ORT India a year on from the Mumbai massacre


09 December 2009 ORT India a year on from the Mumbai massacre There is a mix of anxiety and hope at ORT India one year after Islamist terrorists shattered the inter-communal harmony long enjoyed by the countrys Jews and Muslims. Documentary maker Naomi Gryn spent a week at ORT Indias womens hostel in Mumbai as she researched a programme on Indias Jewish community to be broadcast on the BBC World Service. Ms Gryn was struck by the commitment ORTs staff had to the Jewish and non-Jewish communities and the hope their work kindled in Jewish hearts that the 2,000-year-old community still had a future despite decades of large scale emigration. But she also noted the Jewish communitys fears that the long and treasured neighbourliness with local Muslims could be threatened by Islamist radicalisation. ORT is one of the main non-Indian organisations keeping the Bene Israel community alive, Ms Gryn said. Thanks to organisations like ORT, Indias Jews feel connected to the rest of world Jewry and at the same time feel like theres life in their community so they dont have to leave. Keeping ahead of the competition: hairdressing is one option available under ORT Indias pre-aliyah course for Bnei Menashe. Photo courtesy Naomi Gryn However, hopes that some of the tens of thousands of Jews of Indian descent who now live around the world might return have been dashed by the recession and last years terrorist attack which left 173 people dead, including Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka. In an interview with Ms Gryn, Indian Jewish Federation Chairman Jonathan Solomon, a chairman of ORT India between 1986 and 2000, said: When the Indian economy started booming, we started looking forward to Jews from India now in different parts of the world coming back to India if not on a permanent basis at least as a second home or as a holiday destination and interacting with us, strengthening us and our institutions. Last year we were hit by two calamities. One was the recession and then 26 November when, for the first time in our living history, a Jew was targeted in India because he is a Jew. It has been catastrophic for us to realise that we can be targeted in this country because of our religion. A noticeable effect of the terror threat is the continual presence of security guards outside synagogues and other Jewish buildings including ORTs. When I was staying at the ORT hostel I had to tell someone where I was going at all times and when I was coming back and the last person in at night had to ensure that the front door was locked, Ms Gryn said. However, Ms Gryn was impressed by ORT Indias work, including its highly respected nursery school, its provision of school computer laboratories and other assistance to southern communities rebuilding from the tsunami of December 26, 2004, and its pre-aliyah vocational training for the lost tribe of Bnei Menashe. The [Bnei Menashe] girls and boys live in separate ORT hostels, she said. They are working hard to acquire the skills they need to live in Israel. They have quite a rigorous schedule, getting up early in the morning and with classes throughout the day. But theres still time for music they have beautiful voices. And in the [ORT] bakery they make challot for the Jewish community. ORT also trains people in early child care and on-the-job training can be provided at the nursery, which makes a real effort to include disabled children. She added: There was more outreach into the wider community than I had presumed. And thats marvellous. We dont live without interdependence. You cant practice Judaism in isolation from other Jews and neither can you remain impervious to the practice and customs of the non-Jews around you. Were all interdependent. You see that at the heart of ORT not being insular but reaching out into the wider community. Ms Gryns documentary traces the development of Indias Jews over the 50 years since her late father, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, left what was then Bombay after two years as Rabbi at the Jewish Religious UnionRodef Shalom to take up the position of Executive Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Rabbi Gryn was keen to see ORT set up in India, primarily to provide vocational training for local Jews who were, by and large, no less afflicted by poverty than their non-Jewish neighbours. In the 1950s he wrote about the Indian Jewish community: The outstanding problems are education and employment, the two going hand-in-hand. The finest thing for Indias Jewry would be a technical training school of the sort ORT runs in many parts of the world. World Jewry would perform a great service if it saw to the realisation of such a project. Technical skill is at a premium in India and well-trained Jews could easily form small-scale cooperative industries. Such a school started operating in 1962 with Rabbi Gryns close friend, industrialist Gerhard Gabriel, as the inaugural Chairman of ORT India. Ms Gryn thinks her father would have been happy to see how ORT was pursuing its mission. He would be very proud to see that a number of his congregants who were teenagers when he was in Bombay have become enthusiastic leader of different Jewish organisations in India, including ORT, she said. And he would be thrilled to know that ORT has developed to make such an important contribution, not just to Jews in India but to wider Indian society. Ms Gryns documentary, The Jews of India, is due to be broadcast on the BBC World Services Heart and Soul slot on January 16. Further details will be made available on Ms Gryns website, www.naomigryn.com .