'Tragedy has brought us closer to Mumbai' | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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'Tragedy has brought us closer to Mumbai'

When a rabbi's family in Colaba's Nariman House became one of the victims in the 26/11 terror attacks, Mumbai's small Jewish community, living almost inconspicuously in the city for more than 2,000 years, was suddenly pushed into the limelight.

mumbai Updated: Nov 26, 2010 02:00 IST
Aarefa Johari

When a rabbi's family in Colaba's Nariman House became one of the victims in the 26/11 terror attacks, Mumbai's small Jewish community, living almost inconspicuously in the city for more than 2,000 years, was suddenly pushed into the limelight.

Two years after the attacks, many members of this community say the tragedy, ironically, sensitised the city's masses to their lives, culture, diversity and contributions.

The rabbis of the Chabad, or Nariman, House were Hassidic Jews from Israel. But two years after the attacks, it is the Mumbai Jews who have now been brought into the mainstream.

"Today, more people know who we are, ask questions about us and recognise our contributions to this city," said Solomon Sopher, chairman and managing trustee of the Jacob Sassoon Charitable Trust, a Baghdadi Jewish trust that looks after two synagogues and the health and education of the Jews in the city.

Sopher lists the David Sassoon library in Kala Ghoda, the Sassoon docks in Colaba and the Bank of India, also founded by the Sassoons, as examples of Jewish contribution to the city. "Our relationships with others have only strengthened since the attack," he said.

Although one of the smallest religious communities in India, with a strength of slightly more than 5,000 people, the Jews are not a monolithic group.

Among the three major Jewish sects of the country, the Cochin Jews live mainly in Kerala, while Mumbai is home to the Baghdadi and Bene Israeli Jews. Culturally, the two are very different — the Baghdadis traditionally speak Arabic while the latter are Marathi-speaking. But they have always had strong links with each other.

Moreover, Mumbai is one of the few places in the world where Jews are known to have lived in harmony with the Muslims.

Post 26/11, most Jews feel this friendship has been sealed even more firmly. "Our synagogue is in the middle of a Muslim area, but we have never faced any problems till today," said Hayeem Ezekiel, caretaker of Byculla's Magen David Synagogue, who fondly remembers a club in Nagpada, called the "Cawakhana" where Muslims and Jews would play cards before it closed down 35 years ago.

Beside the Byculla synagogue are two Jewish-run schools – the Jacob Sassoon and EEE Sassoon School – where more than 90% of the students are from Muslim families.

Despite the growing understanding, however, the city's Jewish community, like many others in the city, has developed a sense of insecurity that follows most incidents of terror.

The nine synagogues of Mumbai and Thane, for instance, were once open to people of all faiths and never required security. Today, armed police personnel seem to have become a permanent feature.

At Kala Ghoda's Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, the watchman and constable inspect passports of all visiting foreigners. The Byculla Synagogue is training a few members to be observant and take charge of doing rounds of the synagogues to look out for unknown objects.

"I never imagined there would be a threat to our lives because of being Jewish, and the impact is still with us," said Jonathan Solomon, chairman of the Indian Jewish Federation, an umbrella body that represents all Jewish institutions in India.