Passage to India renews rabbi’s spirit of service
By Shant Shahrigian
Over the summer, a service trip to a tiny northeastern Indian village culminated for local Rabbi Barry Dov Katz in joyous song and dance. After 10 days of laying bricks at a poor school and learning about local customs, Rabbi Katz said he and 16 other rabbis from throughout the U.S. celebrated their new bonds – and the fact no one’s back had buckled.
Partway through the celebration, the woman who cleaned at the group’s hostel joined in with her children, who the rabbis hoisted on chairs during what Rabbi Katz described as “Bollywood meets hora,” a traditional Jewish circle dance. The moment held extra poignancy for the spiritual leader of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale, since he and the other volunteers had learned the cleaning woman was suffering from domestic abuse.
“I realized, look, I can’t change anything about this woman’s life by lifting her kids up in a chair while we’re dancing,” Rabbi Katz said during an interview at his office. “But there was this real moment of happiness, I think, for her and for us, and a little bit of a connection. I want to think about what that connection means and how that plays out in the desire to help.”
Coming from a congregation that prides itself on a tradition of community service, Rabbi Katz used his July 21 to 31 trip, organized by the human rights and development group American Jewish World Service, to expand his notion of helping others, bring fresh ideas back to his congregation and simply get his hands dirty.
“We were a group of 17 rabbis – not exactly who you would call if you wanted to pave your backyard,” the 50-year-old rabbi said. “I don’t think any of us had the skill set, but we had a lot of energy, a lot of passion and a lot of desire.”
Every morning, the group reported to a school in Bukharipurwa, a village of mud huts without electricity that India’s economic surge has yet to reach. Along with improving the schoolyard so students do not have to sit in the mud during rainy season, the rabbis upgraded the school’s cooking area and fixed a classroom floor.