50,000 Israeli go to India each year, looking for freedom after the army, a good time and spirituality in Eastern religions. In Bhagsu Village in Northern India, near Dharamasala, approximately 60% of the population is Israeli. Signs and menus in all shops are written in Hebrew, keyboards in Internet cafes have Hebrew letters and restaurant menus have hummus and Israeli salad on them. When not sitting around drinking chai and chatting, many enroll in yoga and meditation retreats, ayurvedic healing and massage courses and a whole range of different spiritual practices.
One man who understands what they are looking for is Bradley Cohen, a new Israeli immigrant who spent six years in the East, learning eastern spiritual traditions and martial arts. Two years ago he came to Israel, where he found the spiritual insight and Torah wisdom studying at Aish haTorah. He made aliyah last November. Last year in April he walked the entire length of Israel to raise money for orphanages in Africa and Israel, believing we must be a light unto the nations by working in tikkun olam – repairing the world.
His latest project saw him return to India and lead a group of 15 Israeli backpackers, between the ages of 20 and 27, into the foothills of the Himalayas to volunteer in local schools in the morning and learn about Jewish wisdom and spirituality in the afternoon and evenings. 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.
"It is amazing that these people come all the way here to search for spirituality and ‘the truth.' They, like me, were never introduced to the beauty of Judaism and don't think to look to it for answers to their life questions. It was sad for me to see that so many people have had negative experiences of Judaism and bad interactions with religious Jews. I think they found it refreshing to be able to ask all their questions to someone with a kippah and tzitzit, but who could also relate to where they were coming from."
The course lasted for eight days, in which the group walked into the mountains to four village schools, an average of an hour apart by foot. They cooked for themselves as a group, surviving often on just rice and vegetables, sleeping on the floor of the schools, making fire, showering in the river -- a real experience of Indian village life. The group, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, provided over 200 children with notebooks, pens, sports and music equipment, English and Hindi story books, wall charts and posters, pressure cookers and other equipment much needed by the schools. They ran creative art workshops, English lessons, music and exercise classes and in general gave the kids a great time and long lasting memories. In the afternoon and evening Cohen taught Jewish meditation, gave classes on Jewish topics, as well as answering any questions the group had about Judaism.
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. "One of the best things was seeing the religious and non-religious working together and respecting each other, and discussing important issues in the evening, getting rid of preconceived ideas and prejudices," said Cohen.
The program also greatly improved the reputation of Israeli travellers amongst the locals, proving that Israelis want to reach out and help, rather than just take and exploit the country.
"As a nation we have a duty to do tikkun olam and be a light unto nations, a duty which we succeeded in on this trip. It was a huge Kiddush Hashem."
The next Be a Kli trip is planned for September. Anyone interested should visit www.allforthekids.org.