The Jewish Community in India

Rabbi Leon A. Morris

ABOUT THE time that Hindus celebrate the birth of the god Ganesh with an elaborate procession of statues of the elephant-headed god to the sea, Jews dressed in white saris and kurta pajamas usher in the holiest period of their year. The chickens are slaughtered in accordance with the ancient prescribed manner, while curries are prepared for the special feast. As the sun sets on the Arabian Sea, Jews gather in their synagogues to mark the new year in their old land. Converging with the scents of sandalwood and jasmine, and the sounds of the sitar and horns of cars in the colorful land of contrasts which is India, are the eastern melodies of Jews at prayer.

I had served the Indian Jewish community for eight months, four years ago, as a volunteer educator and youth worker for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). It was the most meaningful experience of my life. Now, four years into my rabbinic training, at the invitation of members of the Jewish Religious Union, and with the sponsorship of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I returned to serve for one month as a student rabbi for Rodef Shalom, India’s only liberal synagogue.

What drew me back to India was the overwhelming sense of Jewish values that the community has upheld over thousands of years: hospitality, devotion to family, and the respect for learning. I was pulled as well by the powerful evidence of Clal Yisrael that continues to link me with them, across the miles which separate us.

The Jewish Religious Union-Congregation Rodef Shalom, was founded by Bene Israel Jews in the early part of this century. Today, it is one of over a dozen synagogues in Bombay, a city of 12 million people which includes about 4,500 Jews. The Bene Israel, India’s oldest and most populous Jewish community, settled south of Bombay in villages which line the Konkan coast about two thousand years ago. According to legend, they arrived in India in 165 B.C.E. from ancient Israel, after being shipwrecked near the village of Allibag. Seven men and seven women survived. Many of their books were destroyed in the shipwreck, and thus many traditions were lost. Nonetheless, the Bene Israel scrupulously observed the Sabbath, Kashrut and circumcision, even prior to their re-encounter with rabbinic Judaism in the 18th century with the arrival of Jews from Iraq.

Prior to the founding of the State of Israel, the Indian Jewish community numbered 40,000. Comprised of the Bene Israel, Iraqi Jews, and Jews from Cochin in South India, they maintained themselves without rabbis. While in recent years the JDC has been sending rabbis for one-year terms, at the time of my visit, there was no other rabbi in India.

I arrived in Bombay a few days prior to Rosh HaShanah. It was warm and raining, nearing the end of the monsoon season. The congregation’s president and vice-president met me at Bombay’s Sahar Airport, and as we moved through traffic at a snail’s pace, we spoke about the synagogue, the festival services, classes I would offer, and the various committee meetings to take place. Experiencing again the sounds, sights, and smells of Bombay, I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.

The congregation, which owns and maintains a large four-story building in the center of Bombay, rents space to the JDC as well as to several private families. During

the building suffered extensive fire damage, and the synagogue sanctuary, along with its Torah scrolls, was completely destroyed. Thus, this High Holy Day’s services, as last year’s, were held on the second floor in the offices of the JDC, with about 100 people present. On Yom Kippur the entire congregation was dressed in white. Women draped in beautiful saris, and men in white kurta pajamas intoned the melodious eastern Kol Nidre as the hardcased sifrei Torah were removed from the ark. Services combined the liturgy of the British Liberal Mahzor with traditional Bene Israel melodies. Lay readers helped to conduct the services, and congregants shared their own insights regarding the meaning of the holidays. The Torah scrolls were borrowed from neighborhood synagogues.

Though I helped with the prayers, my primary function during my month with the congregation was to teach. I delivered sermons, offered classes for adults and children, and planned holiday programs. Like rabbis elsewhere around the world, I met various committees of the synagogue, did a good deal of personal counseling and made several hospital visits. I worked with their committed lay leadership, under the direction of president Norman Elijah, planning for the congregation’s future.

As the community was extremely receptive to learning more about the services and their significance, I met with a group of congregants to compile a booklet of explanations, reflections and readings for future use. But the highlight of my work in India was training nine students for becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah. The children’s eagerness and enthusiasm, bined with the respect for learning that is so typical in India, made it an enormously pleasurable experience for me.

On Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, two girls and one boy celebrated becoming Bat and Bar Mitzvah. This is the only synagogue in India where women may be called to read from the Torah. In the presence of the congregation, as well as many Jewish, Hindu, Moslem and Parsi guests, these young adults read from the Torah, helped to lead the service and spoke about the relevance of Judaism in their own lives. A festive Shabbat kiddush in the synagogue’s palm-covered sukkah followed the service. I felt tremendous pride in their accomplishment, and began to set up a framework for ongoing education for the children in the congregation.

The Jewish Religious Union, founded with the desire to increase knowledge of Judaism in the Indian Jewish community, was eager for to me to devote much time to teaching. The type of teaching to which Indian Jews are accustomed tends to be highly formal and not at all interactive. In my adult education classes I provided students opportunities to interact with text, as well as with one another. The classes were well attended and members enjoyed the experience of wrestling with texts to which they had not been exposed.

There are many contrasts to be found in the outlook and experiences of Jews in America and India. Both communities have allowed the host culture to shape their understanding and practice of Judaism. My own Jewish understanding is now located somewhere between India and its Jewish life and the American Jewish experience which is mine. I know that the tension between these two cultures is the most significant and formative awareness I have taken away from my experience there.

America is built largely around the individual. Jews set out for her shores to create something new for themselves. Rugged individualism was their ethos. In judaism as well, then, the individual became the ultimate authority.

The Indian ethos is different. Devotion to family and caste is quite old. In India one is defined by what group he belongs to. Extended families live together, and at a very young age children become aware that they are part of a larger group. The explosive population and limited resources of the country do not allow for selfish individuality.

India is rooted in the old. Its way of life spans the generations and tradition has its role in what people wear, what they eat and where they live. India is grounded in the Hindu idea of the circuity of time, that things repeat themselves, that newness is but an illusion.

As an American Jew in India I have come to realize that each community has evolved aspects of Judaism to which I am drawn, prompting me to shape a rabbinate which strikes a balance between individual autonomy and the community’s needs, of being new and being rooted in tradition. Old words are relevant. They speak to us even as they spoke to generations past. But we must also be eager to add a layer of our own understanding to the texts we study. We must find new and innovative ways to teach old and timeless lessons to our children.

The Jews of India also continue to teach me about the inexplicable bond which comes with being part of CIaI Yisrael. Each day in prayer, as I turn eastward toward Jerusalem, my Jewish friends in India turn to the west. I become aware that we face each other, even as I direct my thoughts to the One who makes such bonds across the miles possible.

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