Jews in Mumbai find new ways to keep religious traditions alive
Two weeks ago, Mumbai’s Jewish community inaugurated the restored Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in Kala Ghoda. The synagogue is among the two in the city built by Baghdadi Jews, a group that migrated to India between the 17th and 19th century to escape religious persecution in the Middle East. As their businesses prospered, some of them, like the Sassoon family, built synagogues, religious schools for their community’s use, and gifted public hospitals and libraries. Today, there are less than 80 Baghdadi Jews in India, with larger groups in Mumbai and Kolkata, the rest having migrated to the West, mostly to Israel.
As their numbers decline, the Baghdadis and Bene Israeli, the other major Jewish group living in the city, struggle to maintain their religious properties. Recently, the community wrote to Nagpur’s municipal commissioner after their graveyard in the Jerry Patka locality was occupied by bamboo traders. There are no more Jews left in Nagpur to care for the cemetery. Encroachers have also tried to occupy Jewish cemeteries in Alibaug and Revdanda in Raigad district.
In 2016, Maharashtra recognised Jews as a religious minority, but since the Indian census does not identify them as a distinct group, there is no data on their population. They have been enumerated as Christians by census workers who are ignorant of the existence of such a group in India. The Bene Israeli, with origins in the villages of Raigad, where they settled after fleeing the Middle East, are estimated to number around 3,500, forming more than 90% of India’s Jews.
Around 1,500 live in Thane, but in Raigad, where there were once 30 synagogues, now there are only 300 Jews. Ezra Moses, a member of the Thane community, said that only eight of the Raigad synagogues – in Pen, Revdanda, Alibaug, Nandgaon, among others – continue to hold religious services. The other shrines have been converted into public libraries and schools. “When there were no Jews to maintain these synagogues we handed them over to the local community for public use. Our only condition was that the new users retain the sanctity of the place,” said Moses.
In south Mumbai, the dwindling number of synagogues means the community finds it difficult to summon the minyan — a quorum of 10 male members required to conduct prayers. They depend on Jewish visitors from abroad to meet the quorum. “In Raigad, members have formed a ‘minyan group’ that takes turns to visit different synagogues on religious holidays to provide the quorum for prayers. “They visit one synagogue every Sabbath [Saturday] to ensure that religious services are not discontinued for lack of a minyan,” said Moses. Despite the decline in numbers – a few families leave India every year – there are now signs of community renewal. In 2010, Baghdadis repaired the 160-year-old Magen David Synagogue in Byculla. Ten years ago, the Thane community renovated and expanded their main shrine, the Shaar Hashamaim, or Gate of Heaven synagogue.
For a community that is dwindling, there has been a shortage of burial space. Recently, Thane’s municipal corporation agreed to give them 2,000 square metres of land for a new cemetery after the community lost a 500-year-old burial ground to a road project. “Getting the status of a religious minority is helping us to manage our religious properties,” said Moses.
Is India’s Jewish heritage destined to become a tourist attraction? Solomon Sopher, president of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Mumbai, said, “As far as the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is concerned, all religious services are conducted. We have visitors from Israel, Canada and other places who help us make a minyan during the weekly services. “We may be dwindling from India, but as far as we are concerned, we want to preserve the heritage that we have left behind. Visitors from abroad have said the synagogue (the Keneseth Eliyahoo) is one of the most beautiful they have seen.”