Jerusalem to Delhi : Rabbi from Israel who feels at home in Paharganj
Akiva Soundry is the Rabbi at the Chabad House in Paharganj, where he is a friend, religious leader and a local guide for the visiting Israelis. He will be meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he travels to Mumbai on Wednesday.delhi Updated: Jan 15, 2018 19:11 IST
Sporting a black coat, black trousers, white shirt, a hat and a flowing black beard, Akiva Soundry is an eccentric foreigner for some, and a magician for some others. However, for the thousands of Israelis visiting Delhi, Akiva -— the Rabbi at Chabad House in Paharganj —is a friend, religious leader and a local guide.
“I always wear the dress whenever I go out, so that I am recognised as a Rabbi,” says Akiva. But, beyond the narrow streets of Paharganj, where he is now a familiar figure, it is a difficult pursuit in a city which has only 10 Jewish families, and where there is little awareness about Judaism.
However, that has not deterred Akiva from living a rabbinic life.
Akiva is pretty excited about the ‘growing friendship between India and Israel’. He will be meeting the visiting Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, along with other Rabbis from across India at Chabad House in Mumbai — the site of the 2008 terrorist attacks — on Wednesday.
“I am happy that our prime minister is paying a reciprocal visit after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel a few months back,” says Akiva. “India is a great country, where all religions have found acceptance. It has transformed me from an angry, impatient man into a calm, patient person.”
But his thoughts about India were different when, as a 23-year-old, he landed in Delhi in the middle of a cold, foggy January night in 2011. “It was frightening as the taxi cut through Delhi’s floating fog. All I could see were blinking red tail lights of vehicles,” says Akiva. “I thought I would not survive Delhi for more than a couple of weeks.”
But since that cold January night seven years ago, Delhi has grown on Akiva, a native of Jerusalem. “Slowly, I fell in love with the city and I stayed,” says Akiva.
Chabad House, a part of Jewish community network, is headquartered in Brooklyn in New York. There are about 5,000 such centres, including 20 in India, that advance the cause of orthodox Hasidic movement (a mystical Jewish movement founded in Poland in the 18th century in reaction to the rigid academicism of rabbinical Judaism).
As the Rabbi of the Chabad House, he and his wife host programmes, activities and religious services for the Israeli tourists and business travellers visiting capital. Two armed personnel—one each from Delhi Police and Rajasthan Armed Constabulary — guard the place throughout the day.
Akiva says that about 200 Israeli tourists visit the place every day in summers. “They come here not just to seek my guidance on religious matters but also on finding hotels, dealing with situations like lost passports, and for kosher food. For them it is a home away from home,” he says, sitting at a large table at the first-floor of the Chabad House located in a narrow lane in Paharganj.
Behind him is a wooden bookshelf with hundreds of books on Jewish philosophy and religion, and an almirah with the Torah. The pale yellow walls of the large first-floor hall has the pictures of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Chabad Rebbe, who is considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century.
“Many visiting Israelis spend a lot of time talking to me about Judaism. In fact, for a lot them it is the first opportunity to interact with a Rabbi. Many of them are too busy to have such long discussions on Judaism back home,” says Akiva, who, on Friday and Saturday, leads Shabbat prayers at Chabad House. “It is a place where we eat, sing, dance and offer prayers,” says the Rabbi.
While most visitors to the Chabad House are Israeli tourists who stay in Paharganj hotels, Akiva says, some of the Delhi Jews too come at times. A majority of Israeli Jews who live in Delhi are diplomats, but now a lot of young Israeli expatriates also work in multinational companies in Gurgaon, he says.
India has about 5,000 Jews, of which 4,000 live in Mumbai. “The government should provide them the minority status to help preserve Jewish culture, religion and their way of life in India,” Akiva says.
The first-floor of Chabad House is the place for prayers and community programmes. The second has kitchen which offers kosher food and the third floor is the Rabbi’s residence where he lives with his wife and three children. The Chabad House is supported by donations from visitors; besides, Akiva, too has to raise funds. Four young volunteers from Israel —two men and two women—also help the couple in running the affairs of the community house.
The most difficult aspect of Akiva’s life in the city, he says, has been food. “When I came here it was very difficult to find kosher food. But now our own kitchen offers it to the visiting Israelis,” says Akiva. In the kitchen with the seating arrangement, one can see backpackers enjoying a range of Israeli dishes, including Falafel and Bamba. But the family still gets its milk, cookies and sweets from Israel.
As we talk, a visitor from Israel arrives with a carton and as his wife, Chaya, opens it, his three children rushes to pick their favourite cookies and sweets.
Chaya, who was born and brought up in a village near Tel Aviv, came to Delhi in the summer of 2012, and found the heat, noise, crowds, the pollution, oppressive. “I wanted to go back immediately but my husband said I should try out the city for two weeks,” says Chaya
She did, and, like her husband, she too decided to stay back. One of their three children was born In India.
The couple’s eldest daughter, Shira, will be joining an online Jewish school since there are no Jewish schools in Delhi. “We are deeply religious people and want our children to go to a Jewish school only. Once she is in high school, she will have to go to Israel for studies,” says Chaya, who has picked a bit of Hindi.
“I have been told by countless people that Chaya is also a Hindi word and it means shadow in Hindi. But in Hebrew, it means life.”
Chaya, who last visited Israel three years ago, says while she likes Delhi, life in Paharganj — Delhi’s backpackers heaven — is not easy for her children. “There is hardly any place to walk or to play. In fact, once or twice a week, we travel to malls in south Delhi, not for shopping but to ensure our children can move around, and play a bit ” she says.
The family spends most of their time at the Chabad House, attending to the travellers. “I do not have local friends, so I spend a lot of time here meeting visitors,” says Chaya, who also gives lessons in Judaism to the Jewish visitors. Once in a year, in August, the family travels to New York where the couple has friends and relatives.
What is it about India that fascinates her most? “The fact that people are very simple, happy and content with whatever they have,” says Chaya.