But it was not the steady influx of Muslim girls in the preceding two decades that moved Alexander’s parents to take her out of the school, she says.
They were worried because she was last remaining occupant of a Jews-only dormitory, as most Jewish girls they had known had migrated to Israel, America or Europe “with their folks.”
“They (school authorities) had to retain a matron just for me,” recalls Alexander, now aged 50. “I would be alone in the dormitory at night and my parents started panicking. Muslims had nothing to do with my leaving.”
The swelling ranks of Muslim girls in the Jewish school offer a glimpse into the deep ties between Kolkata’s Muslim and once-thriving Jewish community.
More than 1,200 of the nearly 1,400 students are Muslims, as is the school’s vice principal and half the faculty.
The change began in the 1950s, when there were not enough Jewish families needing an institution set up specifically to instill Jewish values.
As Jewish enrollment petered out, the authorities decided to admit children of other faiths. The biggest response came from the Muslims of nearby areas.
Today, there is very little “Jewish” about the school, save for perhaps its name, the Star of David on the school gates, the school uniform and notebooks, and portraits of Jewish patrons on the walls.
Authorities have made available a “changing room” for Muslim girls whose parents frown upon their stepping out in public in school skirts.
These students leave home in the burqa, change into their uniforms once in school, and put on the burqa when leaving. “Our parents don’t like it if we bare our legs,” says senior student Zara Ahmed, 17.
“The school has come to symbolize Jewish-Muslim harmony in Kolkata,” says managing trustee Aileen “Jo” Cohen.
The harmony is visible elsewhere too; the city’s three synagogues — the smallest of which boasts of more chairs in its prayer hall than there are Jews in Kolkata — are looked after by Muslim caretakers.