A temporary structure in Pune that withstood the test of time
As of today, Succath Shelomo Synagogue is a Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) grade (II) heritage structureUpdated: Jun 03, 2019, 15:00 IST
The Succath Shelomo Synagogue is a mute witness to the changes that have taken place in what was once known as the Jews lane.
Nestled in a tiny lane of Rasta peth, almost forgotten in today’s day and age, stands the red building that completes 98 years on June 2, still sporting the slanting roof, with two thick wrought iron doors, simply sporting a Star of David.
The building was set up as a temporary prayer hall, after Ohel David synagogue, also called Lal Deval or Lal Deul synagogue, could not accommodate more Jews. A building fund committee was formed for a new synagogue, with members Shalom Bapuji Wargharkar, Aaron Solomon Bhonkar, Khan Saheb Reuben Samson Bhonkar and Solomon Rabamin Penkar surveying and looking for a place to build the new synagogue, meant to be a temporary structure that became known as Succath Shelomo Synagogue.
The construction of the structure was completed on June 2, 1921. As of today, Succath Shelomo Synagogue is a Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) grade (II) heritage structure. The structure was opened to public for heritage walks for the first time, on World Heritage Day that falls on April 18, this year.
“We are Bene Israelis, the Jews who migrated to India more than 2,700 years ago. In the olden times, Pune had a population of approximately 5,000 Jews. The number has dwindled to 300 now,” said Yosef Nowgaonkar, secretary and treasurer of Succath Shelomo Synagogue
“The Ohel David synagogue at Camp was built by the Baghdadi Jews. Baghdadi Jews, also known as Indo-Iraqi Jews, is the traditional name given to the former communities of Jewish migrants and their descendants from Baghdad and elsewhere in West Asia. They also built two additional prayer halls, however, it could not accommodate all the Jews during prayers and festivals. This led to a committee being formed, to find a new place and built a new synagogue,” added Nowgaonkar.
Nowgaonkar remembers there being four or five bakeries that would bake Chabat bread (Jodi pav without salt) for Shabbat or Friday prayers, which has now become a difficult task with hardly any bakeries left.
“Succath Shelomo Synagogue was built in the shortest period of four years. It was funded using donations in small amounts from Jews. The word Succath in Hebrew means a temporary structure. The synagogue was made using red bricks, stone and ‘chunna’ (limestone) instead of cement. At present, we are about 200 Jews in the city and some piously follow the religion,” said Nowgaonkar.
At the entrance, on the right side of the door jamb is the ‘Shadai’, which you are to touch and enter the prayer hall. One must always enter the synagogue from the right hand side. Once inside the hall, there is a central dias ‘Teblah’ where the priest performs the prayers and conducts weddings. The interiors are brightly lit with numerous windows on both sides of a rectangular form of the prayer hall.
“The women sit upstairs in the balcony during the prayers, and only senior women are allowed to pray downstairs,” said Noel Mapgaonkar, the ‘Hazzan’ or the priest of the synagogue. The synagogue is built facing the west, aligned with the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem.
The west of the prayer hall holds a massive red velvet curtain, ‘Hekhal’, behind which is the holy ‘Torah’ (Old Testament) placed. It contains prayers without vowels and is written in Hebrew.
Just ahead of the Hekhal, is a unique lamp called ‘Eliyahuhanabi’ which is lighted every Saturday and during functions. Besides it, hangs the ‘Tamid’, a lamp which burns 24 hours. The Ten Commandments are written in English and Hebrew on either side of the ‘Hekhal’.
Shashikant Pawar, manager, has been dutifully managing the prayer hall for years. “This synagogue was built on a corner plot on 991 square metres in Rasta peth by the building committee. It retains the old furniture and the old charm of the place when Jews used to reside in this lane.”
Nowgaonkar is making efforts to bring the Jews together for prayers and visiting the Synagogue. “Many of the Jews migrated to Israel while those here are not really religious. Very few people are coming to the synagogue to pray nowadays. I remember during my childhood, there would hardly be any place to sit inside the synagogue. We would not get a place to sit, hence my grandfather used to bring the family at least an hour before the prayers began at the synagogue,” said Nowgaonkar.
“We have done away with coupons that used to be given earlier for attending the prayers and have also got the community on social media to keep in touch for important days or festivals like Rosh- ha- shanna ( New Year in September), Kippur (day of Atonement), Succoth (rejoicing of Torah), Hannukah (festival of Light)”, adds Nowgaonkar.