Perspectives on Leadership – KOL INDIA June 2015.
By Kimberly Duenas Modern Jewish Personalities
“Whatever I do, is an extension of my passion and involvement in everything Jewish and connected with our rich past history.”
Being a leader or leadership doesn’t always mean that actions are achieved by people in high positions, but rather taking part in the community and being passionate about change is leadership, and even more than that, it is a Mitzvah (a commandment and a good deed). It is with great pleasure that I present this interview with an Indian author and artist from Gujarat, Esther David, to shed some light on how embodying her Jewish culture and her desire to preserve her heritage has inspired change and cooperation in her community in Ahmedabad.
Q – What would you define as your responsibility as a leader?
A – First of all, let me clarify, I was never a leader and am not a leader of the Bene Israel community of Ahmedabad. Nor, have I been an office bearer in the Synagogue. Whatever I do, is a form of mitzvah. Because, as my father famed zooman, believed in theories of Darvin and nature, so; as a child, I did not receive religious education. Whatever I know is what I learnt from my grandmother, Jewish friends from America, France, Israel and later from our Hazan at the Synagogue. Added, to this, I read as much as possible about Jewish life and history, which also included literature by western Jewish authors and watching films on Jewish themes also helped.
In 1996, when I started working on my novels based on the Jewish experience in India, I frequently went to the Synagogue in Ahmedabad and realized that I had a lot of shortcomings while following rituals, so I involved myself in the community with my strong points, like preservation of of our artistic heritage, documentation of Jewish life and using my influence with state and city level civic authorities. I also created a visibility through the media, like helping solve some problem or another, which arose around the Synagoue or a Jewish cemetery; once in a while. For example, trying to get the Magen Abhraham Synagogue listed in Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation’s Heritage Cell and get the necessary security and protection for our place of worship.
Before this, I had been able to mobilize the State Government, civic authorities, Consulate of Israel in Mumbai, Embassy of Israel in New Delhi and the international press, to help change the name of a clothes boutique; known as Hitler in Ahmedabad.
While in 2006, I opposed the illegal sale of a piece of land at a Jewish cemetery in Vadodara with the support of The Times of India, Nikitin Contractor of Friends of Israel, emiinnent citizens and civic authorities of Vadodara. This cemetery has been renovated by Friends of Israel and looked after by them and the Magen Abhraham Synagogue of Ahmedabad.
In quite another way, the Jewish women were inspired to make a small Womens Group, which is slowly becoming active with the efforts of Serena Jacob, the vice-president of the Synagogue. So, when Anil Gupta, founder of IIM’s (Indian Institute of Management) Satvik Food Fair, spoke to me about starting a stall of Jewish food, it was well received by Julie Pingle and she decided to participate with the support of other women of the community. For three consequent years, she has been popularizing Jewish food, like Kippur-chi-Poorie, black currant sherbet and Indian style Felafel. All this, together, has caught world attention.
Q – What is your leadership style?
A – I am always myself, often rather underplayed to make everybody feel comfortable with me, as I am fully aware of my ignorance in many matters, so I listen to all views and problems as discussed by the community and the executive committe of the Synagogue. I motivate them to lead and then follow them, intervening when necessary. I make notes and after that, I make a plan to solve the problem, sometimes with the community, often on my own, as at some meetings, I meet some authorities and have to take quick action on my own. Whenever, I take these decisions, on that very day, I inform the executive committee of the Synagogue. I follow-up the action-plan by writing letters to concerned authorities, while keeping in mind my own limitations and those of my community, which includes their safety and respecting their opinions in one matter or the other. I make sure that there are no misunderstandings or dangers. Once, we are successful, I move out of the limelight and like to give credit to the entire community.
Although, it is true that my public image is different from the one at the Synagogue…
Q – What challenges do you face as a leader?
A – None, as I do not consider myself to be a leader. I am just doing my act of mitzvah for a community, which means a lot to me….
But, sometimes, when I take an action without the approval of the executive committee, I am careful that there are no misunderstandings and the community gets full credit for the result or success.
Q – For you, where do literature, art and leadership meet?
A – For me, everything starts with preservaing heritage, artifacts, old recipes, sacred textiles, kitchenware and utensils used for rituals, almost everything, which is part of preserving the Bene Israel heritage. This does not mean, I do not like change, as it is a normal process in modern India, as Jews are intermingling with the diaspora of Jews and each person has a part of their family living in Israel or other foreign countires. So, I try to preserve family heirlooms, utensils, ritualistic objects, old photographs, documents and family narratives, which give me a sense of history, art and literature. Whatever I do, is an extension of my passion and involvement in everything Jewish and connected with our rich past history.
Q – Please share your perspective on the Jewish community. Where is the community now, where is it going, and what do you believe needs to be done in the community?
A – I admire, the way my community has preserved the Bene Israel Jewish style of living in terms of religion, including it in their daily life, yet following their chosen professions with dedication, for example in the field of education.
Q – Please share your thoughts on being an Indian Jewish woman and a leader.
A – I am known in Ahmedabad for my work, as I raise issues in the city as – Esther David. For me, being a woman is secondary. But, in the Bene Israel Jewish community, I am one of them. Maybe, a little ignorant, but always present to help, when needed…
Although, being a Jewish woman gave another dimension to my life, when I received the national award for English literature from the Sahitya Akademi for my novel Book of Rachel and my community members held a function at the Synagogue to celebrate it.
Q – What impact have you created in the community? Towards women empowerment?
A – As Jewish women belong to a matriarchal society, the women of the Bene Israel Jewish community of Ahmedabad have always been empowered decision makers in family and community. And, now that most of them have chosen to be teachers in schools, they are developing a distinct independent identity of their own. The community acknowledges my success in various fields, along with the visibility of the Bene Israel Jewish community through my novels, articles, papers, documentation through a photo-project, which became possible with a grant received from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, and that means a lot to me.
During the celebration of 20 years of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, I was invited to Israel; it was a high point for me and my community.
Q – What advise do you have for future generations about thinking outside of the box and creatively?
A – Bene Israel Jewish women are brought up in the protective circle of family-community, which they need to protect and preserve the Jewish heritage at both levels of their lives.
Besides that, there are no strict do’s and dont’s about their choices, as a large number of young women are now interested in creative fields, like painting, advertising, interior design and architecture.
Q – What efforts do you think need to be made to empower Indian Jewish women to play larger roles in the community and in India at large?
It is interesting to note that Indian Jewish women are empowered in their own way and the life they have chosen for themselves enables them to preserve the Jewish heritage in their homes.
A – A strong belief in themselves and the strength to preserve the Jewish heritage in their homes. As they know, women can keep both family-community together, which is based on some unspoken emotions of faith, belief, duty and dedication.