Kolkata synagogues a site of Jewish-Muslim harmony
Built in 1856, the Beth El synagogue on Pollock Street near overcrowded Burrabazar and the Magen David synagogue - built in 1884 on the adjacent Brabourne Road - have just been restored by the Jewish people.Updated: Dec 23, 2017 22:54 IST
Even as US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital continues to draw the ire of Muslims across the globe, in Kolkata, 58-year-old Rabbul Khan, a former mason, and 17-year-old Zeba Shamim, figure among many Muslims who have found their own definitions of happiness inside two of Asia’s oldest synagogues.
Built in 1856, the Beth El synagogue on Pollock Street near overcrowded Burrabazar and the Magen David synagogue - built in 1884 on the adjacent Brabourne Road - have just been restored by the Jewish people.
These structures, along with Nave Shalome, the city’s oldest synagogue, are where the 23 remaining members of Kolkata’s dwindling Jewish community assemble for prayer and learning. No matter how shocking it may sound in the Arab world, most of the people working at these synagogues are Muslims.
At Maghen David, Asia’s biggest Jewish prayer building featuring a 165-feet high steeple, Rabbul Khan represents the third generation of a family of ‘caretakers’ hailing from the adjoining state of Odisha. At Nave Shalome, 35-year-old Masood Hussain, also from Odisha, is the newest among the caretakers but never forgets to offer skull caps to visitors.
“Miyazan Khan, my grandfather, worked here all his life and my father Ibrahim Khan served for 50 years,” says Rabbul Khan as he keeps aside some glass candelabrums inside the prayer hall. “These were lit during special prayers held to mark the restoration. The place looks wonderful now. It’s a great feeling to be a part of this moment,” says Khan.
Don’t his friends and family object to his working at a synagogue? “Nobody ever uttered a word. We all live like family here,” comes a firm reply.
Muslims on the payroll of Jewish trusts that run the synagogues practise their own faith and share a warm relationship with the people of the neighbourhood in central Kolkata.
At the Jewish Girls’ School on Park Street, Class 11 students Zeba Shamim and Subhosmita Majumdar, a Bengali Hindu, feel proud to be part of a choir that sang ‘Shalom Aleicham’ (peace be upon you) at Beth El synagogue for the first time before members of the Jewish community who arrived from Israel and other parts of the world to witness the restoration. Israel’s ambassador to India, Daniel Carmon, figured among the guests.
Students from Elias Meyer Talmud Torah School, the Jewish boys’ school, also took part in the celebrations at Maghen David synagogue and ‘Oseh Shalom’, the Jewish prayer for brotherly peace, was performed solo by a Muslim boy, Suharnuddin Ahmed. He was trained by his teacher, S Nayak, a Hindu.
Though set up by Jews more than a century ago, none of the schools have a Jewish student today while a sizeable section of them are Muslims and Hindus.
“People belonging to all faiths took part in the celebrations. Co-existence is the message being sent across so that we can revive the Jewish community of Kolkata,” says David R Ashkenazy, president of Beth El and secretary of Maghen David synagogue.
“This was a great opportunity to experience something I had never done before. Given a chance, I will sing again,” says Zeba. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” adds Subhosmita.