Alpine residents Susan and Dr. Deanne Penn have been on many federation missions and have visited countries throughout the world. But in February, the couple led 18 members of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey to a place they’d never been: India.
Describing the country as "colorful and exciting," Susan Penn told The Jewish Standard that the Indian Jews they met are "proud of their Jewish roots and lead openly Jewish lives." Among the photos they brought home are pictures of Indian communities bearing the name "Jew-Town" as well as one of a motorcycle adorned with a Star of David.
Dr. Deane and Susan Penn display photos taken on their recent trip to India. photo by jerry szubin
"It’s a positive thing to be a Jew," says Deane Penn.
While they were prepared for India’s famed overcrowding, "we were still surprised by the teeming masses of people," says Susan Penn, a vice president of UJA-NNJ and chair of the organization’s Jewish Community Relations Council. Her husband a UJA board member as well as co-chair of the Physicians and Dentists Division also went on the local federation’s mission to Argentina some years ago. (He is a gastroenterologist with an office in Teaneck.)
The heart of the India mission was "time spent with fellow Jews," say both Penns, but several days were spent exploring other aspects of the country. Group members met with the Israeli ambassador to India in Delhi.
A motorcycle in India, decorated with Jewish stars.
"He told us that Israelis enjoy coming to India, where they feel accepted by the population," said Deane Penn.
The New Jersey group also visited the Taj Mahal in Agra as well as Jaipur, the "Pink City." The Penns extended their stay so they could visit Varanasi, a burial site on the Ganges.
Prof. Joan Roland of Pace University accompanied the group as scholar-in-residence. In addition, the mission was assisted by the Joint Distribution Committee, which has been aiding the Jewish population in India since 1964, creating cultural and educational programs for youth and adults.
From left, mission participants Janet Adler, Fred Fish, and Susan Penn stand beneath a sign flagging a Jewish neighborhood.
The New Jersey contingent was based for several days in Mumbai, where they enjoyed home hospitality for a Shabbat dinner.
"Our host, Freddy Sopher, was a leader of the Jewish community," said Penn. "He’s always bringing people home for Shabbat dinner."
The group also traveled to Alibag, where members of the Bene Israel community have lived for hundreds of years, and spent a day visiting the 44 members of a Jewish community in Cochin where, according to legend, Jews have lived since the period of the destruction of the Second Temple.
Susan Penn was impressed "by the lack of anti-Semitism" in the nation as well as the cohesion of the remaining Jewish population. She points out that while India formerly boasted a population of 50,000 Jews, today it is down to about 5,000, because of assimilation and aliyah to Israel.
She said that especially in the city, "The Jews look just like us. We wear the same clothes and have the same concerns." In the outlying areas, however, Jewish women were more likely to wear traditional Indian attire.
She was "most moved," she said, by her visit to a Jewish old-age home in Mumbai, where the New Jersey visitors spent time with residents.
"There’s no social service safety net there," she pointed out. "The Jewish community finds them and supports them. Most of them were on their own."
She notes also that while city Jews appeared to have sufficient resources, the Jews of Cochin and Alibag were clearly living in poverty.
"They were thrilled to see other Jews and to see that we cared," said Deane Penn. "It’s important to make a trip like this because we’re all one family and have to take care of each other."
After watching Jewish children dance at the JCC in Mumbai, Susan Penn spoke with the children’s mother and concluded that "we have the same concerns about our children and their education. We could have been anywhere."