Believe it or not, there are Jews in India — especially with the addition of more than 100 Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) National Young Leadership Cabinet members.
The organization hosts an annual five-day study mission abroad, and this year’s group of 30- to 45-year-olds flew to India to experience the Jewish community there.
Although the community is small — there are only about 5,000 Jews left in India, derived from a sect called Bene Israel that many consider a lost tribe of Israel — Philadelphia travelers Keith Joffe and Danielle Weiss were impressed by its commitment.
“A lot of people aren’t even aware that there’s a Jewish population in India, but there is. It actually dates back more than 2,000 years,” noted Joffe, a sixth-year cabinet member (the program is a six-year commitment among those who have given a minimum of $5,000 to their local Jewish Federation’s annual campaign).
With a population of 1.2 billion, Jews in India make up roughly 0.0004 percent. “It’s a minor fraction of the Indian population but nonetheless still Jews of the Diaspora,” Joffe said.
“The mission allows young leaders in the Jewish community across North America to experience Jewish life and Jewish culture around the world,” said Weiss, a first-year member of the cabinet. “It’s equal parts religious, humanitarian and educational.”
On the first day of the trip, the group traveled to Alibag, a coastal town south of Mumbai — also the site where the first Jews of India were shipwrecked after leaving Israel, Joffe added — where they visited a more than 1,000-year-old Jewish cemetery.
In the wake of Jewish cemetery vandalism and JCC bomb threats on U.S. soil, Joffe was stunned.
“It struck me as very interesting that that cemetery has never been desecrated in all those years,” he said. “Although the Jewish people number so few relative to the Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs that live in India, they’ve never faced any sort of hatred or anti-Semitism.”
They also visited Jewish community centers in Mumbai. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) helps fund the local Mumbai JCC.
“It’s sort of in stark contrast to any community centers you would see in the United States. Their entire JCC is one room, which provides services for the entire community of Mumbai,” Joffe said.
Because poverty is widespread in India, JDC services aren’t limited to Jews.
“They’ll help anybody in need, Jews as well as non-Jews in the community,” he added.
It was also there that Weiss, Joffe and other cabinet members were introduced to the Gabriel Project, an organization that provides one hot meal a day to children living in the slums. To receive a meal, the children must go to school.
Another program of the organization, Sundara Soap, collects used bars of soap in Mumbai from guests at four- and five-star hotels. They then create clean soap by reconstituting it into smaller bars, which are given to children in the slums. Joffe said it had reduced incidents of dysentery, scabies and other diseases associated with living in unclean environments.
Inspired by the work of Federation partner JDC, cabinet members raised $40,000 in one night for the Gabriel Project Mumbai and the Jewish Youth Pioneers.
“You see the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots there,” Joffe said. “It’s a real eye-opener and somewhat heartbreaking, but you realize the power that the dollar has to help some of these people because they can literally be fed for cents a day.
“Just because there’s only 5,000 of them doesn’t mean they’re in any less need or any less deserving of our help.”
They also visited Jaipur and Delhi, where they went to a Shabbat service. The synagogue in Delhi, which does not have any full-time rabbis, follows Orthodox Sephardic rules and often struggles to find a minyan.
“It was probably the most people that had ever been in the synagogue to celebrate anything at one time,” Joffe recalled of the 100-plus cabinet members who attended the shul. “It was interesting to see them conduct a service and a lot of the prayers being sung to the same tunes that we do here in North America.”
The order of the service is exactly the same as it is at home, Weiss noted, as well as the words spoken.
“You can participate in a Shabbat service and know exactly where you are in the service, whether you’re in India or here at home,” she said.
At the end of the service, the rabbi asked the crowd if there was anyone from Philadelphia or Minneapolis.
“He told us that one of the two Torahs that they have in their ark was donated by [Congregation] Rodeph Shalom in 1953,” Joffe said. The other Torah was donated from a Jewish community in Minneapolis.
“To be halfway across the world and to have a connection to home and to just be completely stricken by the fact that the service in India is a mirror image of what goes on at home — that was truly special,” Weiss added.
She was also struck by the concept of namaste — outside the confines of a yoga class, of course.
“It means that the divinity in me recognizes the divinity in you. It’s a universal, overarching theme that unites all Indians no matter where you go,” she said. “It’s that principle that allows the Jewish community, the Hindu community, the Muslim community, the Christian community, to live side by side in harmony with zero religious intolerance.”
She said that idea of equal respect for all has allowed the Jewish community in India to practice Judaism freely and without anti-Semitism.
“That is probably the only country in the world where that is true,” Weiss noted.
“Jews come in all varieties and all colors,” she said. “But the Jews in India look very much the way the people of India look. They’re very much culturally assimilated into the Indian society and the Indian way of life with Jewish overtones and Jewish values juxtaposed onto that.”
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