Giving up the party to volunteer

Israeli backpackers find new meaning on their trips to India.

be a kli jews india volunteers 248 (photo credit: courtesy of Bradley Cohen)
be a kli jews india volunteers 248
(photo credit: courtesy of Bradley Cohen)
A team of backpackers recently challenged the stereotype of the Israeli tourist in India - post-army, noisy and often using drugs - by volunteering at impoverished schools on the eight-day "Be a Kli" project last month. "I saw some opportunities for change for everyone involved," said Bradley Cohen, the 31-year-old founder of the organization All for the Kids, which is dedicated to helping poor children around the world. "We could go there and greatly influence the lives of the children and ourselves." The group was led by Cohen and consisted of 14 Israelis and two Canadians between the ages of 20 and 27. They gave a variety of workshops to children at four different schools in northern India. The volunteers split up into teams to plan the different activities. The educational teams rotated around the school, while the gardening team cleared a path in front of the building and another team painted the walls. The English team taught ABCs, numbers and basic greetings for the kids to practice. The musical team handed out flutes and drums and taught Israeli songs to the Hindu kids. Another team did arts and crafts projects with them. After the kids left for the day, the teachers gave the backpackers lessons in speaking Hindi, with Cohen's help. The group then participated in meditation, yoga and tai chi. The volunteers used their budget to give each school a pressure cooker, school supplies, books, and sports and music equipment. According to Cohen, the kids loved the workshops and had plenty of new things to take home. The volunteers slept on the floors of the schools for most of the trip and bathed in the local river or with a cold-water bucket system. In the last school, they were given a small guest house with a working toilet. The villages, set against the backdrop of the Himalayas, consisted of large houses built out of mud. The people led agriculturally based lives. The volunteers themselves were varied in their level of Jewish observance and often had long discussions about how to bridge the religious gaps in Israel. Cohen also gave Torah classes. "It was one of the best things - seeing them [religious and non-religious] working together and respecting each other," said Cohen, who put on tefillin for daily prayers during the trip and ensured all the food was kosher. Cohen found all the volunteers 24 hours after putting up a Hebrew sign in the village of Bhagsu, an Israeli tourism hot spot located a half-hour away from Dharamsala. The volunteers began the trip in Bhagsu, walking for an hour to the first school and then walking to a new school every couple of days. Cohen started Be a Kli - a spiritual vessel for enacting change - as a way to change Indians' perceptions of Israelis. Participants give up their rowdy activities, which often disturb the natives, for a trip filled with volunteer work and positive relations with the locals. "Unfortunately [Indian] people don't like Israelis," said Cohen about the negative stereotype of partying tourists. Cohen began planning the project in the summer of 2008 after coming up with the idea at a seminar for creative Zionism. He spent eight months fundraising, planning and studying other organizations that ran similar projects. Be a Kli is cheaper than other overseas volunteer projects, since the volunteers are already backpacking in India. The project only cost $4,000 and was financed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, with a $150-$200 budget for each school, plus accommodations for the volunteers. Cohen also founded All for the Kids in 2008, when he and two others walked the entire length of Israel to raise $20,000 to benefit children in the Jewish state and in Africa. In addition to the project in India, Cohen hopes to setup Kli centers in Israel for volunteer opportunities closer to home. Cohen, who was raised in London, moved to Asia in 2000 after learning philosophy and Eastern religions at Manchester University. Over the next six years, he lived in Sri Lanka, India, Japan, Thailand and Korea. He taught English at different schools, giving his wages from the well-off ones to the poorer schools. He earned a black belt in taekwondo after training for a year on a small island near Korea and practiced kung fu at the Shaolin Monastery. Cohen, who now lives in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood, made aliya in 2008 after a short trip to Israel in 2006 turned into months of periodic yeshiva study in Jerusalem and Safed. "For me, Nahlaot is definitely the spiritual center of the world," said Cohen, after his six years of soul-searching in Asia. The next Be a Kli trip is planned for September. Anyone interested should visit