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Minority tag fails to change lives of Indian Jews in Pune

The Jewish community in the city believes that provisions which were to be revived under the minority status are still on paper and it is yet to be implemented in the state

pune Updated: Jun 24, 2017 22:58 IST
Ananya Barua
Ananya Barua
Hindustan Times, Pune
jews,indian jews,pune
The Succath Shelomo Synagogue is located in Rasta Peth in Pune.(Ravindra Joshi / HT )

Exactly a year ago on June 24, the Jews of Maharashtra embraced the minority status hoping to find wider recognition in the society with better opportunities. While the provision has successfully made its way to the official records, not much has changed in the lives of the people from the quaint community.

As per the census of 2011, there are 4,650 Indian Jews in India with Maharashtra still holding 53% of it with 2,466 Jews. In Pune, which houses two prominent synagogues (building where Jews meet for religious worship), the Ohel David Synagogue and the Succath Shelomo Synagogue, their numbers dwindle to less than 200.

Dr Irene Judah, who has recently released her book - Evolution of the Bene Israels and their Synagogues in the Konkan - expressed, “A minority status like this affects every section of the community from the most basic level, recognition of our religious holidays being one of them. The fact that we don’t even get optional leaves on the days of our religious festivals is not very pleasing. We have to attend them by using casual leaves, which we could have preserved and used in case of an urgency. This, especially, when other religions in the country are not devoid of that privilege is disheartening.”

She further adds how the thought of this provision in India, is not a new concept, and existed some decades ago, rather successfully. “It’s surprising now because in the olden days till the 60s almost, optional holidays on Jewish festivals were given. I don’t know why it all stopped,” Irene said.

While it has been a year since Maharashtra bestowed this status to the Jew community, West Bengal with only a Jewish population of 43, had presented the minority status to them almost a decade ago.

To explain the current situation as opposed to the past, Irene shared an instance from her childhood. “I was in a convent school in Mumbai and we had a few Jewish girls there as well. So my father would give the principal a list with the days of religious significance, and we were given holidays for them. Even if an exam clashed with those days, the sisters would make sure that we give the tests separately. In a room, all the Jew girls of different classes were made to sit and give their respective tests. That, unfortunately has completely stopped,” she said.

Dr George Judah, an Indian Air force pilot, erstwhile Director of Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, and Irene’s husband, added to the instance, “The thing is in those initial days, people were more aware and accepting. We are not cribbing here, it is a fact that India has been very welcoming to Jews, but we just want to know that if provisions like this were existing years back and were successful, then why did it all stop?

The provisions that were to be revived under the minority status are still on paper, as per Yosef Nowgaonkar, Secretary of Succath Shelomo Synagogue in Rasta Peth.“The rules have been laid down but it is yet to be enforced. The declaration had been given in the media and the community was very happy but it needs to reach out to the other departments that would implement it,” Yosef added.

The declaration last year was done on the 150th anniversary of Ohel David Synagogue, after which the government brought out a press release validating it. However, the progress has been nil so far, Yosef added.

“There is a certain gap in implementation, for instance my son took admission in B Com and while filling up the form in the religion box, Judaism is not an option. This is a small example, but it reflects the larger ignorance of the society towards Jews,” Yosef explained.

The discussion further revealed that the lack of awareness about Judaism further comes from the gap in proper education. “While school books would have chapters on Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and even Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism, Judaism is seldom mentioned,” Irene pointed out.

Siyona Jonah Rohekar, a state-level hockey champion, and the new generation of Jews, agreed, “It’s unfortunate how people don’t even know what a Jew is. Throughout school and college, I have always been asked this question. Some even think we are Christians, Zoroastrians or even Muslims. The only exposure they have had about Jews, is while reading about the Holocaust, but that’s all. Some don’t even believe that Indian Jews exist.”

In order to provide a solution to the situation, George reckoned, “Education can stem from anywhere, school, society, even religion but what needs to be understood is that true education should teach people to be sensitive to other people’s sensitivities. Once this is realized, in the larger context, for any religion at all, half of the battles will be won.”

First Published: Jun 24, 2017 22:57 IST