McGill University graduate Marni Wolf is one of 10 Jewish youths – the only Canadian – who traveled to western India to work with an NGO as part of American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) World Partners Fellowship. The 10-month fellowship is awarded to recent Jewish college graduates and young professionals who are committed to volunteering and it requires fellows to engage in educational seminars, workshops, orientation and retreats.
Wolf spoke to The CJN in September – check out the story here – just days before she was set to leave Toronto for India, and has kept in touch to update us on her experiences. Below is a letter she wrote to her friends and family about what the last couple months have been like for her.
I spent a month traveling around the North West region of the country, which was an incredible place to explore. Although unplanned, it turned out to be a whirlwind tour of religious and spiritual experiences. I suppose this is no surprise considering we're talking about India.
Landing in New Delhi at midnight was nothing short of exhilarating. My travel companion David, from NYC, happened to somehow be loosely connected to the Netherlands Ambassador to India. We spent our first day in his beautiful old colonial mansion, sipping tea and talking about his experiences when he was the ambassador to Israel! Even funnier, he brought his dog all the way from its original home – a kibbutz.
Moments later, he mentioned that we were sitting in THE room where Nehru and Jinnah sat signing the partition of Pakistan from India. From there, we took our first Indian train ride to visit the Taj Mahal; one of the only monuments I've seen that fully lived up to all the hype. Afterward, we spent three nights in Varanasi, the holiest and oldest Hindu city. Our next stop, Rishikesh – the yoga capital of the world – is situated in the mountains along the holy Ganges river. It's also known for the famous yoga ashram where The Beatles learned to meditate for two months before releasing The White Album.
After all of the yoga and meditation, we set off for Punjab to visit the Golden Temple, the most sacred spot for Sikhs. We enjoyed a free bed and three meals a day. "Service to humanity is service to God," read the statue in the middle of the city.
Next, we were in the Himalayas; specifically, the home of the Dalai Lama in exile. We arrived just in time to attend a four-day teaching given by none other than his holiness. I sat cross-legged, surrounded by Tibetan monks and refugees enjoying the mountains and fresh air.
After all of that traveling I was excited to settle down for awhile, and spent the next three weeks in Gandhi's old ashram in the city of Ahmadabad, Gujarat. On Shabbat, I visited the only existing shul in Gujarat. Its population is rapidly diminishing.
Some AJWS staff and the eight other fellows joined me and David in Ahmadabad. Orientation was jam-packed with sessions about international development, Judaism, globalization, as well as Indian history, politics, and culture. I got to know the other fellows really well and we bonded quite nicely.
Now I'm finally in Baroda, settling into my own two-bedroom flat. I'll be working at Vikalp, an organization that works to empower women, specifically in marginalized communities. In one week, I've seen only a glimpse of all of the wonderful things they do, and I am very excited to get involved and start my own projects. Today I visited the slums outside of the city and sat in on a meeting involving adolescent girls who make ends meet as domestic workers. Vikalp meets with them daily, sharing information on how to ensure proper wages, providing emotional support, as well as reproductive health classes.
I've attached a poem that was written by the director of the congregation in Gujarat, which just celebrated their 75th year.
Autobiography of Magen Abraham Synagogue
Composed by Edward D. Reubens
I, Magen Abraham Synagogue, am today 75 years old;
Residing in gentile surroundings, I've always been brave and bold.
The Fire Temple in front, a Mosque nearby, the CNI Church behind,
Have all by no means changed or influenced my mind.
I've weathered all seasons; heavy rains, bitter cold and intense heat,
And even seen my members come to me in magical feat;
Violent storms, torrential rains, the devastating 2001 earthquake,
All I have survived and stood erect for His peoples' sake.
In the early days, I saw the young and the old,
The rich and the poor, the meet and the bold,
Steeped in serious service in praise of the living God,
With fear in the hearts yearning for the blessings of the Lord.
My house would be packed on every festival day,
Elders with long beards and prayer books in their hands;
From the bimah, the Hazan would melodiously chant away,
While tiny tots frolicked fearlessly in lovely little bands.
Time passed by and the numbers drastically reduced,
As the call of the Holy Land magically beckoned and induced
The many brethren who finally decided to emigrate,
For some it was too early, for others too late.
Now, the attendance in my house has turned so thin;
It looks deserted, without many of the kith and kin.
At times, even getting a minyan becomes difficult;
Therefore, reading the kaddish is not done as a result
But lo, I have weathered all and everything,
By growing in strength and spreading my protective wings,
With a spacious room for visitors, a pavilion alongside,
And a treasure of books to enable my members' Faithful ride.
My house is now the centre for studying Torah and Hebrew,
Where the young and the old assemble, not just a few,
In a remarkable development little heard of before,
May Hashem bless their fresh efforts and lead them to the fore.
Very few in fact, a 'remnant' are my members, you see,
But the spirit, the intensity, the passion is their key;
May they continue to receive the blessings of Hashem,
The Holy One, blessed be forever His Glorious Name.
Today, I mourn the dead and weep for those who have left;
Today, I'm worried and frightened of the uncertain future.
Tomorrow, if the Messiah comes and takes away one and all;
I'll sure feel sorrow and suffer at the Might One's Call,
Then all will be gone from here, yet I'm sure Ill stand
In the ears ahead rapt in their sweet memories,
With the strength of my love, but without a helping hand
Even if I weep and shed tears in boundless quantities.