Community in India - World Jewish Congress

India was home to roughly 4,800 Jews in 2020. Indian Jews have a long history of being part of the nation and have managed to preserve both their religious and cultural heritage while assimilating into Indian society. They have experienced very little antisemitism from other communities because they are a part of a nation that is varied in terms of ethnicity, religion, language, and culture. Indian Jews are involved in many facets of Indian life, as they hold important positions in the state and are prominent in Bollywood.

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

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President: Mr. Solomon Sopher

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

Cochin Jews settled in southern India, around modern-day Kochi, and quickly earned the favor of regional rulers, receiving copper plates that indicated the assumption of important positions under the local leaders. They were allowed to practice Jewish life freely and openly, and they were quite successful in maintaining Jewish religious practices while also assimilating into the local culture. Many Jews from Kondungallur moved to Cochin in 1524, when the Moors, supported by the Indian monarch in the area, assaulted the Jews there to "free" the pepper trade from their meddling. 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 into the local culture, eventually speaking the native Marathi language and adopting local customs. They faced no antisemitism and often intermarried with the local, non-Jewish Marathi people. Over time, the Jews began to resemble the Marathi people while still practicing their customs and 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 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 persecuted the local Jewish population 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 17th century, leading into the 18th 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 Bombay, 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 into 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 Bombay, “Shaar Rahamim,” was established in 1796. Moreover, the imperial leadership of the city, then in the hands of the British "Raj" (sovereign), 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 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 were very few to no manifestations of antisemitism.

In the 20th century, a number of Indian Jews served in prominent roles in the government as well as private Indian social and economic enterprises. One Bene Israeli, Dr. E. Moses, was mayor of Bombay in 1937; another, David Jacob Cohen, held the highest political position attainable by a Jew in Calcutta, the Bengal Legislative Council, from 1923 to 1926. Abraham Barak Salem was a notable Indian nationalist who served in the Legislative Council in Cochin from 1925 to 1931 and also from 1939 to 1945; he was a part of the Lahore Session of the Indian National Congress that passed the “Purna Swaraj,” which called for India's 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 Jews uncomfortable, as they identified more as British 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 20th century.

In the 1970s, the Bnei Menashe and Bene Ephraim tribes, which were small groups forced to convert to Christianity by Christian missionaries in the 19th century, restarted the practice of traditional Judaism rites. 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.

More recently, a DNA test in 2002 verified the Bene Israeli community's claim to be descended from the Kohanim, the ancient Israeli priests who trace their lineage back to Aaron. During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Chabad House in Mumbai was targeted, and Pakistani terrorists killed Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife Rivka, and other Israeli and American nationals there. 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 that were 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 ("children's transport" efforts), notably the "Tehran Children," who were a group of about 1,000 Polish Jewish children, mainly orphans, who were permitted to travel from the Soviet Union to Tehran (then under British and Soviet occupation) and then to Karachi (then India) in 1943. From there, they eventually made it to a refugee camp in the British Mandate of Palestine.

Furthermore, the Baghdadi Jews of Burma, who were put in danger by the Japanese invasion of their eastern neighbors, sought safety in Calcutta, where they were provided with jobs and housing by their Indian counterparts. In all, about 5,000 Jews found refuge in India during the years of the Holocaust.


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 Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC) and WJC on a regional and global scale of communal representation. There are a number of Jewish organizations that operate in India, including the Zionist Association, B’nai B’rith, a Jewish Club in Mumbai, Bikur Cholim, the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO), and Hadassah.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is very active in India, as it runs a community center in Mumbai that provides humanitarian and welfare aid to impoverished Indian Jews and helps educate on and facilitate Jewish life in India. Additionally, the Organization for Educational Resources and Technological Training (ORT) not only provides the Jewish community with a foundation for Jewish life but also helps impoverished Jews in need. 

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 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 do not have an established rabbi and instead 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

Kosher food is available in India, mainly in Mumbai, and shechita (kosher slaughter) is performed locally.

Jewish Education

There are some Jewish day schools 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 offers technical and vocational training, with many graduates emigrating to Israel with a solid 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 education, there are no yeshivot or rabbinical studies centers in India.


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 country. The Pardesi Synagogue in Kochi, which is a protected heritage landmark, is home to the cooper plates that the local raj donated to the Jewish community. There are also several cemeteries 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.

Relations with 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

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