It is one of the most popular tourist hubs in the world, but India always struck me as some sort of nightmarish country of contradiction, with its luxury only seconds away from its poverty, its ugliness tucked away behind its natural beauty, tourists only half-seeing the blind beggars on the street through the tinted glass of their Ray Bans, walking around like people viewing exhibitions in a zoo.
Far better, I thought, for me to stay well away from such a place. But then a call from the Chief Rabbi for young people like me to break out of “the bubble” in which we are living, made me recall a poem I once came across, entitled Games by Jack Gilbert:
Imagine if suffering were real. Imagine if those old people were afraid of death. What if the midget or the girl with one arm really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be to live if some people were alone and afraid all their lives. I began to ask myself why I was so anxious about going somewhere like India and witnessing this poverty, and the answer I found was simple.
I was anxious because I knew deep down that if I saw it, I could no longer deny it, and then I would have to act upon it. I knew that if the hardships were just some distant nightmare I could always just wake up and carry on with my sheltered existence: go to uni, grab a coffee, hear a lecture on Shakespeare, go home, watch an advert about saving a child’s life in India, turn it off, then go to bed. But to see it, to experience it, to make their suffering true in my mind, would mean I no longer need to “imagine if suffering were real” but I would know it was.
This realisation had a profound impact on me and I immediately applied to join the Chief Rabbi’s Ben Azzai programme. This week, I flew to Mumbai along with the 15 other students picked to take part. As you read this, we will be taking our first steps to getting to know India.
The experience is designed to open our eyes to those who are suffering. The programme, which is being delivered by JDC Entwine, with the support of Tzedek, the Pears Foundation and the Gabriel Project Mumbai, is a unique opportunity — but much more than that, it is a unique responsibility.
The experience will be a shock to my system but a necessary and beneficial one. I expect that, after witnessing the poorest parts of India, I will be hit by a sharp sense of responsibility to come home and publicise what I have seen. I am already thinking about how I can respond when I return; of donating books to children in the slums of India, of raising awareness and money and of taking part in some of the humanitarian aid efforts already being run by a host of exceptional charities working in this area Ultimately, this is about a completely new outlook on the life that I lead. It is about my responsibilities as human being and as a Jew.
One of the primary principles of the Torah that the Ben Azzai programme is built upon is that all people are made ‘in the image of God’, and therefore no person should be denied or cut off from the benefit of our compassion. It seems ironic that we live in such a technologically advanced world where communication and employment are completely globalised with huge multinational corporations and international phone coverage and yet some people and communities are still entirely isolated.
I suppose it comes down to a choice, do we want to open our eyes to the suffering that exists in the world and resolve to do something about it or do we want to ignore it and abdicate our responsibility? Being Jewish requires us to do the former and, together with the 15 others joining me in India, that is a message I hope to spread far and wide.
Eli Baigel is a first year English student at Birmingham University.