Romiel Daniel: Indian Jew takes reins in Rego Park

Every Saturday for two years, Romiel Daniel and his family walked more than a mile from their home in Rego Park, Queens, to attend Sabbath services at an Orthodox synagogue in Forest Hills. Then, one cold day he decided to check out the Conservative synagogue one block from his home, the Rego Park Jewish Center.

There, Daniel found a mission: He just celebrated his first anniversary as president of the congregation. He is its cantor and, because the synagogue has been without a rabbi for 19 months, often leads worship services.

That is not what surprises many people, including Jews, when they first meet Daniel. The surprise is that he is an Indian Jew. “A lot of people never knew that there were Indians who are Jews,” he said this week, when he issued an appeal on behalf of Jews in Mumbai, which until eight years ago was called Bombay and is where he was born 63 years ago. “They think we’re all converts, but we’re not.”

The appeal was issued by Jews of India, which Daniel heads, to raise funds to replace two torahs lost in a recent monsoon that devastated the city. In all, six torahs in the Beth-El Synagogue of Panvel, a suburb of Mumbai, were destroyed in the flooding, and Daniel said members desperately need new torahs in time for the coming High Holy Days.

The Rego Park synagogue, which has 293 members, mostly East European, occupies most of his spare time, but his main job is being director of a lingerie import company in midtown Manhattan. When he assumed the presidency last summer, it made him the first Indian-born Jew to head a U.S. synagogue.

He is a member of Bene Israel, by far the largest of three Indian Jewish groups, with about 60,000 members, including 300 or so in the United States, about 1,000 in Canada, about 5,000 in India, and most of the rest in Israel. The other two groups are the Cochinis, now down to 16 members, all in the Cochin area of India, and the Baghdadis, with about 250 members, living in Britain, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

Their histories in India go back 2,000 or so years with the arrival of Jews, starting with the Cochinis, who were fleeing the persecution of King Antiochus of Syria – the Jewish revolt against him is celebrated today as Chanukah. The Bene Israel arrived at about the same time, when Daniel’s ancestors were shipwrecked near Bombay while fleeing Antiochus. The Baghdadis arrived in the late 18th century from Syria and Iraq. All are considered Oriental Jews. There are a few differences between Western and Oriental Jews. Before entering a synagogue, for example, Oriental Jews remove their shoes. They eat rice at Passover instead of matzo, and wear all white on Yom Kippur.

For the past decade, Daniel has led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the Bene Israel tradition, with Oriental melodies, at the Village Temple, on the lower East Side of Manhattan. For most Indian Jews, this is the closest thing to a reunion.

About a year after he joined the synagogue, in 1996, Daniel was asked to serve as cantor. He had sung for years, at services in his homeland and Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, where he once worked. He is now a full-fledged cantor, trained at Yeshiva University in upper Manhattan. “Oriental melodies for prayers are getting lost, and it is important to preserve them,” said Daniel, who has recorded a CD of Bene Israel songs for Yom Kippur, the Sabbath, and other important holidays.

Daniel, who is married and with two sons, first arrived in the United States to study chemistry at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., in 1964. He came back for good in 1994. His interests include badminton – in 1981 and 1985 he won bronze medals while competing for India at the Maccabi Games, the Jewish equivalent of the Olympics.

Asked over coffee in a fast-food restaurant at Fifth Ave. and 33rd St. if it is possible to find kosher curry in New York, Daniel laughed and said, “Sure, about a block or two from here.”

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