It's known as a sort of rite of passage for Israelis to spend some time travelling in India and soaking up life. But sometimes, the purpose of their travel is more meaningful than that.
This summer, a group of five Israelis and five Jewish Canadians are traveling to India to volunteer with various community service organizations. The Olamot trip, organized by IsraAID & Hillel Israel, puts an emphasis on humanitarian aid and providing the means for sustainable development in a needy country.
The participants are working in Dharmsala with the exiled Tibetan community.
"Since being forced into exile by the Chinese overtaking of Tibet in 1959, they were granted permission by India to set up their exiled community here and in other settlements," explains Maayan Ravid, one of the Israeli participants, on the trip's blog. "There are approximately 130,000 Tibetans living in exile. They are not recognized by the UN as refugees. They do not have passports and must renew their interim residency annually with Indian immigration registration. They have been doing so for the past 50 years. They are a stateless people."
Maybe this is what drives so many Israelis to India - the fact that the Jewish people also were once a stateless people. But the Canadian participants are going for a slightly different reason.
"We understand that when students travel, they want to travel with purpose," says Rebecca Woods Baum, Hillel of Greater Toronto's Immersive Experience Program coordinator and the trip's staff member.Canadian participant Tracy Goldman agrees. She traveled to Bat Yam last summer on another Hillel of Greater Toronto trip.
There, she worked with Ethiopian children in a youth center. It was this experience that pushed Goldman to travel with Hillel again, and to travel with purpose. "Seeing places is important, but I want a meaningful experience," she says.
Goldman's desire has been fulfilled. The work that the participants are doing is very meaningful.
The students are working in a variety of Tibetan institutions in India - health clinics, old-age homes, schools and more.
They are participating in an HIV/AIDS awareness initiative. One Canadian participant, Tamar Tepper, is working as a teacher in the Tibetan Women's Association program Stitches for Tibet, where women are taught how to sew traditional Tibetan clothing, and are provided with health care, English lessons and a small weekly stipend.
"As a teacher, the program has taught me not to judge my students and their conditions, but to embrace and befriend each," Tepper posted on the trip's blog. "This program is especially important as it teaches these women how to sustain themselves financially in their new home in India, as well as provide a great opportunity for women with similar backgrounds, experiences, beliefs and hardships to meet and form strong bonds and acts as a support system for one another."
Like Tepper, the other participants are having their eyes opened and their beliefs challenged in their volunteer work.
Sandra Vadasz, for example, was brought to tears on her first day of work. She posted this realization on the blog about life in Toronto: "I am often so busy I don't get a chance to eat sitting down. Everything is so fast paced it's hard to look around and observe the world. In fact, sometimes it's difficult to find a moment in the day to breathe!"
Vadasz's job is in the health clinic of an organization called Tibet Charity India. She is working alongside the head nurse, who "serves as the elderly's doctor, teacher, mother, psychiatrist and friend, among other things."
She says that there are no doctors or prescription medicine, and the head nurse hand picks children from the community to become nurses, training them herself.
It really seems that only a few days into her trip, Vadasz's hope for the trip has been fulfilled.
"My view was that this is four weeks of my whole life that will impact me more than one year at home," she says.
The travelers began their trip in Tel Aviv, where they spent a week participating in orientations with their Israeli counterparts, volunteering with organizations such as City Tree that focus on sustainable development, and meeting with Canadian and Israeli diplomats.
From there, the team continued on to India and will spend four weeks there.
This formidable trip could not happen without the help of various organizations both in Toronto and in Israel. The UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which financed the trip, has a long history with IsraAID, the Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid.
"Project after project, we've been happy with them," says Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of the UJA Federation.
Sokolsky explained that having IsraAID as a partner provides a direct connection from Toronto to Israel. "We're not only able to provide a direct service of support," he says, "but at the same time we help provide a supportive face for Israel, so people in these areas in distress will see, face to face, the work of Israelis and how helpful Israeli society can be."
The other organization that had a large hand in the trip is the Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People (IFTIP), a nonprofit organization established in 1989 by a group of Israelis who are concerned for the condition of the exiled Tibetans. Olamot is only one of IFTIP's many projects, most of which encompass building infrastructure, health, education and agriculture.
All these organizations, including Hillel of Greater Toronto and Hillel Israel, are very excited about the pilot Olamot program.
Meira Aboulafia, chairperson of IFTIP, says that the program's intention is to "raise awareness among Hillel students about needy populations all over the world by visiting them and working with them."
This is important to all the organizations. "It is through immersive programs such as this that our students will gain a stronger sense of their identity and will stay committed to ongoing initiatives of social justice," says Zac Kaye, executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto, in a press release about the trip.
The different organizations are hoping to continue the program in the future. They want to get other Hillel groups from around North America to get involved, to send more people, and go to different places. Each trip will be with Hillel Israel, though. The main idea is to always have Israelis and North Americans working together, organizers said.