Dwindling Jewish population, migration making prayers tough in Mumbai synagogues

The newly restored Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue at Fort in Mumbai. (Kunal Patil/HT Photo)

While the 135-year-old Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue at Kala Ghoda was inaugurated after a two-year restoration process last month, conducting regular Saturday Shabbat prayers is proving to be a task. Reason? For a synagogue, at least 10 male members of the community have to read the Torah together. Getting that many members, most staying in distant suburbs, together in south Mumbai, is not easy.

Synagogues such as the Megan Aboth Synagogue at Alibaug near in Mumbai, have seen a decline in members over the years. ( Pramod Thakur/HT Photo )

Torah consists of five books written by Prophet Moses and related stories. “This synagogue was built because Baghdadi Jews lived in the Colaba to Kala Ghoda stretch. Members of the Baghdadi as well as Bene Israeli communities prayed here. We can’t conduct prayers unless we get 10 men to read the religious book,” said Solomon Sopher, chairman and managing trustee of the Sir Jacob Sassoon and Allied Trust.

The Shaare Rason Synagogue in Israel Mohalla at Masjid Bunder, which underwent partial renovation to commemorate its 175 years, is facing a similar problem. Members read the Torah only once a month.

After the formation of Israel in 1948, around 70,000 Jews from India migrated to the country. According to 2001 Census, the population of Jews in India stands at 4,650, of which 80 are Baghdadi Jews. There are 10 synagogues in the city and 10 in Raigad, where one of India’s Jewish groups, the Bene Israel, live. Most synagogues in Raigad district are either shut and need repairs, while those in Mumbai struggle to get enough devotees.

With the synagogue built by his ancestors closed, Sunny Sagaonkar, 54, a resident of Borli village in Raigad district, visits the nearby Beth El synagogue at Revdanda or Magen Aboth synagogue at Alibaug every alternate weekend. Although members of Beth El synagogue read the Torah in Hebrew, they explain the text in Marathi, so more people attend prayers. “For the past three years, we have gotten into this arrangement where people from the entire district visit every synagogue in Alibaug, Revdanda and Pen every alternate Saturday. We decided to do so because for around 10 years, we didn’t have a minyan [gathering of 10 men] in our synagogue,” said Benjamin Waskar, president, Beth El synagogue.

Shaar Haramaim synagogue at Masjid Bunder, the oldest synagogue in Maharashtra, has a street next to it which is called Israel Mohalla. “There used to be a time when each bench at the synagogue was dedicated to different families, and there was bidding because we would have too many people who would want to read chapters during Shabbath prayers,” said Samuel Waskar, secretary of Shaar Haramaim synagogue. “Now for the minyan, members have to travel from Dombivli, Thane and Mulund every second Saturday.”

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