research on Israelis with several visiting students from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism at a reception in Mumbai. Driving a hard bargain at the bazaar, he said, is the least of Israelis’ offenses in India. According to him, the perception Indians have of Israelis is that they are only interested in drugs and parties. The post-army twenty-somethings alternate between being lazy idlers, he said, and violent aggressors.

Gavriel Holtzberg runs a Chabad House in Mumbai that caters mainly to Israelis on their way to party hotspots such as Goa and Rajasthan. Three flights a week bring hundreds of them from Israel to Mumbai and Holtzberg recognizes the nature of their needs.

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A silver menorah marks the location of the Chabad House in Mumbai (Dikla Kadosh)

“They need relief,” said the young rabbi who grew up in Brooklyn, from the army, from work, from real life. “They come here to do everything the army didn’t allow them to do. Their shoes had to be polished and tied – here they wear sandals. They had to cut their hair – here they grow their hair long.”

Holtzberg is not excusing their behaviour. He just understands the reasons behind it better than the Indians that come into contact with the hordes of escapists.

Itzick Sabag, a 23-year-old Israeli who came to the United States after completing his army service and now lives in New York, is not surprised that Israelis have such a negative reputation in India. The type of person who goes there, he said, has no ambition or direction and is mainly interested in doing nothing. India is the perfect place to do just that.

“People go to different places for different reasons after the army,” he said. “They go to South America for hiking, climbing, outdoors stuff. They go to America to work or go to school. And they go to India to do drugs.”

An article in the Los Angeles Times in 2003 reported that the “post-army India meltdown has become so common that the government is crafting a policy to respond. Weary of organizing teams to scoop the wayward soldiers out of the backwoods hospitals, Israel is negotiating with the Indian government to install treatment outposts…”

The Israeli government may be aware of the problems Israeli tourists are causing and Israelis in other parts of the world may be aware of the reputation their countrymen have, but it seems that the thousands of revelers who flock to the subcontinent are completely unaware of the situation. At a time when Israeli-Indian political relations are just beginning to warm up, it is unfortunate that on the ground – at back-alley bazaars and beachside cafes – it is more of a love-hate relationship, with the Israelis doing most of the loving and the Indians doing most of the hating.


Jewish Schools No Longer

May 15, 2006 12:17 PM |

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Most of ORT’s children and teachers are no longer Jewish (Shira Schoenberg)

MUMBAI, INDIA -- In many ways, Queenie Mendoza, 34, is a typical success story for ORT India’s Vocational Training and Computer Center in this coastal Indian city once called Bombay. She worked as a servant, caring for children in an upper class home, before entering ORT’s beautician program on her employer’s recommendation. After graduating, she started a full time job in the school’s salon, and has worked there for 13 years.

But Mendoza is not the type of student that the school’s founders had in mind when they established it 45 years ago. Mendoza is Catholic. ORT, the Organization for educational Resources and Technological training, is an international Jewish organization with the mandate of helping impoverished Jews.

When the Mumbai school opened in 1961, it was almost entirely Jewish. Three years ago, its boys’ school closed due to a lack of Jewish students. Today, only one of 18 girls studying early childhood care and education is Jewish, according to the program’s coordinator, a ratio that is consistent across ORT’s preschool, and virtually every other vocational course except computers. ORT is not the only school that has seen its Jewish population virtually disappear. Two Mumbai high schools started by Jewish donors, which previously had Hebrew and Torah classes for the Jewish students—the Sir Jacob Sassoon and Sir Elly Kadoorie High Schools—also have only a handful of Jewish students.

Religious schools with diverse student bodies are common in India. Many Hindu and Muslim parents, for example, send their children to Christian convent schools to get a top education. Nevertheless, the Mumbai Jewish schools are only one symptom of a Jewish community depleted by mass immigration to Israel and abroad.
When asked about the community’s future, Benjamin Isaac, the director of ORT India, said confidently, “We will always have a Jewish presence in Mumbai.” Then he paused for moment and qualified his statement. “At least for the next 15 to 20 years.”

In a country where more than 30,000 Jews once lived, only about 5,000 remain, 4,000 of those around Mumbai. In order to stay open, Jewish schools had to accept a broader population. Part of the reason for this, in the case of ORT, is that Mumbai’s remaining Jews are leaving blue-collar jobs for fields like management and computers, Isaac said. Rabbi Joshua Kolet, 36, a Mumbai native and the community’s rabbi since 2001, added that for the past decade, the Jewish population has shifted to newly growing suburbs, like Thane. This draws children away from ORT, Jacob Sassoon and Elly Kadoorie in South Mumbai and into suburban schools.

But the main reason given by ORT employees for its demographic makeup is immigration. “Young people are migrating to Israel because there are better prospects,” said Elkan Palkar, 29, head of ORT’s computer department. “All families have relatives in Israel.”

This does not mean that Jews have no religious life around Mumbai. ORT sells kosher wine, challah, chicken and baked goods. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee runs a Jewish Community Center for 500 members who attend classes on Hebrew and Judaism, holiday parties, youth discos and clubs for children and seniors.
Kolet two years ago started the Hazon Eli Foundation for Jewish Life in India, based in Thane, to teach Torah, Hebrew and Jewish law to the suburban population. He runs a Sunday school for children under 13, which attracts about 25 students weekly. He dreams of starting a new Jewish school in Mumbai.

But many question whether these measures will be effective in reenergizing the small remnant of the formerly vibrant community.

Even Palkar, who has family in Mumbai and a steady job at ORT, said he would consider leaving. Palkar lives in Panvel, a suburb of Mumbai, and travels more than an hour by train one Sunday a month to teach Torah in local villages. He visited Israel last summer with 40 Indian students on birthright Israel, a free educational trip for Jewish young adults, and said he wants to move for religious reasons. In Mumbai, he said, synagogues have trouble getting a minyan and unless one works for a Jewish organization, it is difficult to take off work for Shabbat and holidays. “If the time comes, I’ll go to Israel,” he said.

The 4,000 Jews left in Mumbai are descendants of two communities—the Baghdadis and the Bene Israel. The Baghdadi Jews, many of whom were wealthy traders and businessmen, came from Iraq about 250 years ago. These included the Sassoon family, who made a fortune in cotton mills and became known nationally for their philanthropy. The Baghdadis, who at their peak numbered 5,000, were generally anglicized and comfortable under British rule. After Indian independence, virtually all of them left for England, Israel or other countries. Today, less than 200 Baghdadi Jews remain in Mumbai.

One recent Friday night in Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, one of the city’s two Baghdadi synagogues, about 20 people attended services, mostly visitors. At Shabbat lunch the next day, three elderly Baghdadi women proudly compared the accomplishments of their children living abroad. The elderly stay because life is comfortable, they said, but all the young people have left. About 1,000 Baghdadi Jews currently live in Israel, according to Ze’ev Schwartzberg, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s India desk.

Most of Mumbai’s community is comprised of Bene Israel, Jews who trace their origins to a shipwreck off the Maharastra coast around 175 B.C., which according to legend left seven Palestinian Jewish couples living on the Indian coast. The progeny of these Jews today speak Marathi, dress in Indian styles, and maintain customs peppered with Indian traditions. “They eat rice and mangos, play cricket and wear saris,” said Isaac of ORT. “If you live in a village for 2,000 years, you’re not going to be eating matzoh.”

For years, the Baghdadis looked down on the Bene Israel as inauthentic Jews. Today, any Bene Israel can recall with pride when in July 2002 the Times of India published a story about a DNA study done by University of London professor Tudor Parfitt proving that that the Bene Israel are descendents of the Jewish priestly class.

Yet for the last half century, the Bene Israel have also been emigrating in large numbers, motivated in early years by Zionism, economic uncertainty after independence and a sense of Jewish identity. Immigration started after 1948, mainly to Israel, and increased when the Israeli government accepted the Bene Israel’s legitimacy as Jews in 1964, after some controversy. The 1970s saw large scale immigration from the villages. Part of the reason the ORT school was founded in 1961 was to help Jewish men gain skills in draftsmanship, electronics or mechanics, which would make them employable in Israel. There are between 55,000 and 60,000 Bene Israel living in Israel today, according to the Jewish Agency.

Today the largest Bene Israel synagogue in Mumbai, Magen Hassidim, attracts about 60 worshippers on Shabbat, Isaac said. The other synagogues get less than 30 worshippers.

According to community leaders, aliyah has slowed over the last 10 to 15 years, and the Jewish population in Mumbai has remained constant. Kolet said particularly over the past two to three years the number of people making aliyah has declined significantly, largely for economic reasons. Maybe 25-30 percent of the youth are leaving, he said. “If the community wants to continue, it’s viable,” Kolet said. “And the community doesn’t want to move.”

But the numbers remain small. Several men are paid 1,500 rupees a month (about $30) to attend Magen David Synagogue’s daily minyan to ensure a prayer quorum of 10 men, said tour guide and cantor Benjamin Dandekar.

Although ORT offers education to Jews at only 10 percent of its full fee (it offers a free education to impoverished Jews and non-Jews alike), the school still remains largely non-Jewish.

When Palkar of ORT was asked how he envisions the Mumbai community in 20 years, he laughed and shook his head. “After 10 years, I don’t know what will happen,” he said.

Despite immigration, community leaders and institutions such as ORT, the JDC and Hazon Eli remain committed to ensuring that those left behind can live Jewish lives.

Leora Ezekiel, 37, the JCC director, said most Jews growing up in Mumbai never had a formal Jewish education. “Most of my generation went to convent schools because they were the best quality,” she said. They got their Jewish education from their families at home. Today’s children, she added, have more than she did. “So much is happening with the Jewish community that didn’t exist in our generation or before.”

A Modern Jewish General

April 24, 2006 09:06 PM |

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General Jacob keeps his parents’ ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate)
(Shira Schoenberg)

NEW DELHI, INDIA -- In a dimly lit apartment here filled with antique furniture, Buddhist statues and old Indian paintings sits a war hero. He is Major General Jack Frederick Ralph Jacob, the Jewish general who commanded the Indian army through the 1971 war with Pakistan that resulted in Bangladeshi independence.

Now 83, the gray-haired General Jacob lives alone, with a servant to help him, and spends his days reading, surfing the Internet and working on his autobiography.

“The later it’s published the better,” he said. “I’m a very private person.”

Jacob was born into a Baghdadi Jewish family from Calcutta, whose ancestors came to India more than 200 years ago. His parents were Orthodox and kept a kosher home, he said, and Jacob has maintained a strong Jewish identity throughout his life. In 1941, when Jacob was 18, he decided to join the army. “I was inspired to fight the Nazis,” he said. “A lot of boys in Calcutta joined. I think I was first.” His three brothers, now deceased, followed his lead, joining the air force and infantry.

From that decision, Jacob embarked on what was to be a 37-year career in the military, the highlight of which was negotiating the 1971 surrender of Pakistan. He retired from the army in 1978, after becoming its highest ranking Jew, but remained involved in politics, with close ties to the National Party (BJP). He served as governor of Goa and Punjab in the 1990s before retiring to Delhi.

His Jewish observance became more difficult as his career progressed, he said. “How can you be kosher in the army?” he asked. “It’s not possible.”

But Jacob never forgot his roots. “I believe in God. I’m proud of being Jewish,” he said. He went to synagogue on high holidays and festivals. After his mother died, he donated her silver and her wedding dress to an Israeli museum.

Today, he keeps his parents’ ketubah, marriage certificate, in his apartment. Written in Aramaic with a hand-painted border of purple and green flowers with two yellow lions crowning the top, the document bears the date March 22, 1910, 10 Adar 5670, with the names Alias Immanuel and Sally Jacob. General Jacob himself never married.

Although Jacob says little about the work he has done to promote Indian-Israel relations, Sourav Roy, a staff writer with The Indian Express, called Jacob a “pioneer in the modern India-Israel relationship.” Jacob, Roy said, has connections in the highest echelons of the Israeli government and meets visiting Mossad agents in India, in attempts to bring the countries together.

Although Jacob has a strong Jewish identity, he does not believe his Judaism influenced his professional life. “I do it not because I’m a Jew, but because I’m a human being,” he said. “I respect every being, not because they’re Jewish or Christian, because they’re human. The roots are different, but all religious in the world should aim at doing good-Hindu, Jew, anyone.”

Of Taj and Tummies

March 16, 2006 09:33 PM |

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Stacey Samuel leapt before the Taj. (Carolyn Slutsky)

Wobbly toy cobras in cheap bamboo baskets. Peacock feathers tied into fans. Snow globes swirling glitter around a two-inch Taj Mahal.

“I give you cheap. Just take a look,” insisted one of some two dozen vendors who thrust a bazaar’s worth of kitsch into the faces of student journalists this morning. We were making our way through the streets surrounding the majestic Taj, India’s most-visited tourist site.

“You want postcards?” said one determined man who trailed the pack with a ratty set of torn-from-a-book paper rectangles. “200 rupees? 100 rupees? OK? OK? OK?”

Not yet a full day into our stay in Agra, we found ourselves sucked into the swirling chaos of a place that stakes itself on profits made from those who live afar. Home to both the Taj Mahal and the majestic Agra Fort, Agra is abuzz with tourists – a situation that gives the place a more commercial veneer than the temples, mosques and churches we’ve visited thus far. Our tour guide estimated that the Taj complex receives 5,000 visitors a day.

“Folks, we’ve got to hurry. The sun is rising,” Prof. Sree Sreenivasan repeated to coffee-seeking stragglers as we boarded a bus marked “TOURIST” about a half-hour before light was to take hold. Outside the windows, men squatted by small fires and women swept leftover pink Holi dust from streets as we proceeded in receding darkness to see the Taj at the most striking time of morning.

Built by Moghul emperor Shah Jahan following his favorite wife’s death in 1631, the Taj Mahal houses the tombs of both wife and husband and took 22 years to complete. The Muslim ruler employed a slew of elephants and some 20,000 workers – both Muslim and Hindu – from all over India and the Middle East to work its stone and exquisite carvings. Many descendents of those first builders still work at the Taj and live in Taj Ganj, the neighborhood that borders the complex grounds.

We ended a long line of security checks and pat-downs near a small swarm of entrepreneurs who take the photographs that the Taj is known for – the gimmick angles that make a person appear to be holding the building’s base with his bare hands, or pinching its tip with her forefinger and thumb.

“OK, madam, jump,” one cameraman told student Amanda Millner-Fairbanks as she attempted a different pose, a leap off a bench captured to look as if she’d bounced all the way to the top of the famous dome. “Like this, like this,” he said, demonstrating, hopping like a frog.

The next hour and a half were spent traipsing the Taj grounds while wearing white shower cap-like booties on our shoes – an innovation introduced complex-wide last year for foreign tourists whose feet are unaccustomed to the Indian tradition of shedding footwear while trodding stone walkways. Wearing the booties means you can keep your shoes on but cover their dirt – making it possible to both keep feet clean and show respect for the tombs at the same time.

The cost for the booties is included, along with a bottled water, on the “foreigner ticket” – a cost of 750 rupees, or about $17. Admission for an Indian citizen is much less – 20 rupees, or less than 50 cents.

“When Indians from villages come here, they have 10 to 12 people in their families and cannot spend more than this,” our guide for the day, Akshay Jain, 27, explained. “They charge 750 rupees for foreigners because they can pay it. In Agra, the only source of revenue is the Taj.”

Until a little over a decade ago, Agra had a bustling leather industry, but it was banned in 1994 after it was discovered that acid rain from the pollution was ruining the Taj’s inlaid stones. Since then, the town has relied even more on the tourist draw to support the guides, guards, gardeners, travel agents, restauranteurs and autorickshaw drivers who make their livings off the crowds.

One of those dependents is Bishamber Singh, 44, a fourth-generation groundskeeper we met as he swept the garden pathways. Singh, a Hindu, has done the same work for nearly 30 years and said it’s his destiny as a member of the Banwari caste to continue. Were he not cleaning the Taj, he’d be cleaning somewhere else, he reasoned.

That the caste system influences present-day tourism operations may come as a surprise to those from outside India, but Singh said his work does have its benefits day in and day out – namely, the stunning view he encounters each day on the job.

For Singh, the best Taj sighting has less to do with the time of day or angle of sun, but when the complex remains sparkling after visits by the masses.

“That’s what makes me happy,” Singh said.

***

It is said in Hindi that each grain of rice is inscribed with the name of the person who will eat it. It must be the case, then, that the jasmine and basmati chawal waiting in our group’s final stops – Varanasi, Sarnath and Mumbai – lacks the names of Prof. Ari Goldman and his 17-year-old daughter, Emma.

Goldman, now known to students and Indians alike as “Ari-ji” (appropriate not only because it sounds like “Ari G.,” but because "ji" is a Hindi honorific), tonight announced that he and Emma will part ways with the group and remain in Agra while Emma recovers from a stomach bug.

Prof. Sreenivasan and students will continue on to Varanasi and fly to the United States on Tuesday. The Goldmans now plan to return home on Sunday, two days earlier than scheduled.

“In Jewish tradition we have a saying – daiyenu – ‘it would have been enough,’” Goldman told students over their last meal together before the group departed to catch an overnight train. It would have been enough for him, he said, to have had the first half of the semester together in New York. And it would have been enough to have simply gotten everyone to India safe and sound.

The fact that eight days passed with no sickness and a vast amount of learning is something he said he’s thankful for.

The group also bid a temporary farewell earlier in the afternoon to student reporters Shira Schoenberg and Greg Gilderman as the two departed in a car bound for Mumbai. Schoenberg, an Orthodox Jew, needed to travel early to prepare for Shabbat on Friday and to begin reporting in Mumbai’s Jewish community.

Gilderman hopes to recover from the stomach illness that seemed to make its rounds among group members as the rest toured today’s sites. Both will reunite with fellow students when the rest reach Mumbai on Saturday evening.

Despite depleted numbers and a few queasy stomachs, however, the Columbia assembly traveled on tonight, piling into the bus for a ride to the train station 40 kilometers away. There, hired porters stacked carts high with New York suitcases and led the way – extra bags balanced carefully on their heads – for the walk, lit by a full moon, to the next train.


Do Not Climb on the Challah

March 6, 2006 08:46 AM |


“One rule. Do not climb on top of the challah, only inside of it,” Mishi Harari said on a recent morning while standing in front of a 6-foot-long plastic loaf of bread at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Her listeners, a dozen fourth-grade girls from nearby Yeshiva Flatbush, nodded obediently before clambering all over a huge mock-up of a Shabbat dinner table, one of the museum’s more popular exhibits. Three little girls took turns shimmying through the tunnel in the middle of the giant challah. Other students clustered around a Shabbat culinary video, broadcast on television monitors tucked inside plaster matzoh balls bigger than their heads.

The mission of the museum, located at 792 Eastern Parkway, is no less than to bring alive the traditions, legacy and culture of Judaism through exhibits and child-focused lessons. But to steer their young visitors to the meaning behind the flashy interactive games and activities, the museum relies on the aid of tour guides such as Harari, a 21-year-old Lubavitch Jew from southern California who moved to Crown Heights last fall.

Harari said she tailors her group tours to the visitors’ needs and their existing knowledge of Judaism. Because her current guests receive specialized religious instruction everyday at yeshiva, Harari chose not to dwell on basic knowledge and moved at a quick pace, leaving more time for the fun stuff.

As preparation for the Shabbas dinner table exhibit, Harari first ushered the girls into a darkened hallway for an exhibit called “6 Days of Creation.”

She asked the girls, “What did God create on the first day?”

“Night and day!” several of them replied together. “Good!” Harari said, and pressed a button on the wall that launched an interactive exhibit, showing a sun setting on a television screen.

The private museum, a project of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect, exists far from the raging national debates about creationism, intelligent design and the big bang. There is no question here about who created the world.

Harari and the group moved through the Lord’s creations briskly, in a hurry to get to the payoff of the day of rest.
“What about on the third day?” Harari asked, and pushed a button that launched dry ice mist over a waterfall poster. “Water!” the girls shrieked. “Uh-huh, and dry land and plants. You see those trees and flowers?” Harari said, pointing to a rock pile covered with artificial roses, tulips and carnations. “That means plants.”

As they walked through the hall, one girl looked down at her feet and noticed the stickers on the floor that counted down the days until the day of rest. Pausing over the last sticker that read, “1 day til Shabbat,” Harari pointed to the wall and said, “What do you see going on during the sixth day?”

Clued in by the exhibit’s statue of a large gray sample specimen, one girl in a red sweatshirt shrieked “Elephant!” while others said, “God made animals!”

At the last exhibit, the girls stared raptly at a television screen, where a video played of people moving in fast motion, going to school, work and playing. A zesty fiddle tune accompanied the action. “What are they doing?” Harari asked the students. “The people are living their lives,” one girl ventured.

“They’re working so quickly,” Harari said. In the video, the music slowed down, a calendar flipped to Friday, and a family lit candles and prepared for dinner. “See what’s happening? They’re not going so fast anymore. What do they get?” Harari replied. “A day of rest!” the girls said.

“On?” Harari prompted her charges.

“Shabbat!” the girls said together.

Exodus: Chelsea's LGBT Synagogue Finds a Message in the Flight from Egypt

March 6, 2006 06:40 AM |


In every generation Jews are commanded to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt in ways that are relevant to their lives. Standing in that tradition, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum used the Biblical story to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay, lesbian and transgender congregation.

“In every generation we are required to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt,” she said during a recent Friday night service marking the anniversary at the Church of the Holy Apostles at 296 9th Avenue in Chelsea. “Telling this story is essential to our survival as a people.”

Kleinbaum stood before the congregation with two gay pride flags and an Israeli flag behind her. She explained how the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt is related to this congregation remembering the struggle for a homosexual and Jewish identity.

“Coming out,” she said in reference to being openly homosexual, “is a great act of liberation.”

In 1973, she said, an Indian Jew named Jacob Gubbay put a small classified ad in the Village Voice asking for gay Jews who were not welcome at other New York congregations to come together for a Shabbat service at the Chelsea church were the congregation still meets, along with its smaller West Village location. She called this ad a small step towards liberation.

“The number of people who say they were at that service far exceeds the 10 people I know who where there,” she said as the congregation chuckled.

While the gay rights movement was growing in New York, in the fall of 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur—the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Those two events sparked many gay Jews to become more involved in Judaism.

Kleinbaum asked people who joined the gay congregation in 1973 to stand, and only a few of the nearly 100 people in the congregation stood up. She moved on to1974, 1975 and so forth, going through all 33 years that have passed. When she said 2006, the last people seated came to their feet.

Recalling the exodus from Egypt every year, Kleinbaum said, was important because it would inspire Jews to address the struggle of all people who were oppressed. While this congregation has grown, some of its leadership still faces resistance for forming a community that is deeply Jewish and openly homosexual. One rabbi at the congregation, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen was censured in 2005 by the Conservative Jewish movement, to which she belongs, for conducting gay marriages and for breaking other procedural rules of Rabbinical Assembly. In 2004, she told the New York Times that she feared legal consequences for performing such ceremonies in the state.

But the story of the exodus was also meant to inspire the congregation to remember those in the community who have died of AIDS and to inspire them to volunteer at the church’s soup kitchen, the second largest in the nation.

“It’s criminal that this is still necessary in 2006,” she said in reference to the city’s homeless problem.