Delhi’s last ten Jewish families guard an ancient heritage
In the capital of one of the world’s most religiously-diverse countries, a Rabbi who has never been ordained bends ancient customs, ensuring New Delhi’s ten Jewish families a place to worship.
Unlike most synagogues, there is no separation of men and women as Jewish-born worshippers, converts and followers of other faiths chant Psalms in perfect Hebrew, with doors thrown open to all. The service leader never asks attendees what religion they follow, and envisions his daughter becoming India’s first female rabbi.
“Being a small community, we cannot be so rigid, so orthodox,” says Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, honorary secretary of the synagogue whose unpaid job of thirty years has overlooked religious convention to keep this tiny group together.
“Our openness, our liberal approach is what allows us to survive. For reading the Torah, you must require ten men, a minyan. But I made radical changes, because why should we discriminate between women and men? I count the women.”
In the small Judah Hyam Synagogue, tucked between one of the city’s most popular markets and most expensive hotels, the tight community, as inconspicuous as the small black plaque outside, gathers every Friday to bring in Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
The synagogue and its adjoining cemetery, gifted to Delhi’s Jews by the Indian government in 1956, is one of over 30 in India, where Jews first arrived 2,000 years ago but account for barely 5,000 people in a population exceeding 1.2 billion.
Lieutenant General J.F.R. Jacob, a former governor of Punjab and Goa and the synagogue’s President, leads the service alongside a Canadian tourist for a dozen worshippers who have travelled up to 30 kilometers (19 miles) across the city.
Some of the small crowd have been coming to the small, brightly-lit synagogue for decades, and say the weekly services are crucial in binding together the city’s Jewish families.
During the High Holidays, the synagogue’s sparse but dedicated crowd is substantially bolstered by Israeli diplomats and other Jewish expatriates, while up to 10,000 international travelers visit during India’s busy winter tourist period.
“We are a tiny, miniscule community, but what keeps us together is a special bond. We are one family, we meet, we talk, we share with each other,” says Shulamith, Malekar’s daughter, minutes after her father offers a blessing for the daughter of a 94-year-old woman he knows from Kolkata.
After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which six Jews were kidnapped and killed by militants who had stormed a Jewish outreach center, the government posted ten paramilitary soldiers outside the tiny Delhi synagogue, a precaution repeated following the killing of Osama bin Laden this month.
The targeted attack was an isolated incident in a country that has seen bloody conflicts between Hindus, which account for over 80 percent of the population, Muslims and Sikhs since independence from Britain in 1947.
“I am an Indian first and a Jew second. India is one of the places where Jews have never suffered from anti-Semitism or persecution, therefore I consider India my motherland,” said Malekar, who lives in a small cottage in the synagogue complex.
India’s 1951 census listed 35,000 Jews, mostly living in or around the commercial hub of Mumbai, where 4,000 live today, and where the city’s biggest fishing docks bear the name of the Sassoon family, the country’s most famous Jewish residents.
Malekar, a qualified attorney and former deputy secretary of the National Human Rights Commission, participates in national memorial services for independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi and the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
He was invited to deliver Jewish prayers at the burial services of former Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, and was part of an interfaith prayer service during the funeral of popular guru Sathya Sai Baba last month.
“Israel is in my heart, but India is in my blood,” says Malekar, who recounts a legend of a shipwreck in the 4th century that landed seven families on the shores of Mumbai.
“We have survived here this long,” says Elizabeth, a regular at the New Delhi synagogue. “Somebody will always be here.”