Indian Jews find promised land here

Moshe Shek grew up in India hearing tales of another homeland. In 1999, at the age of 29, he moved to Israel with dreams of finding the perfect Jewish wife, job and lifestyle.

Instead, he entered religious confusion: the language, culture and food were different. The women did not accept him. Even the synagogues and prayers felt like they belonged to someone else.

Two years later, he came home-to India.

“I felt less Jewish in Israel than I had ever felt in India,” Moshe said, as he walked up to the attic-turned-office above his bakery in Mumbai.

Even as India’s political and social ties with Israel strengthen-the Israeli Film Festival returned to New Delhi this month, the two countries cooperate on issues from terrorism to water management, and Israeli tourists flock to India after army service-many Indian Jews are ferrying back tales of discrimination and unfriendly reception by Israelis.

And as a global debate rages over whether Indian Jews even qualify as Jews and prosperity grows on their own shores, Indians who once left for the Promised Land are returning home and asserting their own place within Judaism.

Their return is significant because it reflects growth in a tiny community spread across this nation of 1 billion, where Indian Jews once numbered about 30,000. Today, most have moved to Israel or other countries and an estimated 5,000 remain.

Upon arrival, Indian migrants-who largely left in the late 1970s-were asked for proof of their faith, said Abraham Medekar, president of the Magen Hassidim Synagogue in Mumbai. His son lives in Israel and he travels there for long stretches. Rabbis, he added, “told us we need to be taught how to practice Judaism correctly”.

That has angered many Indian Jews, even those who travel to Israel as tourists, such as I. Samson, the retired assistant commissioner of police in the crime branch of Mumbai.

“We have our own traditions. We have kept alive Judaism in a country of polytheism for 2,000 years,” he said. “Don’t tell us we don’t know our own religion.”

Some of this debate centres around the fact that Indian Jews have not faced the same persecution as others who seek haven in Israel. And like the Indians, other Jewish sub-cultures have faced recognition issues.

Ethiopian Jews have battled discrimination because of their colour since the 1990s. When the Russian Jews arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they had lived in a communist regime for so long that many no longer knew how to pray. Israelis didn’t know what to make of them.

“I wish I could say that racial discrimination does not happen in Israel. But like every other society, Israel has its own social issues,” said Daniel Zonshine, the Israeli consul general in Mumbai.

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