By Elizabeth Soumya
Life in Khalga, a quiet village in Himachal Pradesh’s Parvati Valley, is hard. Forget the tourist’s comforts of curio-shops, Internet cafes and electricity supply.
Hence, it’s surprising to stumble upon a rabbi’s family living among apple orchards and untamed vegetation.
A Star of David constructed with staves hangs outside a wooden home and Tehilla Fomberg, the rabbi’s wife, as she speaks to a few young Jews as they dig into chocolate cake and food spread out on a low table. Azamra, one of Tehilla’s daughters, sits on her mother’s lap and her sisters, Tagel and Maayan, play nearby.
Rabbi Naftali Fomberg’s family moved here from Jerusalem and stay here during the tourist season that spans from March to September or October. Many young Israelis travel to India, apart from South America and South-East Asia, he says.
Tehilla explains the activities at a typical Jewish house. “We have to have an open heart for all Jews who come here as we believe all Jews are brothers and sisters. We also have to have a cuppa tea and hot meals ready at all times. In the evening, we give free meals to Israelis. They sing songs, dance and many come here to share what’s on their mind. And the Shabbat — or the day of rest for the Jews — that starts on a Friday night and spans till Saturday after dark is special occasion. We don’t cook, or light fire and share big meals,” she says. And cooking meals is a big responsibility, adds Tehilla, as Jews are allowed specific foods and even the flour and rice has to be cleaned a particular manner.
Why should only Jewish houses or Chabad houses accommodate Israeli tourists? Naftali, a 23-year-old rabbi from Bat Ayan, a village south of Jerusalem, says: “It’s difficult to get through to them in Israel. They’re always busy and caught up in their lives. And they might feel obliged and even repelled by religion back home. Here, many young Jews are open to listening, they have a lot of time to share.”
Tehilla explains this with a parable. “A man dreams of a treasure under a bridge in Vienna and travels to the bridge only to find a policeman there. But the policeman tells him of a dream he had of a treasure in what he understands to be his own home. So returns to his house to find that he was sitting on the treasure all along,” she says.
Sometimes, you have to make a long journey to discover something that you already have back home. Some Jews have to travel to understand what they already have, she adds.
As a family, the problem the Fombergs have is the children don’t have playmates. “Khalga doesn’t have too many people. Since the vegetation is a little dense, we have to be careful not to let the children go anywhere unattended,” says Naftalie.
Ninety kilometres from Khalga, in Manali, 24-year-old Rabbi Jakob Shatz is brewing tea. The Chabad house has been in Manali for a decade now, but Jakob moved from the Chabad house in Kasol to Manali this season.
“The in-charge rabbi couldn’t come back from Israel this year, so I moved from Kasol, where I worked for two years,” he explains. “We are here to help people and serve them, that’s the only purpose. It doesn’t matter whether it is physical help or spiritual help,” he says.
A typical week for Jakob consists of making kosher food, talking to and counselling young Jews, teaching and praying thrice a day. On the Shabbat, the number of people who drop in can range from 80 to 150 in the peak of the tourist season. He agrees with Naftali that in Israel people are too busy to think about god. “There are very few religious Jews back home, they do have questions but not as much time as they have right now,” he points out.
Apart from counselling, Jakob says they are here to help Jews in every possible situation. He recounts trekking up five hours to Khirganga, where a young tourist had fallen ill. He then arranged for a helicopter. He also remembers searching for an Israeli girl who was lost in the woods.
For Naftali and Jakob, the work as spiritual guides is their service to God. “There’s no income that we receive; it’s all voluntary,” says Jakob. Naftali says they do get help with the food, but the work is completely voluntary.
There are about 15 Chabad houses in India — Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Hampi, Kochi, Palolim in Goa, Kodaikanal, Pushkar, Rishikesh, Kasol, Manali, Bagsu and Dharamkot (near Dharamshala), Khalga, Leh, and Arambol in Goa.
The door to the Chabad House in Manali is kept open and 20-something Jews keep streaming in