Along India’s “hummus trail” (“shvil chumus”), as Israeli backpackers refer to it, travelers tend to swerve off for an extended pit-stop in the northern town of Dharamshala. Local restaurants offer dishes such as jachnun, shakshuka and hummus, which can be ordered off Hebrew menus and relayed to local waiters familiar with the language of their many Israeli customers.
For many of these travelers, the food and the company might be familiar, but one thing they can find in the village that they might not be able to get at home is a relatable connection to Judaism.
At least, that’s how the founders of Beit BINA, a secular Israeli-run Jewish community center in Dharamshala, see it.
The center offers weekly Shabbat dinners, learning and volunteer opportunities and a place to celebrate the Jewish holidays. This year, there were 130 guests at the Passover seder with registration filling up within hours of going live.
The facility is a project of BINA, a secular yeshiva in Israel which provides high school, pre-army and later development Jewish educational opportunities.
A couple years ago the organization saw a need to better engage with the “post-army” crowd and realized that best place to engage with the demographic wasn’t in Israel, but on backpacking trips around the world. Extended trips are common for many young Israelis who have completed their mandatory national service and have yet to begin their studies.
According to Nir Braudo, head of the Secular Yeshiva Network and BINA deputy director, if you’re going to engage with the 20-something crowd, you’ve got to go to them.
“We discovered that Israelis, mostly young and secular, are traveling through India every year. Not only are they there, but many of them are there for a long time,” he said. “They are open-minded and they are looking for their identity and so on, so it’s a great time for us to meet them.”
A unique community structure exists for Israelis traveling abroad — WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages connect Hebrew speakers in countries the world over. In India, there are hostels and community centers that help Israelis plan hikes and connect with one another, and Chabad is a popular destination for a traveler in need of a Shabbat dinner or kosher meal.
Mor Shimoni, a community development leader with BINA who helped start the India branch, said that engaging with Israelis during this exploratory phase of their lives provides unique engagement opportunities.
“Most of the travelers are not familiar with Judaism at all. They would call themselves chiloni, secular — the one word for Israelis to say they’re not religious,” said Shimoni. “BINA is asking, ‘Okay, so what are you? What does that mean to be secular in a positive way?’”
Okay, so what are you? What does that mean to be secular in a positive way?
Before the organization settled into its current digs — a warm wooden house full of sofas, rugs and throw pillows — Shimoni started from scratch in Hampi, an ancient village in India’s south. No one yet was familiar with BINA, but as Shimoni began to gather Israelis for casual Jewish programming, BINA’s reputation spread among travelers.
“We started to do kabbalat Shabbat [musical Friday night services] next to a rice field somewhere in the village,” said Shimoni, who now works as BINA’s alumni coordinator in Israel. “We just started to do it week by week and had a small cabin where we did small activities — a writing workshop, weekly Torah portion class, green day — we have a connection with a local NGO around recycling and worked with them.”
In March 2016 Shimoni opened the house along with Roni Gur, co-founder of Beit BINA India.
The house and its activities are funded by an Israeli donor, and travelers are encouraged to donate while visiting as well.
Beit BINA is currently run by Israeli couple Shay and Sigal Levy, who open up the house during peak traveler season. The couple arrived for their second season right before Passover in late March, and plan to stay through Sukkot, which this year falls out in late September.
Speaking with The Times of Israel, Shay Levy said that he and his wife originally discovered BINA when their daughters participated in the organization’s pre-army program years ago.
Levy said he finds great meaning in helping young Israelis connect with secular Judaism in a positive way.
“For many secular people, Shabbat or holidays are something they try to avoid since Jewish Orthodox practices are sometimes frightening. [Secular Israelis] are pushed away from Judaism because they see it in practice only through Orthodoxy in Israel — that to practice Judaism you need to wear a yarmulka and do it all,” Levy said.
According to Braudo, there is a unique opportunity to engage with Israelis in a secular way outside of Israel.
“If you were doing a secular-style community seder in Israel, it wouldn’t work because people are doing it with their families and they are a part of the education system, or in the army. But [in India], they are open-minded,” Braudo said.
“Every community should educate itself,” he said, noting that secular Jews make up the largest demographic in Israel at 44% of Israel’s Jewish population.
Israeli Tom Landau, who is currently traveling through India, spent some time a few weeks ago at Beit BINA.
“The meal was great. [But it wasn’t] just the food, [it was] mostly the atmosphere. About 50 people arrived despite there being a storm outside, and there was a wonderful secular kabbalat Shabbat. It’s not my first time in India, but for the first time I felt that as a secular person, I have a community that suits me,” he told The Times of Israel via WhatsApp.
“This morning, I joined the BINA emissaries and the local Waste Warriors organization for a day of cleaning one of the nature trails in the area. This created great interest among Indian locals and tourists and made a difference beyond just [cleaning the trail],” Landau said.
Through social justice awareness and programming that could easily be incorporated into the travelers’ lifestyle, Beit BINA plays a unique role, in some ways a secular parallel to that of the local Chabad.
For Levy, who met with the Chabad emissaries only hours before speaking with The Times of Israel, Chabad and Beit BINA in India each have a distinct mission.
“[Chabad has] their part — an important part in answering a real need for religious people [by providing] kosher food, and a place to pray and practice their religion. I think that we are practicing or giving the same kind of solution to secular people who want to feel at home during the holidays and Saturdays,” Levy said.
The relationship between Chabad and Beit BINA in India, he said, “is a very good example of bridging and creating ways of discussion, open discussion between the secular and religious.”
Shimoni hopes that Israelis who engage with Beit BINA in India will infuse the experience into their lives once they get back to Israel.
“Israelis are going to take home the Jewish experience that [Beit BINA] brings them here,” said Shimoni.
“It’s very important to us that [young Israelis] are looking around during their constant traveling to find awareness, orientation to social justice — we really hope that they will take this with them through their young adult life after returning to Israel,” she said.