The Israeli Phenomenon in India Part 4
Almost Like Everybody Else...
Many travelers from all around the world come to India to “get spiritual”, learn about life from the largest non-monotheistic country in the world, breathe wisps of ancient times and wisdom, check out alternative paths.
Israelis are searching for the same things as everybody else, only perhaps “even more so“. I bring some stunning statistics in my essay on the Tushita Meditation center. Later I’ll try to postulate/speculate about this phenomenon.
But before getting into that, a short detour into the uniqueness of the Israeli spiritual scene in India is apt.
With strings attached
To the best of my knowledge, of all traveller groups in India, we are the only one with a missionary system attached. With the goal of “protecting” us from the local “spiritual dangers”, it follows us wherever we go, posting itself conveniently wherever we tend to convene. The system, called the Beit Chabad Organization, offers many of the nice things we want and need, like a meeting place, food, lodging, security and help in emergencies – but with a “catch”.
Interestingly, most of us seem to happily cooperate with it to various extents, perhaps also because the Chabad houses sometimes do save Israeli travelers from their own excesses…
Plucking the Umbilical Cords - Chabad
The Chabad organization is a network of more than 3,600 institutions that “provide religious, social and humanitarian needs” in over 1,000 cities, spanning 100 countries and all 50 American states. They extend their outreach to so-called “unaffiliated Jews”, and furnish humanitarian aid, religious, cultural and educational activities.
Unlike other religious missionary enterprises, the “Chabadniks” concentrate on one target audience exclusively – us . By “we” I mean – secular, semi secular, “unaffiliated”, or “God forbid”, converted Jews. They are not interested in proselyting naked jungle tribes or non-Jews affiliated/not affiliated with other religions. We are the single object. The easiest (and probably the most fun) way to reach us is to follow us to the ends of the world. As we go “searching for ourselves”, they make sure we’ll find them first .
India is ideal for that purpose, and in India alone there are around 20 Beit Chabads.
Success breeds success, and – obviously – in many cases they do bring some of the lost sheep back to the fold.
On the other hand, as they try to convert us, we also succeed, if inadvertently, to transform them. It is possible that there is more contact between secular and Hassidic Jews in the Beit Chabads in India than in everyday life in Israel. The world is never a one-way street, and some changes can be observed recently in the closed Hassidic communities in Israel. The shared India experience might be one catalyst for that.
The Jewish Heart
The Israeli Spiritual Scene
The Israeli spiritual scene in the Bhagsu-Dharamkot area comprises of at least four Jewish-Israeli organizations: 2 Beit Habbads, the Jewish Heart and Beit Bina, in descending order of religiousness.
An Open Jewish Heart
I first heard about the “Jewish Heart” ( Lev Yehudi) at Delhi’s Airport. The flight to Dharamshalla was delayed due to weather conditions. As I was waiting, I had a conversation with Meital, the lady who was running this establishement at the time. She was extremely nice, informative and helpful to the new arrival, unfamiliar with the ways of India.
Unfortunately for me, these were her last days on the job. Management changed and the enterprise became more religious.
The delay was problematic for her since it was Friday and she was expected to cook a Shabbat meal for many guests. Her attitude was great, though, taking her responsibilities seriously but also “shanti”, considering the objective circumstances. She told me they kept some traditions at the “Jewish Heart” (Lev Yehudi), but it was not orthodox.
The next week, though, she and her family moved on to manage another reputable Israeli institution in Bhagsu: the bilingual library up Main Road. They were soon going to back home to Israel anyway…
The Mission and the Kabbalat Shabbat
After sampling the Beit Chabad Kabbalat Shabbat, I ventured through the forest paths to try the Lev Yehudi. It was immediately noticeable that the new management was indeed more religiously oriented. Yet, unlike Chabad, they brand in “the spirit of religious Zionism”. The crowd for the Kabbalat Shabbat was 90% religious, as was the music. I had some success persuading the singer to play samples of “other stuff” as well… Everybody was nice and amicable, the food was nourishing and the singer good, but it was not “my” natural crowd.
According to the Lev Yehudi website, their mission is “to provide Israeli backpackers with a warm, home-like, Jewish environment, to enable Israeli backpackers the opportunity to explore their Jewish identity, and to give initial psychological and social support to Israeli backpackers suffering from drug abuse and cults.”
And I wonder – would the Chabad version of Judaism qualify as a cult?
My "Natural" Crowd - Beit Bina, Dharamkot
I apparently needed to emigrate from Jerusalem-Bhagsu to Tel Aviv-Dharamkot to find “my” crowd in the Israeli spiritual scene.
“My crowd” was to be found in a place called Beit Bina. Here a secular couple with slight religious “leanings” was running a place focused on serving the non-religious Israeli crowd. The approach was to mix in a smidge of Jewish values and tradition without getting heavy about it.
Unfortunately, the following week Beit Bina was going to close down for three whole months. The couple running the place was traveling to Sri Lanka to issue fresh visas, so they can continue the enterprise and enjoy a vacation…
Beit Bina is supported by philantropy, but also organizes crowdfunding campaigns to finance themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, Beit Chabad, representing a very specific group with a very specific agenda inside the Israeli society is, obviously, much better funded and run.
It is generally easier to be secular in Israel itself than abroad. Once confronted with the wider world, Jewish identity tends to get bolstered vis-a-vis the encounter with the “other”. Even the total atheist might miss the taken-for-granted-in-Israel Jewish holidays and the Shabbat family meal, a sacred institution even in secular families.
So What do "Seculars" Do?
Here in Beit Bina I could, indeed, find “everything Israel” I could wish for in India: great food, “my type” of company and lots of activities in the spirit of what I believe in. For example – being involved in the larger community, as in collecting trash from the Bhagsu Falls Trail.
There was a full schedule of activities, out of which I attended Yogatis, a combo of yoga and Pilates, and a writing workshop, which was superb! I also stayed late to watch Kundun, the movie about the Dalai Lama. That effort necessitated taking a taxi back to Bhagsu, so as not to get into the sinking darkness.
That week Beit Bina also offered workshops in juggling, a learning session about “The Philosophy of Illusion – Plato, Rambam, Yuval Noah Harari and The Buddha”, and a Shabbat study of the weekly Tora portion, in a modern context.
As one can see, there is great respect in Beit Bina for other traditions, for the hosting country, as well as for one’s own culture. For me personally, that works.
All workshops are given for free by traveler volunteers! A donation is asked for the Friday meal.
Kabbalat Shabbat a-la-Beit Bina
Kabbalat Shabbat itself was great. Slowly the Israelis seeped in from the hills and guest houses of Israeli Dharamkot. Everybody took off their shoes or sandals, and sat around on the mats for the singing and celebration. There were a few older married couples; the rest were young.
It was great to sing “real” (that is, non-religious) Israeli songs. There were also some religious ones, but of the lighter variety. We were handed a small book with spiritual sayings by religious and non-religious authors, and song lyrics.
The food was delicious, plentiful and varied. It was served on metal plates with metal cups, similar to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Perhaps it’s the Indian way. Everybody was sitting low around long tables.
At a certain point, a hippie-looking guy with enormous dreadlocks walked in with his son. They immediately took over the music scene with their strong presence. The son played melodica like an angel. After the meal, young folk started playing cards, while several older ladies formed a singing circle of “all the good old songs”. I joined happily, but could not stay for long. I had committed to lead a group of people back to Bhagsu through a shortcut I knew in the forest.
Oh Baby, Baby, It's a Wild World ...
Once you depart from the warm bosom of the Israeli institutions of whatever persuasion, you are inevitably thrown into the midst of the authentic Indian Spiritual Salad, with its Western modifications and Eastern variations. Here we are just a drop in an enormous bucket..
No wonder a new Hebrew book about Israelis in India is called: A 100 Ways to Get Lost in India. I admit to have not read it yet, but the name seems to describe the situation well. My musings on the topic are soon to come. Keep following!