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A Rabbi’s struggle to keep Judaism alive in the capital

It's 6.15 pm. As you enter the well-lit synagogue at Humayun Road, you meet Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, arranging prayer books, skull caps, and religious shawls. He is preparing to close the synagogue. There are about 5,000 Jews in the country today and only 40 in Delhi.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2014 15:22 IST
Manoj Sharma

It's 6.15 pm. As you enter the well-lit synagogue at Humayun Road, you meet Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, arranging prayer books, skull caps, and religious shawls.

He is preparing to close the synagogue. The visiting hours end at 6.30 pm. Malekar, the un-ordained Rabbi of the small Judah Hyam Synagogue, has been trying to keep Judaism alive in the Capital for the past 35 years in his own innovative way. And it is quite a difficult task.

There are about 5,000 Jews in the country today and only 40 in Delhi. He has had to bend ancient customs and religious conventions -- unlike most synagogues, there is no separation of men and women during prayers here. At least 10 men are required to read the Torah, but Malekar also includes women to complete the Minyan (count).

"We are a microscopic minority and cannot afford to be so rigid and orthodox," says Malekar, taking off his off-white shawl and red skull cap. "Unfortunately, we do not even enjoy the status of a minority community in the country."

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Ezekiel Isaac Malekar at Judah Hyam Synagogue in New Delhi on Wednesday. (Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

Unlike in the case of Parsis, there is no effort on the government’s part to contain their declining number across the country. Jews became a part of the New Delhi's social fabric when it became India’s Capital. They came to the new Capital from different parts of the country to work with the central government --especially in the railways and defence. A few German and Polish Jews, who escaped the Holocaust, also settled in the city. A Jewish Welfare Association was formed in 1949; it built the Synagogue in 1956.

Ever since, the Judah Hyam Synagogue has been at the centre of Jewish life in the capital. The city's Jewish families come together here during the Friday Shabat service. During High Holidays, the synagogue is a bustling place, thanks to Israeli diplomats and other Jewish expatriates in the city. Besides, about 10,000 international travellers visit it every year.

But it’s not easy being a 40-member community in a city of 25 million. In 2012, the city saw its first Jewish wedding in over five decades when Malekar's daughter Shulamith married Sharon Pinhas Bhalkar from Mumbai -- -a memorable event for the miniscule Jewish community in Delhi.

"There had been Jewish marriages but they were inter-community ones,” says Malekar, who regularly speaks at inter-faith conventions across the country. "It is very difficult to find matches within the community in Delhi; Jewish families look for matches for their children in Mumbai (the city has 4000 Jews), Cochin and even in Israel, or go for inter-community marriages."

Like a lot of Jews in Delhi and elsewhere, Malekar’s parents and brothers migrated to Israel but he chose to stay back. "Israel is in my heart, but India is in my blood. I am Indian first and a Jew second. I would like to be counted as the last Jew in India," said Malekar, who lives in a small house in the synagogue complex. "But as of now, my only concern is to keep the fire of Zudaism burning in the country's capital," he says.