There are only 6,000 Jews in a country of over 1.2 billion people, but Judah Hyam Synagogue helps preserve the culture in India
As Narendra Modi becomes the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel, there is already a strong cultural relationship between the two countries, and something in Delhi itself that is at the very foundation of the community of Indian-origin Jews in Israel.
Barely four kilometres from the Prime Minister’s official residence in New Delhi, is the symbol of Jewish existence in India-- the Judah Hyam Synagogue. It is easy to miss the small building, which does not boast of elaborate architecture. What is intriguing about the synagogue, however, is a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel guarding the outside, while inside there are only ten Jewish families attempting to safeguard their dwindling community.
The blue cemented structure reflects the 2,000-year-old history of Jews in India, but it is now visited only by the 40 jews left in the city, Israeli diplomats and tourists. On the walls of the building there are names of the people who have donated funds to build it.
The synagogue is managed by Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, Rabbi and Honourary Secretary of the Jewish Welfare association. Malekar, who is also a lawyer, has made working for the synagogue his full time job. He recalls the 1961 census when the Jew population was a healthy 30,000.
“Today there are 6,000 Jews left in India. In Delhi there are only 10 families. It is a micro-minority but a very close-knit community,” he says.
Before the establishment of the Judah Hyam Synagogue on Humayun Road, Jews in the city used to organise community activities in their homes.
During the British-era, Delhi was home to many Jewish viceroys and officers who held prayer services at their residences. The community also hired a place in Bara Tuti Chowk and placed a Torah (religious scroll of the Jews) there to hold prayer meetings. It was in 1930 that the government of India allotted a land for the the synagogue, which was built in 1956. A library that acts as a community hall was also built.
Malekar says that India is one of the few countries where Jews haven’t faced Antisemitism. The only time Jews were victims to a major attack was during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when the Nariman House in Mumbai, a Chabad Lubavitch Jewish centre, was taken over by two terrorists and many residents were held hostage.
Given their numerically miniscule population, the Jewish community in Delhi has tried to blend in and adapt to the city’s culture in order to survive.
“Delhi mostly has the Bene Israel community of Jews. Over time all of us have blended with the city’s culture. Our culture, rituals and even cuisine have evolved with time in harmony with other religions and cultures.The decreasing numbers do not affect prayer meetings and community activities,” he says.
In order to keep the Jewish values alive among the younger generation, hebrew classes for children are held in the synagogue. The families celebrate all the Jewish festivals together. There is also an inter-faith study centre that gives information on the history of Jews in India.
The Synagogue has also tackled orthodoxy and adopted more liberal practices like inter-faith marriages and equal participation of women.
“There is fanaticism in every religion but we in Delhi have moved away from orthodoxy and have become open to inter-community marriages. I have performed around 50 inter-community marriages and I do not support conversion. In fact the Jewish community resembles a matriarchal set up because we allow children to be Jews even when the mothers are Jewish,” Malekar says.
The Delhi synagogue has also made the rules of worship more flexible. There is no separation of male and female worshippers. Unlike some other conservative synagogues, women are included while reading the Torah.
“In order to read the Torah and the Kaddish (hymn) we must have the quorum of 10 men, but I count women for the purpose of quorum. During Bat-Mitzvah (the coming of age ceremony for Jewish girls), when a girl is being ordained, other synagogues do not allow girls to wear the religious shawl and read the Torah but the synagogue in Delhi encourages girls to read portions from the religious text,” Malekar Says.
Jews from Delhi and other parts of the country started moving back to Israel after the formation of the modern Jewish state. Today there are around 130,000 Jews of Indian-origin in Israel. But the ones who have stayed back relate more to the Indian culture.
Malekar says like him many other Jews in Delhi cannot tolerate the idea of settling in Israel.
“Israel is in my heart, but India is in my blood,” he says. “Even if there is one Jew left in India, the light of Judaism should be kept burning.”
Ahead of the historic visit by any Indian prime minister to Israel. WION's Jessica Taneja spoke to head priest of New Delhi's Synagogue (WION)