The following is Becca Kay's account of her volunteer placement, set up as part of TJYE's work with Longsho in India:
In the summer of 2001 I was the Rosh (head) of an RSY-Netzer camp. There were many special people on my team of leaders, but one person in particular was to affect my life.
Keldor, a Tibetan volunteer, came over to learn how to be a leader as part of the Tibetan-Jewish Youth Exchange (TJYE). At the time I thought that this was a long-established organisation, although I later learnt that the movement had not yet been set up, and this was the first stage in the process.
Keldor explained that he had met Kalela Lancaster, a graduate of the Bnei Akiva youth movement and had been inspired about her description of Zionist youth movements. He and 4 of his friends had come to the UK to spend the summer in various youth movement summer camps to learn how to be leaders. He told us all that many Tibetan people were living in exile in India, and that those who remained in Tibet were suffering from extreme prejudice and struggling to practice their culture or religion. It was the first time that I had heard about the problems of the Tibetan people, and I was shocked that this was happening.
I remember one moment very clearly; all the leaders were having a meeting when a wasp flew in. One leader stood up and started trying to kill the wasp. Keldor gently intervened, cupping his hands around the wasp before releasing the wasp out of the window. His belief in the importance of the wasp’s life had a profound impact on me.
On his return from Shemesh, Keldor worked with his friends to set up ‘Longsho’ the Tibetan youth movement. They did this with the full support of the Dalai Lama, who having met with a group of American Rabbis declared that he wanted to promote working together with Jews ‘sharing the secrets of exile’. He felt that the two communities had much to teach each other.
Whilst Keldor was working with Longsho, I became an RSY-Netzer movement worker. One of RSY-Netzer’s core values is Tikkun Olam (repair of the world). This is a value that I am personally very passionate about, I felt that as a movement worker it was very important that I uphold this value, and do something to repair the wider world. I became part of the core committee of TJYE, and became increasingly involved.
Following two years of movement work, I had itchy feet and wanted to go somewhere in the world. I had wanted to uphold the mitzvah (commandment, practice) of giving 10% of your salary to tzedakah (charity), but had not been in a financially viable position to do this. I felt that I could give my time instead. I wanted to go away but as I really value being part of a community, I knew that travelling around was not for me. I felt increasingly compelled to go to work with the Tibetans. Together with an ex-Habonim movement worker, Lissa, we made plans to work in India with the exiled Tibetan youth.
It was only when Lissa and I arrived that we realised what an immense task we had. The Tibetans, like the Jews, are facing the problem of assimilation.
Those Tibetans born in India into exile had never even been to Tibet. They struggled to keep their language, culture and identity alive. This was particularly difficult in Dharamasala, the main Tibetan settlement, as the area is something of a tourist attraction and Westerners constantly visit.
There was another group that we worked with: Tibetans born in China. In China they suffer such prejudice and racial discrimination that they struggle to receive education, learn about the Tibetan culture or speak in the Tibetan language, so they too are losing their identity. The children are smuggled across the border, often by trekking over the snow-covered Himalayas, walking in the night without food or sleep. These children are placed in huge boarding schools where they are given an education. The schools become their homes, and their housemates, families.
Longsho brings these two groups together, helping to create a community, giving the boarding school pupils a holiday, and educating all the young people about their education and culture. The participants speak pure Tibetan on camp (apart from when speaking to the English volunteers, luckily!). Longsho has been up and running now for three years having run summer and winter camps and regular activities in the Dharamasala area.
Our job was to set up a second base in a place that looked very close on the map but turned out to be a 14 hour bus journey away (on a local bus!). We were told that the name Dickyling meant ‘happy place’ so we had high hopes.
We got to put our movement experience to good use, running a leadership course for new leaders. I basically adapted the RSY-Netzer leadership course that I had developed during my time in the movement. Having done this, we worked together to plan and run activities in 5 new schools. Once we had proven that we could do it, we hosted a joint winter camp together with the Dharamasala community.
I did find it challenging to live in a different society with different social norms, but once the local residents had got over their initial shock that we were women who did not just stay at home, and got to know us, we were made to feel at home and part of their community.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama regularly invites everyone who wants to meet him to come and be blessed. I went along and took a Quata which is a Tibetan prayer scarf as a gift to him to bless him. He gave me a red piece of string that he had blessed to ward off evil spirits – like the red string of the kabbalists (Jewish mystics). I was struck once again by the similarities between our two communities. On meeting him, I went to bow and greeted him in Tibetan. Somehow this made him laugh!
Going to the Tibetan museum, looking at the photos and videos and hearing people’s biographies, made me realise how pleased I was that I was able to do something to help. This was strengthened by the gratitude of the young people. They were constantly thanking us and the Tibetan leaders for our contribution and so valued the education that they receive.
The last week that we were in Dickyling was Chanukah, the festival marking the Jews' cultural independence and freedom from Greek rule almost 2000 years ago. We wanted to share Chanukah with the community and we also wanted to thank them, so we held a Chanukah party, playing dreidles (traditional game with spinning tops) and eating doughnuts. We told them the Chanukah story. For me it had always felt like an old story. However, the Tibetans were really moved by this story. For them this was a story relevant to them right now, and it really affected them. It just highlighted how very special our connection is as Jews to the Tibetan people. We share common stories with common problems. Perhaps now we need to work together to find solutions.
Now that I am back in the UK, I feel very privileged to have had such an incredible experience and to have learnt so much. Whilst I was there I was so passionate about this issue, and the responsibility that I had as a Jew to support this community with whom we have so much in common. I worry that as I get a job and settle into my new home I will forget the commitment that I made. I have decided to sponsor a child from Tibet to receive a Tibetan education in India. It is only a small contribution, but one that feels very important to me.