The Magen David synagogue in Byculla marks 150 glorious years today. The sky-blue colour building with its imposing structure has been an important part of the city’s rich history. For the Jewish community in the city, the Magen David synagogue has been an integral part of their life. Since the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, Jews from Mumbai as well as other parts of the world have been immigrating to Israel. There are approximately 4,000 Jews living in India.
The community is nearly an invisible minority. “With the dwindling size of the community people visiting the synagogue have also declined. Things are different now,” lamented Solomon Sopher, chairman of the Magen David Synagogue. To celebrate 150 years of the synagogue, “Eminent members of the Jewish community from various countries have been invited. We also expect the President of India to grace the occasion,” said Sopher.
Back when the city’s Jewish community was large and vibrant, Jews from all over the city would flock to this place of worship on Shabbat days and High Holidays. Reminisces Sopher, “There was a time when the synagogue would have more than 400 people attending prayers during High Holidays. Nowadays, it is a challenge to even get 10 people for miniyan (prayer service held during morning and evening, which require minimum 10 people).” Sopher’s association with the synagogue began when he was just 12. “When my maternal grandfather passed away, I started coming to the synagogue for kaddish prayers (kaddish are recited by Jews during mourning). I also started attending services and soon began my association with the synagogue.”
Hayeem Ezekiel Barukh, from Andheri (W), caretaker of the synagogue for the past 12 years used to come to the synagogue with his father, Haskell Shamash. “My father too was the caretaker of the synagogue. Now, I’m taking care of the place. As a kid, I used to come here with my friends. Many of them have left the city, others have passed away. I miss those days,” said Barukh. As a caretaker, Barukh takes pride in his work. “We often have tourists who want to know more about the place. I take them for a guided tour of the synagogue,” he said. While the synagogue is frequented by very few visitors these days, a lot of people have fond memories of the place. “Twenty two years ago, I got married in the Magen David synagogue. Infact we will be celebrating our 22nd wedding anniversary on December 24. The synagogue, being one of the largest could accommodate a lot of people. A lot of my non-Jewish friends wanted to witness a Jewish wedding. So, I invited them for my wedding,” said Elijah Jacob, country manager, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). As a child too Jacob used to visit the synagogue almost every week, especially during Shabbat.
Said Jacob, “the synagogue is expansive and has a huge ground too. As kids we would often sneak out from the prayer sessions to play on the ground. In those days, the synagogue used to be so crowded that there would be hardly any place to stand.” Like Jacob, many others in the city also got married in this synagogue because of its capacity to accommodate many people. Rachel Shirkolkar from Worli Naka said, “I got married here on May 16, 1971.” Judah Samuel, another member of the community said, “My parents got married in this synagogue in 1948. My brother too was married here in 1987.”
Many others developed a special connection with the synagogue after they migrated to Mumbai. “My father was in the army. Hence we had to move around a lot. It is only when I settled in Juhu, I started visiting this place often. The ambience, the design, the location, everything is just so special here,” said Benjamin Issac from the ORT, a Jewish education and charity organisation. The synagogue was renovated last year. The renovation took almost one-and-a-half years to complete and today, the synagogue bears a completely different look.
Among those, who come to the synagogue more often are the two hazaans (a person who leads synagogue services). Sharon Galsurkar (35), a Jewish educator lives in Byculla. Galsurkar has been a hazaan for almost seven years now.
“This is perhaps the only synagogue where almost every day of the year you have a miniyan. There should be a minimum of 10 people for the miniyan. Call it divine intervention, during prayer time, we have this attendance to conduct the services smoothly. Moreover, the hall has great acoustics, you don’t need a mike. Many non-Jews come here and pray. Personally, I have found peace here,” said Galsurkar, who used to come here as a child to attend classes on Judaism. “I used to stay in Thane. I would come to the synagogue twice a week to attend classes. It is when I shifted to Byculla that I began to actively take part in various activities of the synagogue,” added Galsurkar, who makes it a point to bring his kids to the synagogue every week said, “I want them to connect to God from a very young age.” This Jewish educator, who is contemplating leaving Mumbai and shifting to Israel said, “When I move to Israel, this would be one place, I would long for.” Another hazaan of the synagogue is Ellis Jacob. Come hell or high water, this 70-year-old man visits the synagogue everyday. “Even though I am 70, I am very active,” said Ellis, in a voice defying his age. “Earlier along with religious service we used to have choirs too.
Now only during festivals we witness any sort of gathering,” said Ellis. When asked about the future of the synagogue, trustee and chairman, Solomon Sopher said, “I believe the Jewish diaspora will be there to take care of it.”
Magen David Synagogue at Byculla was built in 1861 by the late David Sassoon who was the founder of the Sassoon empire in India. This is the largest Synagogue of the “Bagdadi” Jewish Community of India. In the compound of the Synagogue there are two Jewish Schools, which are run by the Sir Jacob Sassoon High School Trust, and the EEE Sassoon High School Trust, in which Jewish children were educated. With the paucity of Jewish students, the schools are open to all communities.