Young Tibetans in Dharamsala are taking a leaf out of the Jewish youth movement book in a seemingly unlikely cultural exchange
By Simon Rocker
Among the Buddhist prayer flags that flutter in the streets of Dharamsala, Marc Bergen’s eye was caught by a sign outside a building. A trainee solicitor from Leeds, he was travelling last summer before settling down to a City job and had arrived in the north Indian town which is the seat of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. The sign he had stumbled across advertised the offices of the “Tibetan-Jewish Youth Exchange”.
“I had heard about the exchange in passing, but I hadn’t known it would be here,” he recalled. “You don’t expect to find such a tie with Judaism in a place that is such a far cry from the Jewish community I grew up in.”
The exchange is the product of a relationship between one of the world’s oldest diasporas and one of the newest. Over the past few years, young Tibetans have come to Britain to attend Jewish youth camps, while their Jewish peers have gone out to volunteer in Dharamsala.
Known as Little Lhasa (after the Tibetan capital), Dharamsala is the spiritual and cultural centre for the 100,000 Tibetans around the world who have followed the Dalai Lama into exile since 1959, nine years after the Chinese takeover of their country. The Dalai Lama saw parallels in the Jewish experience, and when a group of American rabbis visited him in 1990 he invited them to share the “secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile”.
But the current youth programme owes its inspiration to a British volunteer, Kalela Lancaster, now living in Israel. Eight years ago, then aged 24, she was in Dharamsala working in the photo archives of a new museum documenting the Tibetan tragedy.
“I was moved by the Tibetan story, and by the passion of the community, especially the youth, for their cause,” she recalled. “I was aware, though, that there was concern in the community at the lack of constructive outlets for this passion, as well as worries about assimilation of the younger generation, especially those born in exile. These kinds of concerns were familiar to me, as a diaspora Jew.”
At the end of her stay, she took part in a march commemorating the 1959 Tibetan uprising that had precipitated the Dalai Lama’s escape to India. “During this march, the atmosphere and sense of community was very strong and it reminded me of Jewish youth movement camps,” she said.
“That was when I had the idea to organise an exchange in which Jewish youth movement leaders might share the skills and structures of the movements with Tibetan counterparts. I felt that the informal education techniques used in Jewish youth movements were a very powerful means of fostering a strong sense of identity and community among young people. I thought these techniques might be applicable to a community facing similar dilemmas to those faced by the Jewish diaspora.”
Peer-led youth movements have perhaps contributed as much to Jewish continuity in the UK as schools and Sunday morning classes. Many of their alumni have been inspired by Zionist ideals to emigrate to Israel, others have gone on to become leaders of British Jewry. Youth movements have also proved nurseries for creative talent, such as the Ali G and Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen.
In 2001 a group of young Tibetans launched Longsho, a youth movement modelled on the UK prototype, whose name means “arise” in Tibetan.
“Jewish people have had to struggle for their freedom for 2,000 years and still they haven’t lost their own identity, culture, religion, language,” said Karma Gyaltso, one of Longsho’s leaders. “Now we Tibetans are following their way of preserving their identity even if we are far from our home.”
The exchange has sponsored visits by Longsho members to the UK and reciprocal trips to India. It was important for it to be a two-way process, said Lancaster. “I felt that there were powerful educational possibilities in an encounter with young people who were living through the themes we learn about in relation to our history: being refugees, yearning for the ‘homeland’, struggling to preserve identity and faith. In addition, the Tibetan attitude to their plight – the emphasis on nonviolence and compassion – is important to learn from.”
One Jewish volunteer was Anna Groman, 27, from London, who spent three months in Dharamsala two years ago. She was particularly moved by the stories of young refugees. “All the young people I met were practically orphans – they had had no contact with their parents. They had trekked from Tibet on foot, through ice and snow, over the mountains. They had had to travel by night to prevent detection by the border guards.”
On her return, she has continued to provide practical support to the exile community. “There is a fantastic school which has a handicraft centre. I purchased many of the products made there so I could sell them here and send the money back to the youth movement. The youth are full of enthusiasm and dedicated to their culture and learning but they are in urgent need of funds.” Regular consignments of woollen shawls, silk scarves, wall-hangings and tableware arrive from northern India and are sold through her mother’s natural-healing centre, the Violet Hill Studios in St John’s Wood, northwest London.
After his discovery in Dharamsala, Marc Bergen, too, became an active supporter of the exchange. In fact, he had crossed into India last year from Chinese-administered Tibet, where he had witnessed the attempt to suppress national sentiment. “We were advised to cover our Lonely Planet guide with paper because you can’t go around with the word ‘Tibet’ on the front cover,” he said. “In three and a half weeks in Tibet, I didn’t know what the Tibetan flag looked like.”
The Tibetans, he said, are “incredibly kind and compassionate. They are in a similar predicament and want to learn from us. After 2,000 years, we got our homeland back.” Simon Rocker is a journalist with The Jewish Chronicle