Slumming it may not seem like the most satisfying use of time, but Aviva Rosenberg would disagree.
The Squirrel Hill attorney and mother of three recently returned from Kalwa, an Indian city 14 miles northeast of Mumbai. The trip was an opportunity to volunteer in one of India’s poorest parts as well as learn more about an organization committed to caring for vulnerable children.
“My passion is international health and international development. There’s really not a lot of that going on in Pittsburgh,” said Rosenberg, 41. “Forget about from a Jewish perspective, just from a public health perspective, most of that goes on in D.C. and New York.”
Interested in global aid but unwilling to relocate due to local responsibilities, Rosenberg reached out to a contact at OLAM, a coalition of Jewish organizations that supports at-risk people in developing countries who informed her about Gabriel Project Mumbai, a Jewish volunteer-based cause that provides “hunger relief, literacy support, health and empowerment to children living in the Mumbai slums.”
Rosenberg connected with GPM’s founder and director, Jacob Sztokman, and after researching the initiative was intrigued by both its efforts and efficacy despite limited resources.
“GPM is a grassroots community-run-and-led organization. We are embedded in the community, are led by the community members, have committees with community representatives and hire almost exclusively people in the slums,” explained Sztokman, who added that he is the “only person in the organization not Indian and not from the communities where we operate.”
Rosenberg spent a year disseminating organizational information by speaking at Rotary Clubs in Fox Chapel, Shadyside and West Mifflin with the hopes of raising money and awareness about GPM.
But last fall, she and Sztokman agreed that the best way for the foreign friend to truly appreciate and advocate GPM’s undertakings would be to experience them firsthand. So Rosenberg booked a ticket for Dec. 9-17.
The timing of her trip coincided with a ceremony, where a new learning center named after Joshua Jacob Greenberger, a former GPM-Entwine fellow who died in May 2017, was dedicated by his parents, Penny and Bob Greenberger of Cleveland.
Among those present at the inauguration and mezuzah fixing were Israeli Consul General Yaakov Finkelstein and Nurit Finkelstein. Also present were Israeli Consul Galit Laroche-Falche, Joint Distribution Committee India Director Elijah Jacobs and Rabbi Israel Koslovsky of Mumbai Chabad.
The festive day, which showcased GPM’s work, was unlike others that Rosenberg spent in the slums. In contradistinction to the pomp and circumstance of that experience were periods mired in despondency, she explained.
Upon earlier arrival to Kalwa, Rosenberg observed “garbage everywhere, feces everywhere. There are no bathrooms,” she said. “We were walking down the street and there were men pouring buckets of water to cleanse themselves.”
The sights surpassed any preparedness possible, she added.
“I had done a lot of reading, but until you see 4-year-old children throwing empty garbage back and forth as a ball and you see a naked man washing himself, I think no matter how much you read, there’s nothing that quite prepares you for that. It’s hard not to be affected by that level of poverty, by people who truly have nothing.”
Sztokman, a former high-tech executive, decided to rededicate himself to social welfare after visiting Mumbai in 2011 and started GPM roughly one year later.
Others, like Rosenberg, have adopted alternative methods for supporting the eradication of international despair, either by assisting from afar or actually taking residence in India.
Since GPM’s inception, several volunteers have spent various periods of stay with the organization.
Many have come for formal two-month stretches through the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps program, which enables Jewish young adults, ages 18 to 30, to dedicate eight weeks in a “kosher open and supportive Jewish environment.”
Others arrive for assorted durations and purpose.
Overlapping with the Pittsburgher were two 22-year-olds who had recently graduated from Rutgers University, a retiree from Los Angeles who planned on staying for four months and three septuagenarians from the United Kingdom, who, apart from spending six weeks with GPM had shipped a pallet of science materials from London to Mumbai to bolster educational operations.
The travelers represent a growing trend called “voluntourism.”
In 2014, National Public Radio reported that “more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year” on volunteer travel. Those figures will continue to rise, said David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org.
“With the U.K., Australia, Canada, the EU, Brazil, India and Southeast Asia serving as both homes and incubators of voluntourists around the world, the number of voluntourists could easily reach 25 million to 30 million by the end of this decade,” wrote Clemmons in a 2014 post.
Although a 2015 report by the Family Travel Association and the New York University School of Professional Studies indicated that “volunteer or mission trips” represent a “relatively niche” segment for family travel (of 2,614 responses, only 10 percent had previously taken such a trip), Rosenberg is enthused by the possibilities.
Whether it means that she and her family would embark on a volunteer journey in the coming years, or that she and her husband may spend months committing to an international cause after retirement, there is excitement in the unknown.
“This was not there when I graduated college,” and the opportunities are available to those of “any age,” she said.
“We have so much here in this country; not everybody, but many people have an excess, and if you want to do something different, these types of organizations give you that ability through a Jewish lens of making the world just a little bit better, and that’s what’s so cool.”
Given their promotion of global assistance, both Rosenberg and Sztokman are aware of those who denigrate such activity by claiming its forsaking of closer causes.
“Helping our fellow Jews should not come at the expense of helping other non-Jews, and the same, helping non-Jews should not come at the expense of helping Jews. We can do both. We can help our own community, and we can help other communities,” said Rosenberg.
Sztokman agreed: “A child suffering anywhere in the world is a Jewish issue. The idea that there are children suffering, forced into child labor, forced to eat garbage, die from no access to health care and that 6 million children under the age of 5 die every year from poor nutrition and no access to health care is a Jewish concern to fix this.
“All humans are made in the image of God, and we share common fates. Our children are just like their children.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz