Bene Ephraim: Notes from the Field

image: Entire community gathers on Sukkot (Photo by community member)

Entire community gathers on Sukkot.
(Photo by community member)

”Do you like Indian people?” asked Yacob Yacobi with his signature, slightly mischievous grin. It was one of our last days staying in Bene Ephraim with the Yaco- bis, our host family, and it seems this question had been percolating for quite some time.

The answer, of course, was a resounding, ”Yes we do!” The ”we” in this case was a group of five: Hannah Davis, Maya Dicker, Saul Miller, Marianne Vaisenbrut and me. We came to India in April as part of a unique volunteer program, LeadEarth, run by Adam LeAdam (man to man) an Israeli NGO (non-governmental orga- nization) whose mission is to help foster social change and improve the quality of life in developing countries. The focus of the organization has been India.

Our program was eight months in duration, with five months in Israel and three months in India, to study about and then volunteer with social and environmental change projects. We hail from three different coun- tries and varying backgrounds, but all of us possess an interest in gaining field experience and building the skills necessary to be involved in sustainable development.

The small Bene Ephraim Jewish community, located in the southern state of Andrhra Pradesh, was our second stop in India. While there, we were hosted by the Yacobi family, whose small house sits adjacent to the community's synagogue. Bene Ephraim is part of Chebrole, a village of mostly Dalit (Untouchable) families considered the lowest caste in India. Our first impression of the Bene Ephraim was very positive. We found them incredibly friendly, hospitable and helpful.

We found the Bene Ephraim incredibly friendly, hospitable and helpful.

Our visit to the community focused on three main goals: to check up on the status and progress of recent gifts and grants, to install solar panels on the roof of the synagogue and to conduct a survey on the overall quality of life in the community.

The first task entailed monitoring the progress of a recent grant from the San Francisco/Marin Jewish Community Teen Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund to purchase chickens. We visited all ten families who have received funding, and it was encouraging to see how pleased they were.

Each family used the money to buy chickens, construct a coop and purchase feed. Since the chickens were purchased only two months before our visit, it is impossible to determine if the project will be successful. We can report that many chickens are just beginning to lay eggs and have young chicks. The families plan to sell the chickens at around six months.

Many chickens are just beginning to lay eggs and have young chicks.

The community feels grateful to have been given the opportunity to develop a business and better their circumstances. While it is still too early to tell whether this will be a profitable project for the families, it is a low-maintenance way for families to earn secondary income. Once there is a report on the project, additional grant money will be used for the remaining families to purchase chickens.

Additionally, we spoke with community leaders regarding past grants that have allowed several families to purchase buffaloes and to sell the milk for profit. This grant was made by the Foundation for Remote Jewish Communities. Another grant was used to purchase bicycles, providing the children with easier transport to and from school.

Next, our group received a grant through Kulanu to install solar panels on the roof of the community's synagogue. The panels do not completely replace the current lighting system, but the building is now less dependent on the local electricity provider. We see this as a three-fold benefit: first, it should decrease the Yacobis' electric bills (while also decreasing their use of fossil fuels); second, there will be electricity despite the black-outs and power outages; third, the installation provided the LeadEarth group with a unique opportunity to educate the community about solar energy and its benefits, as well as offering some general education about the environment.

Our final goal with the Bene Ephraim was to better understand the community's quality of life and general needs by conducting a survey with some of the families. The community members who spoke English helped in translating the survey into Telugu, the common language in the village. Our hope is that the information gathered through these surveys will help direct any future grants and volunteer projects in the community.

First, we found that many in the community have a great interest in learning more about Judaism, as well as learning to read and write Hebrew. Yehoshua Jacobi, a former member of their community who has been living in Israel for many years, visited the community recently as part of a grant from Michael Freund's organization Shavei Israel and Kulanu to help with this process. In addition, we arranged to send 25 prayer books and 25 Chumash (five books of Moses) to aid in the learning process.

Trash piles up... water is of poor quality...

image: Village area (Photo by Rabbi Bonita Sussman)

Village area.
(Photo by Rabbi Bonita Sussman)

By surveying over a third of the families, we were able to learn a great deal about the Bene Ephraim. Our program is heavily focused on environmentalism, so we were interested to find that in Chebrole, like many places in India, there is no waste management system in place, which means that trash piles up and then is usually burned. Water is of poor quality and scarce during the hotter months. Electricity is unreliable, and even more so during the dry season. The only affordable option for most families are the public schools, which provide a greatly inferior education compared to the private schools.

A large majority of the community works in agriculture as day-laborers, making between 100 and 300 rupees per day (equivalent to approximately $2-$6.50 USD). Some people refuse to work on Shabbat, which reduces their take-home pay each week. Medical check-ups are a luxury most families cannot afford; doctor visits are restricted to an as-needed basis. Most families are in debt, with no visible way, from their current wages, of paying back their debtors anytime soon.

image: At prayer in the sukkah, during Sukkot (Photo by community member)

At prayer in the sukkah, during Sukkot.
(Photo by community member)

A large majority of the community works in agriculture as day-laborers, making between 100 and 300 rupees per day (equivalent to approximately $2-$6.50 USD). Some people refuse to work on Shabbat, which reduces their take-home pay each week. Medical check-ups are a luxury most families cannot afford; doctor visits are restricted to an as-needed basis. Most families are in debt, with no visible way, from their current wages, of paying back their debtors anytime soon.


Almost all of the families had a vision for a better way of life.

Thankfully, we also gathered very encouraging information about the community and their desire and willingness to improve their situation. When asked, almost all of the families had a vision for a better way of life or a second source of income. Many of the field laborers have an extensive knowledge of agriculture. They dream of one day being able to own their own land, where they can grow food for their family and sell the rest for profit. Other members of the community have experience with livestock and hope to create a largerscale chicken or buffalo project.

We also discovered that the Bene Ephraim have a community cooperative project set up for individuals to borrow money for business plans just like a microfinance loan. The goal of the cooperative is to provide the start-up capital to fund a source of secondary income so that families can build up savings instead of borrowing money when their roof needs repairing or they need to visit a doctor. The project is dormant right now, but they are eager to have it back up and running.

They also have ideas to benefit the entire community once the cooperative itself begins making money, such as supplementing the meager income of the several widows in the community so that they are better able to meet their basic needs. This is just one example of how considerate and community-minded the people of Bene Ephraim are. When asked in the survey what they would do if they had extra money from another source of income, many remarked that they had no specific plans but would want to share it with the whole community.

During our visit, it became apparent that the community' computer lacked a modern cellular modem, which limited their use of the Internet and their ability to do research and to use Skype for long distance Jewish learning. Kulanu paid for a new modem, a half year of unlimited Internet connection (the most the company would allow) and a microphone. We taught community members how to use Skype after installing it, as well as other skills.

As our two weeks were winding down and we began getting ready for our departure, it was clear that all of us felt very connected to the Bene Ephraim. We found them to be a warm and caring community, fiercely cohesive with no interest in competing among themselves. Rather, they are interested in sharing resources and skills so that everyone in the community benefits. All in all, they are an amazing community. We all feel we have found a new family and lifelong friends. We stand by our initial assessment that Indian people, and especially the Bene Ephraim, are the most genuine, loving and generous people that we had ever met.

As heartbreaking as it was to leave so soon, and with little tangible change, there was hopefulness too. Sustainable change must come from within, and the community has ideas for improvements. They are eager to gain the skills necessary to make change happen. With the aid of a few long-term volunteers, we are confident that sustainable development is possible and that their health and well-being will continue to improve.