Ex-JCC director helps Jews in India

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The biggest obstacle confronting Zev Hymowitz on his recent trip to India was the language barrier.

"They spoke English," recalled Hymowitz, "and I spoke Brooklynese."

Though largely unfamiliar to Western Jews, India's Jewish population, which is largely Orthodox, has lived in the country for more than 2,000 years.

India's Jews observe most kosher dietary laws, although they refrain from eating beef, similar to the prevailing Hindu culture.

The Bene Israel, by far the largest group of India's roughly 4,500 Jews, settled mostly in enclaves in and around Bombay. A wave of Iraqi Jews, commonly known as the Baghdadi, immigrated to India approximately two centuries ago, but the vast majority of them have since moved to Israel.

Hymowitz, the former interim executive director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, is a national JCC consultant. He begins a new stint on Monday as interim executive vice president of the Greater Los Angeles Area JCCs.

He went to Bombay in February to work with the Bene Israel community to help upgrade India's lone JCC. An expert at crunching numbers, Hymowitz, offered these figures to chew on:

In 1997, the year his two-year tenure at the JCC of S.F. ended, the center's annual budget was in excess of $5.5 million.

The annual budget of Bombay's JCC is somewhat less — $12,000.

"There are certain constraints," Hymowitz admitted. "For starters, there are only two rooms, so people studying Hebrew or working on a computer have to listen to pingpong players next door."

In addition, those running the program "have been recruited from other fields," he continued. "For example, the current director came from the computer industry, so his administrative knowledge was limited."

Conversely, he said, for an outsider, there were definite advantages in working with India's nascent JCC program.

"There's a real thirst for learning about the diaspora Jewish culture, and the Hebrew language that's just amazing," said Hymowitz. "The people are very generous and spiritual. The minute I arrived in Bombay, I was taken in, and treated just like family."

Another factor Hymowitz appreciated was the JCC's communal atmosphere. At lunchtime, everyone from the executive director to the cleaning crew would gather around a table and eat together.

"It was very relaxing," recalled Hymowitz. "There was none of that rush-rush attitude that you find so often in the U.S."

When asked how often he could have a relaxed lunch at the JCC of S.F., Hymowitz thought for a moment, and let out a hearty laugh.

"Never," he said.

Understanding that many Western paradigms, such as business dealings, aren't applicable in Eastern culture, Hymowitz was careful not to overstep his boundaries.

"I went in there as a consultant," Hymowitz said, "but I didn't want to impose my American methodologies and ideas on every discussion. I tried to make suggestions by saying, 'How do you think you could do this here?'"

Among the suggestions Hymowitz made was encouraging outreach with other local nonprofit organizations, such as the YMCA. He also suggested expanding the JCC's business hours.

"There really is so such thing as a day of rest in Indian culture," said Hymowitz. "That's a Western concept, really. Most people in India work until 7 p.m., which is problematic if the JCC is only open until 8 p.m."

A particularly sticky issue that Hymowitz attempted to resolve is the issue of Bombay's JCC membership.

"Because they have such a tiny community there," he said, "they really are concerned about preserving their heritage. And they don't really look upon intermarriage all that kindly.

"However," Hymowitz added, "I pointed out that if a Jew wants to bring a non-Jewish spouse to the JCC, it's still an attempt to strengthen their cultural ties. I think the suggestion went over well."

If assimilation is a big concern, however, anti-Semitism is not.

"The Israeli ambassador to India said that there is no discrimination against Jews in India," Hymowitz said. "He also commented that India's really the only country in the world you can say that about."