Mission in Mumbai: Piedmont volunteer helps fight poverty, drug addiction in India

David Friedkin hasn’t used toilet paper in five months.

But before you rush to judge him, consider the Piedmont native’s dwelling in India.

He lives in Mumbai, in a small apartment inside a beat-up building, located down an alley and clustered with other structures around giant piles of rubble. Huge rats are a natural (if unwelcome) part of the scenery.

Friedkin lives alone, has spotty Internet access and sleeps on a pad on the ground. His toilet has no flush feature — it shares a drainage pipe with the shower — so instead of toilet paper, he uses the shower’s hand-held nozzle.

He laughs at the thought of comparing his current space to the places he called home in the United States, but assures that he is “extremely comfortable and wouldn’t change anything.”

“It’s about leaving all your expectations at the door,” Friedkin, 24, says, “and laying a whole new foundation.”

Friedkin moved to India last August as one of 12 volunteers in a relatively new American Jewish World Service program called World Partners Fellowship. He is expected to serve through July.

The program — which places recent Jewish college graduates and young professionals in India for 10 months — was launched in 2004 by AJWS, a 26-year-old organization dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease in developing nations.

Sort of following the Peace Corps model, the volunteers live in different parts of India, where they are placed with local social service agencies and nongovernmental organizations working on development and human rights issues.

The agencies often are AJWS grantees that are doing “compelling work,” according to Will Nassau, who oversees the World Partners Fellowship, “from working to eradicate caste-based discrimination to empowering women.”

David Friedkin wears traditional Indian garb. photos/courtesy of david friedkin

One of the first participants in the program, which so far operates only in India, was none other than Yael Friedkin, David’s sister, who later suggested he consider serving.

At that point, Friedkin was considering going abroad and doing service work after he graduated from Washington University in St. Louis last year, so he followed his sister’s advice — and now he finds himself putting in six days a week at Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust in Mumbai. It’s an agency that works to improve the quality of life for drug users living on the streets (and their families) through health education, skills training and empowerment sessions. It also seeks to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS in Mumbai.

According to UNICEF, only two countries in the world (South Africa and Nigeria) have more people infected with HIV and AIDS than India, although India’s ranking is due in large part to its huge population. Other statistics tell a better story, as the estimated number of HIV infections in India has actually declined drastically in recent years — from 5.5 million in 2005 to below 2.5 million in 2007.

About 80 percent of the clients at the rehabilitation center where Friedkin is posted are HIV positive, he says.

“I was nervous to work with drug addicts and AIDS patients,” he admits. “But then I got here and realized they are just people who were dealt a bad hand. They usually come to Mumbai from elsewhere in India in search of the dream of jobs and money they see in Bollywood films.”

Friedkin, the only AJWS volunteer and foreigner serving at the Sankalp center, spends much of his time with clients who live on the street and are in need of critical care and medical advocacy. Services include treating infections and abscesses, and motivating recovering addicts to return to their family’s home. Twenty-five clients, all in different stages of recovery, currently live at the center.

Many of the clients are illiterate and speak Hindi only. Friedkin didn’t know a word of the language when he arrived in India, but says he’s gradually picked up phrases and can string together sentence fragments when necessary. Mainly, he relies on expression through body language to communicate with patients, although center staff and trustees do speak English and can help out.

Friedkin (far left) joins a workshop for clients’ families in Bhiwandi, about 12 miles from Mumbai.

Aside from helping patients, his other chores include answering e-mails, maintaining the website, and editing reports and newsletters written in English. He also works to complete projects started by previous AJWS fellows.

Recently he helped set up two programs that enable Sankalp clients to earn stipends to help right themselves: doing data entry for a telecommunications service and doing gardening work for Indian Railways.

“I believe it is the obligation of every Jew to help out those who are less fortunate, in their own way,” Friedkin says. “And this is my way.”

Friedkin didn’t just waltz into the fellowship program. The intense application process included a series of extensive interviews with AJWS, during which he impressed Nassau (the senior program officer at AJWS) with certain intangibles.

For the fellowship program, AJWS — which also has other service programs in many countries for volunteers of all age ranges — looks for people that possess strong written communication skills, the ability to think in nuance and an interest in being a constant learner, Nassau said. Sure enough, when Nassau accompanied Friedkin and the others to India to begin the program, he couldn’t help but notice Friedkin’s curiosity and willingness to dive into Hindi.

“He’s constantly holding himself to a standard with respect to learning Hindi,” Nassau says. “He was practicing with locals, and didn’t have a shyness in going up to people in a restaurant or vendors on the street. He’s got those personal skills and tremendous curiosity.”

With undergraduate degrees in finance and Arabic, Friedkin was not exactly the ideal match to help rehabilitate street-based drug users. But he knew pursuing finance in its typical form of banking wasn’t for him.

“[Banking] is too selfish and can be amoral,” Friedkin says. “I need to do something that doesn’t just benefit me. I’m glad I have the finance background, but I’m not going to work on Wall Street.”

In addition to his sister’s service with AJWS, Friedkin has two aunts who have played prominent leadership roles in the Jewish community: San Franciscan Amy Friedkin, who served as the first female president of AIPAC from 2002 to 2004, and Terry Friedkin, president of the Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay.

Friedkin calls his current situation “a journey 23 years in the making” on his blog, Love in the Time of Malaria.

When he was in high school at the College Preparatory School in Oakland, he volunteered at a school for students with special needs. After graduating, he lived in Israel for a year, and then studied abroad in Morocco and Mexico during college. He also spent a month living in Argentina after graduating from college.

While he misses his parents, Miriam and Gerald Friedkin of Piedmont, and other family members, Friedkin insists he is not homesick. It helps, he says, that two other AJWS fellows in Mumbai live a block or two away.

Friedkin wakes up every day at 7 a.m., makes a bowl of oatmeal and heads out for a 40-minute commute to work. First, he shares a rickshaw with fellow Ava Shapiro for five rupees (about 11 cents) that takes them to the Mumbai Suburban Railway — the one thing that is “on time and reliable,” Friedkin says.

From there they part ways, Friedkin going into a regular train car and Shapiro into the women-only car (which were introduced to combat lewd conduct). Sometimes on the train he’ll listen to an NPR podcast he has downloaded to keep up with what’s happening back home.

In his free time, Friedkin (a self-described “food guy”) delights in the challenge of cooking with one burner, a small fridge, his imagination — and an arsenal of Indian spices. It’s a far cry from the kitchens he once worked in as a prep cook at One Market in San Francisco and as a line cook at Lark Creek Walnut Creek.

His chicken-buying experiences are pretty interesting, too. He buys from a street vendor who grabs a chicken from a crowded cage and slaughters it on the spot.

“The chicken man is my friend,” Friedkin says. “Every time I walk by him, I shoot an ‘As-Salamu Alaykum’ [an Arabic greeting translated as “Peace be upon you”]. He’s Muslim, as most of the chicken guys are.”

Friedkin’s social life in India has been slow to develop, but three days a week he takes a class that combines elements of martial arts, music and dance. Recently he joined some new friends on an island off Mumbai for swimming, barbecuing and relaxing on the beach.

A high point of Friedkin’s week, he says, is spending Shabbat at the Mumbai Chabad House, a spot that is packed with its own story and emotion. The Nariman House, as it is known locally, is the five-story building that was stormed by Islamic terrorists in November 2008. Six people were killed in the attack, including Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the directors of the facility.

Friedkin now spends his Shabbats with the Israeli couple that took over for the Holtzbergs, Rabbi Chanoch and Leiky Gechtman. That’s about his only connection to the Mumbai Jewish community, says Friedkin, noting that he loves the culture of Judaism but is not religious.

Mumbai, a metropolis of some 13 million people, is home to approximately one-quarter of India’s estimated 15,000 Jews. There are eight synagogues in the city, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee runs a JCC with classes on Hebrew and Judaism, holiday parties, and classes for children and seniors.

Friedkin came to India knowing close to nothing about the country. When he arrived five months ago, the weather was unbearably humid. Now it’s winter and the temperatures remind him of a familiar place — the Bay Area.

“It’s a new life,” he says. “And if you have the right perspective, it’s an amazing one.”

David Friedkin
blogs about his adventures in India at friedkinindia.tumblr.com.