Jews and India

Jews and India

The ongoing terrorism and tragedy in India’s financial capital, the west coast port city of Mumbai, may motivate Americans to learn something about India, its visitors, and ethnic minorities.

Assorted facts:

Nariman House, site of recent terrorism, is named after Parsi social activist and politician Khurshed Framji Nariman, not a Jew. The structure at 5 Hormusji Street (opposite 4th Pasta Lane) in Colaba, Mumbai, was purchased in 2006 by Chabad-Lubavitch of Crown Heights in New York City’s Brooklyn, one of Orthodox Judaism’s Hasidic movements. The facility was run by Brooklynites Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka. At this time it is thought that the Holtzbergs are dead but their son Moshe, a toddler, was rescued by his nanny.

Visitors to the Mumbai Chabad House are largely young Israeli back-packers on their way to the beaches of Goa and other resorts and sightseeing destinations. While other building tenants include Jewish charities such as ORT, the identity of the Chabad House managers and their clients explains the chief value of the building to terrorists upset with Israel and America. The backpackers are either young Jewish Americans or young Israeli Jews, secular or conventionally-Orthodox, many on leave from their required military service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Ironically, young ultra-Orthodox Hasidim, yeshiva students, are exempt from IDF service, and yeshiva graduates may legally do outreach work in “Chabad Houses” as an alternative to military service. 

At any given time in today’s India, foreign Jewish tourists and Jewish high tech and financial services workers from the USA, Israel, and Europe greatly outnumber native-born Indian Jews.

There are about 5,000 native-born Jews among India’s billion people. 40 percent of India’s remaining native-born Jews are said to live in Thane, outside Mumbai, second-largest city in the world (population: 23 million).

60,000 Indian Jews live in Israel, about 1% of the national population. Most are Bene-Israel and Cochin Jews, two of the five distinct Indian and Burmese Jewish communities.

American and Israeli Jews now visit the Subcontinent on Jewish heritage tours, seeing India’s historic synagogues and meeting members of the remaining smal native-born Jewish communities.

News reports identify Chabad House at Nariman House as “a Jewish center.” There is an actual Jewish Community Center  or “JCC” in Mumbai, the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center, in the Mumbai suburb of Matunga. We had difficulty finding the address; perhaps the terrorists did, too. On the other hand, EPJCC clients seem to be native-born Jews, low-value targets for terrorists.

Chabad House of Mumbai at Nariman House provides inexpensive hostel lodging and cheap kosher meals for Jewish travellers.The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, said to have about 20,000 adherents, is unique in Judaism for having an outreach program, something anathema to Judaism for millennia. Chabad outreach, however, is limited to proselytizing among other Jews.

There are other Chabad Houses in India, in BangaloreGoa,  Manali HP, and (apparently) New Delhi and Pune.

The most influential Jews in India’s history were Sephardic Jews from Persia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and are often called  “Baghdadis.” They began arriving 250 years ago; most came to India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, settling in the Western port city of Bombay (Mumbai) and Eastern port city of Calcutta (Kolkata). The most prominent of these were the Sassoon family, who arrived in the mid-19th century, opened banks and financed trade in India, chiefly in Bombay, and became the city’s chief philathropists before leaving in 1948 (date of Indian Independence, Partition, and the establishment of Israel). Most Bhagdadis moved to England and the U.S. rather than Israel.

Sephardic Jews, one of two main components of the Diaspora, dispersed to counties of the Middle East and West Asia, North Africa, Iberia and, later, the Low Countries and England. The Chabadniks are Ashkenazi Jews, descendents of the other branch of the Jewish Diaspora that went to the Europe, chiefly the Rhine and Eastern Europe. The Sephardi mother tongue is Ladino; Ashkenazim speak Yiddish. The more acculturated members of both groups often spoke neither of these; they spoke local languages at home and Hebrew during worship.

The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement was founded two centuries ago in Eastern Europe. Seeking to win over over Jews to their Orthodox practices, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement opened outreach centers in many U.S., Latin American, and European cities before coming to India in the 21st century.

Interesting Reading:

Tales of a Wandering Jew: Jewish India’s crown jewel,” Paul Rockower, Jerusalem Post

Cultural Affairs: Jewish Culture In India, Consulate General of Israel, Mumbai

Jewish India

The Bene Israel of India, Dr. Shalva Weil

The Jewish Community of Cochin, Database of Jewish Communities 

Meet the Telugu Jews of India, by Jason L. Francisco

Bnei Menashe, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 Jews of India – and the Baghdadi / Iraqi connection,

Jews of India – Baghdadi/Iraqi Jews & Manipur Jews, by Aharon Daniel,

Who are the Jews of India?  Nathan Katz

 “India’s Jews,” by Gary Weiss, Forbes

Historical Appraisal of Jewish Presence in Sri Lanka,” Dr Fiona Kumari Campbell, Chabad of Sri Lanka

Murg Makalla – Calcutta Jewish Chicken Roast with Potatoes (recipe)

 Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht,

One Response to “Jews and India”

  1. Mike Licht Says:

    Update: Cara Buckley and Isabel Kershner write in today’s New York Times:

    Almost always, the Chabad Houses are run by young couples ….

    The number of Chabad Houses has mushroomed in the last decade, and now more than 4,000 husband-and-wife couples run them in 73 countries.

    In 2003, the Holtzbergs, newly married, opened the first Chabad House in Mumbai.

    Chabad leaders are quick to stress that the emissaries, called shluchim in Hebrew, are not missionaries. They do not try to convert non-Jews to Judaism. Instead, their mandate is to act as “lamplighters” by reaching out to secular Jews, often stopping people on city sidewalks and asking, “Are you Jewish?,” and trying to persuade them to deepen their faith.

    … within hours after the news broke about the Holtzbergs’ deaths, young Chabad couples from around the world stepped forward, offering to move to Mumbai and continue the movement’s work.

    Chabad leaders said the Mumbai house would be certain to reopen.

    Chabad Movement Vows to Continue Work of Couple Killed in Attack

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