ACCESS: AJC's new generation

...engaging today’s critical domestic and international issues.

Working at the nexus between the Jewish community and the world, ACCESS reaches out to diplomats, policy makers and young leaders of diverse religious and ethnic communities.


Sunday, March 7

The ACCESS delegation’s visit to Akshardam was an excellent finale to our sightseeing around Delhi.  Akshardam is a major temple complex constructed by the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism, and is the largest Hindu temple in the world.  It was truly a sight to behold!  Built entirely of pink sandstone using traditional building methods, the seven thousand stone carvers who worked on the project not only worked their full day’s shift of carving, but also volunteered many additional hours each day in order to complete the monumental undertaking in only four years. According to one of our guides, the intent was to build a temple complex that would stand for centuries, along the lines of what we saw at Qutb Minar earlier in the day.

The temple complex has an IMAX theater, apparently the only one in India, which shows a movie about the odyssey of Nilkanth, a boy who left his home village and traveled throughout India to learn about its people and spread his Hindu teachings and spirituality.  Our group also took a boat ride through a museum that imparted amazing lessons about the history of India and its people.  I learned many amazing facts about India on this ride, including the fact that India is home to the world’s first university and that Indians apparently discovered or developed many scientific principles decades or centuries before Western scientists. 

After our group experienced many of the tourist wonders at Akshardam, including musical dancing fountains and the beautiful, massive stonecarvings, we met with one of the Hindu Sadhus in residence at Akshardam.  We had a lengthy discussion about his spiritual journey and he shared some of the teachings of the head of the sect that built the complex.  It was during this conversation that we also delved into the striking similarities between modern Hinduism and modern Judaism.  One reason Akshardam was created and incorporates things like a historical boat ride and an IMAX theater is that many younger Hindus have lost connection with the traditions of Hinduism, in much the same way that younger Jews do not follow many of the traditional aspects of Judaism.  Intermarriage, modernization, and assimilation necessitated the incorporation of these modern entertainment venues in order to connect with younger people that are more interested in technology than texts.  Akshardam had an impact as an amazing tourist destination as well as an insight into the historical underpinnings and current state of one of the world’s major religions. 

M. Newman

Lunch with Orna Sagiv
Tuesday, March 2

Today, our delegation had a lunch meeting with Orna Sagiv, Consul General of Israel to Mumbai.  This diplomatic posting is more critical to the Israeli-Indian relationship, and to the average Indian’s perception of Israel, than one might think.  Israel’s closest ties to India result from its heavy involvement in India’s developing agricultural industry.  In fact, as we learned from CG Sagiv, Israel’s sharing of its advanced drip irrigation technology has made it extremely popular with the Indian people, many of whom are connected with the agriculture industry.  With an eye toward the future of this important relationship, CG Sagiv explained that Israel’s challenge is to achieve recognition beyond drip irrigation, which will require a major expansion of Israeli companies’ investment in India and Indian companies’ investment in Israel.  Two important areas of commerce that we discussed in detail with CG Sagiv were the vibrant Indian film and entertainment industry and India’s still-developing defense technology industry.  

Like many others with whom our group met, CG Sagiv mentioned that India is free of an endemic anti-semitic cultural attitude.  Unlike many countries, India’s relationship with Israel has been focused primarily on issues such as tourist visas for Indians and Israelis visiting the two nations and the commercial interconnection between the two countries, rather than the Israeli-Arab conflict.  Meeting with SG Sagiv gave our group an excellent foundation regarding the commercial focus of Israeli-Indian relations, and we were able to reflect back on her briefing as we learned more about India and the Indian people.

M. Newman 


Lunch on Last Day with Journalists
Monday, March 8

The ACCESS trip was topped off by a lunch meeting with two journalists. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri covers foreign policy and security for Hindustan Times, which he loosely equated to the Washington Post, while his wife, Indrani Bachi, writes for the Times of India, loosely equated to the New York Times. I got to speak at length with Mr. Chaudhuri, and one thing he said that struck me was that although the Indian government does not guarantee freedom of speech, newspapers generally don’t have to worry about censorship because of the sheer number of papers, Mr. Chaudhuri cited thousands. How could a government manage to censor them all? Instead newspapers are more concerned with bribery of reporters by corporations, and Stockholm Syndrome when reporters become biased toward the people they cover.

Mr. Chaudhuri was very impressive in that he was extremely well-versed in the myriad issues we discussed, everything from the US Civil Nuclear Deal (which he covered) to microfinance to a recent study he told us about that revealed the conservative nature of young Indians.

Sarah Hiller
Lunch with Members of Parliament 
Friday, March 5

On Friday, our group had the opportunity to have lunch with younger members of Parliament and Israeli embassy DCM. I preferred lunch meetings because they are less formal and I think people talk more freely than they would in an office meeting room. I got to chat with at least four MPs. One of them told me about an incentive program he started to encourage girls to stay in school and get good grades. He said the girls receive bicycles, clothing, and cash throughout their primary school career. The scheme is working well, so well, in fact, that they’ve extended the program to boys.

On a cultural note, the MPs were delayed coming to the lunch because Prime Minister Singh was making a speech. By then our group had grown accustomed to the, shall we say, “flexible” schedules in India. Given that I’m living in Latin America, I’m very used to people being late, but the Indian culture seemed even more laid back. A person may not even show up to a meeting at all, and their absence is neither meant as inconsiderate, nor is it thought by others to be inconsiderate or out of the ordinary. It’s just a fact. Thankfully, this happened to us only a couple of times, and we just rolled with it.

Sarah Hiller
One of My Favorite and Most Memorable Parts of the Trip
Monday, March 1

Traditionally (and to over-simplify it), Holi is a holiday celebrated by Hindus and Sikhs to commemorate Prahlad triumphing over failed attempts to kill him. In India, it’s also a chance to have a raucous good time literally throwing and smearing brilliant-colored paint and water onto friends and strangers alike—pedestrian beware. For me, Holi was an opportunity to be a kid again, and most poignant, to peek into the lives of a few dozen vibrant girls aged 4-17 who formerly lived in Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. Now they live just a few feet away in an organization called Social Change for Girls, a haven of sisterhood, education, health and even technology. For instance, I was blown away when their program director asked them how many of them have Facebook profiles, and a dozen of their obedient hands shot up in the air. I’m already e-pen pals with one of the girls.

It was here, with these wonderful girls, where we were brutally assaulted from all sides with powder paint. We ran circles around each other inside the small room we were in. Everyone was armed with at least a handful of paint powder wrapped up in a pouch made of newspaper. Some girls ran around, happily shrieking and throwing the paint, while other girls stopped to gingerly, caringly rub paint on our cheeks, forehead and hair.

Our satchels of paint finally ran out after an hour. By then, the floor was covered with a generous layer of paint powder. We plopped down on it and the program director shared the background of the organization, and then our Access group asked questions directly to the girls about their everyday life. The girls’ responses reflected extremely well on the work of the organization, and it struck me that they are so happy, even though they have some of the toughest backgrounds.

The Holi fun continued on the streets after we left Social Change for Girls. Even the cows and goats roaming the streets fell victim to rogue paint throws, their fur splashed with colors. It truly was a day I’ll never forget.

Sarah Hiller


Dinner with Sadanand Dhunne
Saturday, March 6

It was fascinating to have dinner with Sadanand Dhunne, an Indian-American free- lancer journalist who among other things, wrote a book entitled "My Friend the Fanatic" where he explores the theme of radical Islam in Indonesia.
What particularly drew my attention was the fact that India does not have a "First Amendment" in spite of hundreds of newspapers circulating such vast country. The lack of this amendment may give carte blanche to filing frivolous litigations alleging defamation. Sadanand also told us that, within the legal arena, it is not unheard of lawsuits to take as long as 20 years to be decided.
In sum, our encounter with Sadanand gave me the possibility to compare the legal systems between India and the US concerning media laws, which as a lawyer, I found very interesting.

Gabriela Wainschtok
RED FORT (Delhi)
Sunday, March 7

One of the most memorable moments during my trip to India was the visit to the Red Fort which serves as an example of the unique Mughal art. The Red Fort was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1638. The construction took approximately 10 years. The fort served as the royal residence within the Emperor's new capital in the old city of Delhi or what it is known today as simply Delhi.
The fort has two principal gates and encompasses several palaces such as the Palace of Distinctions. The palace ceilings with their tiny pieces of encrusted mirrors hinted at the splendor it once had.

The fort also includes various buildings such as the Diwan I Khas or the House of Private Audience which was used by the Emperor for giving private audiences to the courtiers and state guests. The structure contains impressive marble piers with inlay work and painted designs.
Equally distinctive is the Khas Mahal or Private Palace which served as the Emperor's actual residence. This palace basically contains three parts: 1) the chamber of telling beads; 2) the wardrobe; and 3) the sleeping chamber. The Private Palace, with its beautiful carved marble is another example of the Mughal style.

Gabriela Wainschtok