Community in India - World Jewish Congress

India

According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2016,” India was home to between 5,000 and 7,000 Jews as of 1996. With deep historic ties to the country, Indian Jews have maintained their religion and heritage while also blending into the local culture throughout India. They part of an ethnically, religiously, linguistically, and culturally diverse nation and have enjoyed little instances of anti-Semitism from non-Jewish Indians. Indian Jews are active in all aspects of Indian society, including being prominent in Bollywood and occupying high offices of state. The Jewish community in India is represented by the Council of Indian Jewry – the Indian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

Council of Indian Jewry

Telephone: 91 22 27 16 28
Fax: 91 22 274 129

Vice President: Mr. Judah Samuel


Community News


History

India is home to three historically distinct Jewish communities: the Bene Israel, the Cochin Jews, and the Baghdadi Jews. It is thought that the first Jews in India were members of the biblical “Lost Tribes of Israel,” having settled on the Malabar coast after the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel some 2,800 years ago in the ninth century B.C.E. This includes the Bene Israel (“Sons of Israel”), the Cochin Jews, and the Bene Menashe.

Cochin Jews settled in Southern India around modern-day Kochi and quickly earned the favor of local rulers, receiving copper plates that indicated the assumption important positions under the local leaders. They were allowed to practice Jewish life freely and openly and were quite successful in maintain Jewish religious practices while also assimilating into the local culture. In 1524, a number of Jews from Kondungallur fled to Cochin after the Moors, who were backed by the local Indian ruler, attacked the Jews in Kondungallur in order to “free” the pepper trade from their interference. They were granted protection by the Hindu Raja in Cochin and were free to establish what would become “Jew Town” (which is still its name today).

The Bene Israel settled mainly in modern-day Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Karachi (now Pakistan) shortly after the arrival of Cochin Jews in the south (around 2,500 years ago). They too kept their faith while also assimilating to the local culture, eventually speaking the native Marathi language and adopting local customs. They faced no anti-Semitism and often intermarried with the local non-Jewish Martha people. Over time, they began to resemble the Martha people and also practiced their customs, still maintaining their Jewish heritage, albeit in a much more assimilated manner than their southern counterparts.

Around this time, the Pardesi Jews arrived in India from Western Europe, having been expelled from Iberia. They spoke the Sephardic Ladino language and were somewhat successful in commerce and industry due to their connections to European markets. However, the Portuguese occupied the region shortly after their arrival and these new Jewish immigrants, along with the already established Jewish communities, found themselves under hostile rule. The Portuguese began persecuting the local Jewish population and did so until the Dutch replaced them as the imperial power in the region in 1660. The Dutch were tolerant and the Jews prospered under them. In the latter half of the century and into the eighteenth century, an influx of Jewish immigration from the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain saw the Jewish community in Cochin continue to grow and thrive. Jewish immigrants from the middle-east were particularly successful in India, with many prominent families using their connections to establish a vast array of trading networks.

In then-Bombay, the Bene Israel experienced a revival in Jewish life. Urbanization and opportunities for jobs in the city, saw many Bene Israelis move from the countryside to the city. Largely assimilated to the local culture, they practiced a rather localized form of Judaism that really only had a few recognizable traces of traditional Jewish practice. Teachers from Baghdad and Cochin arrived in Bombay and taught the Bene Israel mainstream Judaism, which allowed them to be able to read the Torah and reestablish their Jewish identity. As a result, the first synagogue in then-Bombay, “Shaar Rahamim” was established in 1796. Moreover, the imperial leadership of the city (now in the hands of the British Raj) allowed Jews to practice their religion freely.

The 19th century saw Baghdadi Jews arrive in India, fleeing religious persecution in Iraq and other Muslim lands northwest of India – including Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. Jewish tradesmen from Baghdad had a long history of traveling to India and found success in their home. This included the influential Sassoon family, who arrived in then-Bombay in 1832. David Sassoon, the patron of the family, was particularly well-connected in India and became a leader of the Baghdadi Jewish community in the city.

Under British imperial rule, Indian Jews prospered enormously, achieving heights in population and wealth. In Calcutta, many Baghdadi Jewish traders found themselves extremely prosperous, as they were well connected to cities and countries throughout the world due to Britain’s presence in the territory. In fact, many of the wealthier Baghdadi Jews assimilated into British culture and began speaking mainly English. The Bene Israelis and Cochin Jews were also quite successful, as they were prominent in the new bureaucracy developed under the imperialist English and held high-ranking positions in the Armed Forces and in government. Moreover, the general non-Jewish Indian population continued to be tolerant of their Jewish counterparts, and there was very little to no manifestations of anti-Semitism.

In the 20thh century a number of Indian Jews served in prominent roles in the government as well as private Indian social and economic enterprises. Dr. E. Moses, a Bene Israeli, served as the mayor of Bombay in 1937, and David Jacob Cohen served on the Bengal Legislative Council in Calcutta (the highest political office obtained by a Calcutta Jew) in 1923 and 1926. Abraham Barak Salem was a notable Indian nationalist who served in the Legislative Council in Cochin from 1925 to 1931 and 1939 to 1945 and was a part of the Lahore Session of the Indian National Congress that passed the “Purna Swaraj” that called for complete independence. 

India achieved its independence in 1947 in the aftermath of World War II. The rise of Indian nationalism that accompanied sovereignty made some Indian Jews uncomfortable as they identified more as British rather than Indian. This, coupled with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, saw many Jews leave India. In this regard, the majority of Jews who emigrated from India in the 1940s made this decision based on the influence of Zionism and a love for Israel, rather than a disdain for India. Despite such heavy Jewish emigration, Jews continued to play an active role in Indian life throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.
In the 1970s, the Bene Menashe and Bene Ephraim tribes, small tribes that had practiced Judaism until forcibly converted by Christian missionaries in the 19th century, began to respectively practice Judaism again. Lt. Gen. J.F.R Jacob served as the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command (the highest ranking military role for Indian Jews) and was famous for his role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and negotiating the surrender of more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers in Dhaka. His actions were instrumental in the creation of an independent Bangladeshi state and he later served as the Governor of Punjab and Goa from 1999 to 2003.

In more recent times, the Bene Israeli community’s claim of being descendants of the Kohanim, the ancient Israeli priests who claim descent from Aaron, was confirmed by a DNA test in 2002. In 2008, the Chabad House in Mumbai was a target during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife Rivka, and a number of Israeli and American nationals were murdered by Pakistani terrorists at the Chabad. Despite this tragic occurrence, Indian Jewry continues to exist peacefully within the diversity of India. In 2016, the Maharashtra state, in a largely ceremonial gesture, granted Jews minority status, making it easier to register marriages and acquire funding for the community’s institutions and activities.

The years of the Holocaust

With the outbreak of World War II, the British Raj assumed complete control of India, usurping the autonomy given to the princely states and using the country’s resources and people for the war effort. Despite being associated with the Allies, some leaders of the radical revolutionary Indian independence movement attempted to break off from the British Raj and side with the Axis powers. This included Subhas Chandra Bose, President of the Indian National Congress from 1938 to 1939, who blocked a 1938 resolution that would have allowed European Jewish refugees able to “contribute to India’s progress” to obtain British transit visas.

As the war progressed, all Germans in India were considered enemies of the state and interned by the British. This included a cruel twist of fate in which German Jewish refugees were interned with German Nazis until British authorities could determine who was a refugee and who was a Nazi spy. A second wave of internment commenced with further attacks by Hitler in Europe. During this time, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had championed the resolution to allow Jewish refugees into India and would later become the country’s first prime minister after independence, worked to obtain visas for Jewish refugees on a humanitarian basis.     
India also had Kindertransports, notably the Teheran Children, who were a group of about 1,000 Polish Jewish children, mainly orphans, who were permitted to travel from the Soviet Union to Teheran (then under British and Soviet occupation) and then to Karachi (then India) in 1943. From there, they eventually made to the middle east and eventually a refugee camp in the British Mandate of Palestine.

Additionally, Baghdadi Jews in Burma, who became endangered by the Japanese invasion of its eastern neighbors, found refuge in Calcutta, where their Indian counterparts offered them shelter and employment. In all, about 5,000 Jews found refuge in India during the years of the Holocaust.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that India was home to between 4,900 and 7,000 Jews as of 1996. The majority of Indian Jews live in Mumbai and its surrounding areas, including Thane. There are also small communities throughout the country, including Calcutta, Kochi, New Delhi, Bangalore, and Kochi.

Community Life

Jewish life in India is centered around the Council of Indian Jewry which operates out of Mumbai and works to ensure that the scattered Jewish communities throughout the country are organized and have representation. In that regard, the Council of Indian Jewry is affiliated with the EAJC and WJC, on a regional and global scale of communal representation. There a number of Jewish organizations that operate in India, including the Zionist Association, B’nai B’rith, a Jewish Club in Mumbai, Bikur Cholim, WIZO, and Hadassah.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is very active in India, running a community center in Mumbai, providing humanitarian and welfare aid to impoverished Indian Jews, and helping teach and facilitate Jewish life in India. ORT (Organization for Educational Resources and Technological Training) also provides the Indian Jewish community with a foundation for Jewish life, but also helps impoverished Jews in India learn valuable skills. 

Religious and Cultural life

Jewish religious life in India mainly follows the Orthodox tradition and Sephardic rites, and overall, the different Jewish communities in India practice mainstream Judaism infused with local traditions and rites. This is particularly the case for the Bene Israel, who have never had their own rabbi. India’s synagogues have dwindled in the last few decades, and as a result, many communities, like the Bene Israel, do not have a rabbi and rely on visiting rabbis to help facilitate the practice of Jewish religious life.

Despite the general decline in the number of synagogues in India, there are still places of worship for almost all of India’s Jewish population. The majority of synagogues are situated in Mumbai, where Jewish religious life is largely concentrated, but the religious needs of the various Indian Jewish communities are met. There is the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue and mikveh in Thane, a synagogue in Thrissur, the Ohel David synagogue in Pune, a number of synagogues in Kerala, and the Pardesi synagogue in Kochi. In 1992, the Bene Ephraim opened their first synagogue in Kottareddipalem. Chabad Lubavitch is also quite prevalent in India, running four houses throughout the country and centering operations in Mumbai.

Kosher food is available in India – mainly in Mumbai – and shechitah is performed locally.

 

Jewish Education

There are some Jewish day schools in India, in Mumbai and Calcutta, but such institutions have seen a decline in their student bodies over the last couple of decades. This includes the “Sir Jacob Sassoon High School” and “Sir Elly Kadoorie High School” in Mumbai which combine a general education with Hebrew and Torah classes. The Bombay ORT school for boys and girls still offers technical and vocational training for Indian Jews, with many graduates emigrating to Israel with an understanding of Hebrew. There are also a number of Jewish educational institutions and options run through the Council of Indian Jewry and international Jewish organizations. This includes the Hazon Eli Foundation for Jewish Life in India, which operates out of Thane, teaches Torah, Hebrew, and Jewish life and also hosts a Sunday school for pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah age children.

In terms of Jewish religious tertiary education, there are no yeshivot or rabbinical studies centers in India.

 

Youth

There are some Jewish youth groups in India run through the auspices of the Council of Indian Jewry and the local Jewish communities throughout the country.

Jewish Media

Though the Bene Israeli community still maintains some Jewish newspapers and periodicals, they are published rather infrequently.

Information for visitors

The long-standing presence of Jews in India is reflected in the numerous Jewish sites of interest throughout the county. The Pardesi Synagogue in Kochi houses the cooper plates given to the Jewish community by the local raj and is a protected heritage site. There are also a number of cemeteries throughout the country, including ones in Mumbai, Chennamangalam, Parur, Ernakulam, and Navgaon, the latter of which is said to be the site where the original members of the Bene Israel were shipwrecked.

Israel

India and Israel maintain full diplomatic relations, with India being the third largest trading partner of Israel.

Embassy of Israel in India
3, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Road
New Delhi -110011

Telephone: (Visa) +91-11-30414538, +91-11-30414583, +91-11-30414561 / (EPABX) +91-11-30414500
Fax: +91-11-30414555
Email: consular2@newdelhi.mfa.gov.il

Updated

August 2018

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