Mention the words “Chabad House” in India and chances are that many Indians wouldn't know the way to one. Those who do, would probably connect the name to terror: the 26/11 terror attacks that saw Mumbai's Chabad House becoming one of the targets.
Welcome to Paharganj in the heart of Delhi. Here, everyone knows what the Chabad House is and someone will actually escort you to the three-storeyed building hidden in a maze of streets and bylanes. The Chabad House in Paharganj is the first semblance of a home away from home for hundreds of Israelis landing in India. Conservative estimates put the number of Israelis visiting Delhi's Chabad House at 50,000 per year.
The presence of a Delhi Police constable right at the entrance of Delhi's Chabad House is a signal enough: that from the security point of view, this is an important venue.
The scene on the first floor is baffling. With backpacks and luggage littered across the entire floor, a clutch of young Israelis hang out: —some relaxing on the floor, others downing a cold drink, yet others charging their phones and laptops.
Chaya Mushka, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, who's incharge of this Chabad House, is busy attending to droves of Israelis walking in and out of the building. She takes out time to explain what a Chabad House is and what it means for those visiting it. “Chabad House is an open Jewish House that is like an open home where every Jew can come and feel at home. Our mission in life is to love every Jew, irrespective of how they look or where they come from,” she says.
The Chabad House is probably the first point of contact with their own people for Israelis visiting India. It's a comfort zone that allows them some familiarity, before venturing out to explore exotic, bewildering India.
Ask any of these Israeli youngsters as to why they chose India and the answer is unsurprising. A long holiday in India has almost become a formal ritual, after the rigorous and compulsory military training that all Israeli youth undergo after completing their studies.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I will complete my military training and will then go to India for a vacation,” says a young backpacker heading out of Chabad House. Many others acknowledge that doing military training and heading to India afterwards are almost synonymous.
But it's not that only Israeli youth visit Iidia. Pensioners like Shaikey too, are among those who like to come. “I think India is a very interesting country, There is so much of variety here...the south has something to offer, the north has something completely different. The people here are very kind. They like to help and take good care of us,” he says.
The Israelis swarm Paharganj and the area around Chabad house - that shows just how comfortable they feel here. Here, there are shops with signs in Hebrew and what's more, many shopkeepers address them quite fluently in their own tongue. Expectedly, business is booming here.
“I've been dealing with them for 12 years. Yes, I speak a little bit of Hebrew. They come, they have heard about my shop. When they are here and I speak to them in Hebrew it creates a friendly environment and makes them feel comfortable and at home,” says Waseem, who runs a leather goods shop just meters away from Chabad House. He then goes on to have a conversation with a young Israeli customer in fluent Hebrew.
Rabbi Akiva, the man in charge of Delhi's Chabad House, has been here for six years now and is very upbeat about the ties Israel shares with india and why so many Israeli's come to India.
“I am happy about the Indian Prime Minister's visit to Israel. I am a Jew, and an Israeli. But i am living in India. And everything that makes India a better place makes me happy. I think it's a great thing. It'll help both countries. What can be wrong in this?” he says, adding that he plans to stay on in India for good.
The symbolism of Prime Minister Modi's meeting with 10-year-old Moshe is not lost on Rabbi Akiva. Moshe was but a baby when his parents were killed in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack and his Indian nanny, Sandra, fled with him in her arms.
“We won over the terrorists and Moshe who was just a toddler is now ten years old and will be growing up. As as it is being said, he's going to be a Rabbi in Mumbai,” says Rabbi Akiva.
The Rabbi adds that though Moshe's is a sad story, but the fact that PM Modi will be meeting him goes on to show that India is really interested in Israel—and not just because of technology and other things Israel has to offer. “As we can see, the Indian government helps us with security and the fact Prime Minister Modi is going to visit and meet Moshe shows that India and Israel are very much connected and both nations want to help each other,” the Rabbi says.