“Are there even Jews in India?”
This question, asked many times over, was the first response from my friends and family when I told them of my plans to visit the ancient Jewish community in South Asia.
While it was a sign of just how little is known about the diversity and geographic expanse of our people, I am now thrilled to be able to answer their question: yes, not only does this community exist; it is vibrant, spirited, and waiting to be seen. Rather than an aging Jewish community, there are so many young people who have such strong Jewish identities and pride in Judaism.
My journey began in Mumbai, the most populous city in India and home to the majority of the country’s Jewish citizens. There we visited the city’s Jewish Community Center, the only institution of its kind in the country. While the room was set up for our presentation with Elijah Jacob – the representative of JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization active in the country, and a descendent of one of the lost Tribes of Israel that legend claims was moored off the coast of India centuries ago – it was clear that this space comes to life on a very regular basis.
Smiling faces of all ages lined the walls in pictures from recent community events and holiday celebrations, and Israeli flags and other decorations were still hung up from a recent Yom Ha’aztmaut celebration. The community members’ embrace of their unique Jewish identity, underscored in local rituals and foods, including a distinct Shabbat greeting where two people hold hands and then kiss their hands and bow to one another.
At the Bayiti Old Age Home, which provides housing, home care and medical assistance to elderly Indian Jews, I was amazed at how the residents lit up when we sang Jewish songs from their childhood together. We heard their stories of growing up in India, a country with no history of anti-Semitism, and how proud they are to be a part of such a strong community.
We even sang Happy Birthday and danced the hora around one of the residents who was turning 92! As we chatted with the residents, many of us felt as if we were visiting our own grandparents. While we had not met any of them before, it was clear that there was an instant connection that will never be forgotten.
The Mumbai Jewish community not only works to help themselves, but also others in need. Om Creations, the first organization of its kind in India, is an incredible initiative that works to provide employment and a life of dignity to young adults with different cognitive disabilities. A former JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow, with a background in baking, established a partnership with Om Creations, with JDC support, where residents bake challah to sell to members of the Jewish community. The proceeds help support their work.
From there, we then traveled to the coastal city of Cochin for a special Shabbat weekend along with 20 young Jewish adults from Mumbai. Before we began our formal program, we visited the Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Britian’s Commonwealth, built in 1598. There we heard from Elias Josephai, one of the last three Jews to reside in Cochin.
Elias spoke of his unwavering faith and commitment to continuing the Jewish community of Cochin. Later, we joined him in this effort, praying together for the afternoon or mincha service alongside our new friends. While we prayed slightly differently from our peers, we were able to pray together as one kehillah kedoshah, holy community.
We also had the opportunity to visit with Sarah Cohen, another one of the last three Cochini Jews. At age 96, she lives with dementia. Locally she is known for her famous embroidery shop in “Jew Town” section not too far from the Pardesi Synagogue, where she embroiders challah covers and other beautiful items. We wished her a Shabbat Shalom and together recited the words of Shema. Regardless of her health issues, she remembered every word of the prayer.
Throughout the weekend we took the opportunity to learn from India’s young Jewish adults. It brought me great joy to see how committed these young adults are in providing a meaningful Jewish space for the generations that will follow them. At one point we broke out into groups to discuss a variety of topics that affect the Jewish community and people their age, ranging from the appropriateness of pre-marital sex to the ethics of mandated circumcision.
It amazed me to see that while we all came from different Jewish backgrounds, we often managed to come to similar conclusions about many nuanced topics. I especially loved learning about how the community celebrates Shabbat each week, and even plan to adopt some Indian practices –like saying the prayers of “borei pri ha’adamah” over dates and “borei pri ha’etz”over bananas – into my weekly Shabbat routine.
Leaving India, I felt rejuvenated and inspired by the notion of kol Yisrael aravim ze la ze, that all Jews are responsible for one another. Having the privilege to visit various Jewish communities across the globe, in which I have built lasting connections, this Talmudic text has taken on a deeper meaning for me as a Jew and as a Jewish professional.
It has prepared me not only to be able to answer the quizzical looks of those wondering if Jewish life exists outside of the US and Israel, but to spread word about these Jews and our timeless values that cross borders, time, and space.
* * *
My ability to travel to India, Lithuania and Belarus, to visit their local Jewish communities was made possible through a special fellowship: the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion (HUC-JIR).
The two-year program offers rabbinical, cantorial, and Jewish education students significant expertise in Jewish needs around the world and in Israel through a combination of tailored coursework and hands-on field experience. The fellowship – founded by philanthropist and Jewish leader Jane Weitzman and her husband, shoe designer Stuart Weitzman – is a partnership between HUC-JIR and JDC.