Our bar mitzvah project in the Mumbai slums

Yoni Levy with the schoolchildren proudly showing off their newly found juggling skills with their own handmade juggling balls (photo credit: COURTESY MICHELLE LEVY)
Yoni Levy with the schoolchildren proudly showing off their newly found juggling skills with their own handmade juggling balls
 YONI HAS always loved raising money for charity, so it was no surprise that when we offered him the opportunity of a charity project instead of a big bar mitzva party he jumped at the chance.
Looking for something relevant, we turned to the JDC Israel who were incredibly forthcoming with several worthwhile causes for us to choose from. We chose the Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM), a development organization that among other initiatives set up an innovative school in the slums of Mumbai to help educate children, who would otherwise grow up with no basic education.
The school, set up by Jacob Sztokman (Modi’in) in memory of the Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, who was murdered in the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, is a safe place where over 375 children learn to read, write, and learn hygiene and life skills, as well as being a place where they are given a daily nutritious meal.
After months of anticipation and preparation, we set off on our journey to Mumbai to visit these kids, work with them, teach them some new games and skills, and have fun with them. The journey to and from the school was an eye-opening experience as we decided to travel like the locals and take the morning train. The train station was packed full, the train even more so, and with the ‘open door’ policy commuters were hanging out of the doors (one man actually fell off), and made for a busy start to what was going to be a busy day. On arrival in the slums, home to over 200,000 people, we were confronted with a landscape filled with trash as far as the eye could see. Through this we followed a meandering path, past residents relieving themselves and pigs face deep in the dirt, until we arrived at the school.
The school is on the top floor of a small two-story brick building. The ground floor is GPM’s doctors’ surgery and health clinic, which emerged after one of the school’s students died of an illness for which we in the West would have received antibiotics. From this a need was born to have easy and cheap access to a doctor. The school is made up of four rooms, which over the course of the day (8 a.m.-9 p.m.), educates 375 children in alternate shifts. As we arrived, we were greeted by two Grade 4 classes. They were a delightful group of kids, so welcoming, respectful and well mannered. Together, we had fun making juggling balls, teaching them to juggle and playing Israeli card games.
Yoni is in 7th grade in the Chevra U’Mishpat Amit School, in Ra’anana. We worked on a collaborative project with his school and the Love2Learn school in Mumbai. They sent messages to each other made up of photographs of the children creating letters using their bodies. This was a fun project, but the real significance for these kids was to realize that they are valued, which is not an emotion a child from the slums grows up with, and to know that they have the same abilities as other kids around the world. We also opened a small library in the school (the first in the slums!), which the kids were very excited about and hope, that in time this will grow even further. We had a great but humbling experience seeing so many children living on the extremes of poverty, yet having fun together and loving going to school.
Running water is available at a few key points in the slums and runs for a few hours a day, allowing residents to fill jerrycans for the rest of the day. The water that is pumped is visibly gray and many residents suffer from diarrhea, dysentery and other water-related diseases. GPM has created the only water treatment facility in the slums that takes this water and cleans it ready for drinking use. A major part of Yoni’s bar mitzvah project was to provide a vehicle that takes this clean drinking water to those who cannot reach it. This could be due to pregnancy, old age, or other health reasons. Following the inauguration of the vehicle, we filled up bottles of clean water and went to deliver it to those in need. The families were grateful and it was amazing to see the smiles of appreciation on their faces. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of bringing people such a basic need when we have fresh clean water readily available in our homes. It really felt like we’d made a difference to these people’s lives, and we feel so blessed to have been able to do this.
All in all the experience that we had in Mumbai is one we will never forget. It reminded us of how fortunate we are to have our basic needs and education in place, and how important it is to play our part and share responsibility in the wider world.
Michelle Levy, Ben and their 4 children, Yoni, Liora, Eitan and Gadi, made aliya 12 years ago and live in Ra’anana. Ben is a partner in a digital marketing agency, and Michelle a graphic designer.