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ESRA Modiin Responding to Indian Food, Health Crises

Indian-foodElana and Jacob Sztockman with ESRA Modiin’s Evelynne Cherney and Judy Golub (Photos: Marion Stone)

A most interesting evening was spent this past March as ESRA Modiin members heard from philanthropic activists on a panel entitled "More than a Meal: Impacting Communities with Food and Love." Organized by Modiin branch Vice-Chair Judy Golub, the panel included Joseph Gitler, the founder of Leket which is Israel's national food bank, and Jacob and Dr. Elana Sztokman, who founded and run the Gabriel Project Mumbai. This article focuses on the Gabriel Project and the unique support that ESRA Modiin's Bookstore is lending to the group's activities, while at another opportunity, the important work that Leket does will be highlighted.

Joseph Gitler from Leket

 In her introduction, Judy Golub surprised the audience by informing them that 990 million pounds in weight of food are wasted in Israel each year. While Israel does not have people dying from starvation and malnutrition, a large percentage of its population, particularly among children, does experience food insecurity.

Other parts of the world are not as fortunate as Israel, and India is a prime example of a country where people are indeed dying from starvation and malnutrition even though the country does have the resources and the arable land to produce in theory enough food for all of its nearly 1.5 billion people.

Starting the Gabriel Project, a charity to make a difference in the lives of children and families in Mumbai, was not something that Jacob Sztockman had ever envisioned doing. A native of Melbourne, Australia, and a high-tech entrepreneur in Israel, Jacob had never been to India before his first visit on a flight layover in 2011. Touring Mumbai (formerly Bombay), he was shaken to see the poverty in the city's slums, where small children are forced by their parents to work as beggars or in other demeaning jobs, and to learn of the illiteracy and hunger and malnourishment that are the norm in these communities.

Sztockman also discovered that such slum conditions do not come from a lack of national resources but from the inability of the country to effectively transport the available resources to the places that need them. He explained that most Indians live in rural villages where primitive equipment and techniques mean that families are frequently unable to earn enough money through their crops to cover their needs. Although the villages do enjoy running water and fresh air, the lack of employment and access to educational opportunities and adequate health care means that many villagers opt to move to the nearest city hoping to achieve an improved standard of living.

Moving to the cities like Mumbai, however, means taking up residence in the slums where, as graphically portrayed in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, the physical conditions are miserable and hunger is the norm. Although work may be available, the new arrivals' lack of education amidst the intense competition for employment means that sometimes the only opportunity to earn money for the family is turning one's children into human "brooms" to be used to clean out sewers and other hard-to-reach spaces. In other words, for many Indian children, leaving the villages to find educational opportunities for their parents often results in the children leaving those same educational opportunities in order to earn their family some money. A vicious circle is thus created condemning another generation to poverty and malnutrition.

After much research and thought, Jacob worked out a holistic approach to the problem to help the children and their mothers, which has resulted in much improved nutrition and better education for many hundreds of Mumbai's slum children.

As he explained, "Education is a luxury among these people. If a family living on $1.50 per day doesn't have money, there is no food to feed the family for that day, and thus the children have to work. If the children work, they can't get education but if they stay in school under the current situation, they can't get food."

Thus was born The Gabriel Project: If children can't stay in school because they won't earn any money to be fed, then, thought Sztockman, let's arrange a full nutrition program in the schools to keep the children in class. Staying in school with healthy nutritious meals being served means that parents would more likely send their children to school at least to eat the meals, with education being an important bonus. Moreover, rather than simply buying meals for the children, if the mothers could be employed to prepare and deliver those meals, then there could be a double benefit gained.

Today, eight years after that initial visit to India, in its "Eat2Learn" program, the Gabriel Project insures that nearly one thousand Mumbai slum children are receiving at least one freshly cooked meal a day via the Project. In addition, a cooperative of mothers work hard every day cooking for the children and earning some of the badly needed funds that the children would otherwise be forced to secure. The kosher vegetarian cookbook Masala Mamas (Lioness 2018), edited by Dr. Elana Sztockman, is the product of that cooperative's recipes. (Go to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to obtain a copy of Masala Mamas, all of whose proceeds go to the Gabriel Project in Mumbai.)

The organization now also includes a medical clinic which provides basic treatment, including free vaccinations, a pre-school for the younger children and an afterschool program. And it is there in the afterschool program that ESRA Modiin's Bookstore has an important role. (See attached article.)

One may ask why, with all the needy situations both in Israel and around the world, we should consider supporting charities working in India. As Jacob and Elana, herself a Jewish feminist writer, researcher, anthropologist, educator and, now, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, responded: "Of all the places in the world in which Jews have lived for the past 2,000 years, India is the only one where there has never been, nor is there today, any anti-Semitism or any record of attack against Jews. Unlike in Europe or North Africa and the Middle East, countries governed by either Christian or Muslim regimes, where Jewish communities have experienced centuries of persecution and pogroms, India, even during the nominally Muslim Mogul period of the Taj Mahal, never discriminated against its many Jewish communities in Mumbai, Kolkata and the Cochin region. Though many Indian-born Jews now live in Israel, attracted to the economic and Zionist opportunities available here, through activities like the Gabriel Project, we can repay India for the religious freedom and physical safety that our fellow Jews there have always enjoyed.

Moderator for the ESRA Modiin panel was a fellow Anglo immigrant, local entrepreneur Debbie Cohen, who runs the local kosher eatery "Lechem Erez" in Reut and who has just launched her own catering business. Besides asking a number of thought-provoking questions and speaking from her own experience in the food industry, Debbie generously provided the evening's delicious cakes and refreshments and offered vouchers to members of the audience.

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Monday, 21 September 2020

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