by Ruth Judah.
Nariman House, the Chabad center in Mumbai that endured a terrorist attack six years ago, was reopened August 26th, with an investment of more than $2million. The center will not only provide a shul for travelling Jews and a home for the small local Jewish community, but it is also rebuilt with a museum that offers an education for the unknowing of the Jewish way of living and the Jewish religion. The top two floors of the six story building, will be transformed into a museum while keeping intact the bullet-ridden interiors.
“The museum and memorial to the Mumbai terror attacks will be reflecting the horrors of terrorism and remembering those who have fallen as victims of terrorist activity,” said Nick Appelbaum, who is in-charge of the museum and memorial design at Nariman House.
At the same time, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Koslovsky are pleased to reorganize their local activities in the original location that was established after many years of fundraising by the Hertzberg’s. Shabbat and holiday meals will be available as well as accommodation and other outreach programs.
India was a center for Jewish life since the destruction of the first temple but after the State of Israel was established in 1948, the majority of Jewish Indians emigrated because of the intense violence that existed in India during its separation from British rule.
Jewish life today is miniscule or even nonexistent but more than 40,000 Israeli’s are estimated to visit each year and the ties between the Indian and Israeli government are strong. The sales of military equipment between the countries was estimated to have reached an astronomical $9 billion in 2009.
The attack of 2008 was therefore extraordinary given that India has an excellent relationship with Israel and had no history of conflict with Jews. Jewish travelers were less concerned about facing religious antagonism and more concerned about the anti-American flavor that could be felt knife sharp in Moslem settings on Friday’s, their day of rest. Indeed, there is not even a word for “anti-Semitism” in Hindi or in the other Indian languages.
Before Chabad, there were two shuls in Mumbai – The Magen David Synagogue and the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue built in 1884 by Jacob Sassoon. A visit to the Sassoon shul, a large light blue building, is a memorable visit for anyone who makes the effort and is undaunted by the complexity of locating the building. Situated behind walls, now with a security guard at all times, the synagogue is decorated with an inordinate amount of multi colored lightbulbs, all of which are turned on for Shabbat and glow insipid colors from the rain gutters around the roof of the building.
The entrance to the synagogue is impressive and grand, decorated with stone plaques that have been bequeathed by communities long gone. The Sassoon family events are the most predominantly noted, not surprising given the families long standing relationship with Bombay, as the city was known at that time. On stepping inside the Indian-esque style lobby, the high ceilinged building boasts a substantial woman’s section. You must understand that the building is severely dilapidated and the few men who are praying from a siddur, will stop a woman from certain injury if she tries to make her way upstairs. A Torah scroll is rumored to be hidden inside the ark but you cannot be too certain that this is actually so.
There is, quite sadly, nothing Judaic about the experience of visiting the shul. Perhaps it is why the terrorists chose to attack the far smaller home of Chabad on 26th August 2008. It would have been shameful to their ancestors to have focused on destroying the older synagogues that exist as a relic to the past, when Bombay’s Bene Israel were peacefully absorbed into local life. Instead the terror group attacked the only Jewish group who pave a path in India for a Jewish future.
It is true to say there was no meaningful or available outreach program before the Holtzberg’s arrived. Only since 2003 has Chabad established synagogues in India, in Goa and Bangalore as well as Mumbai. It is recorded that a total of 33 synagogues still remain in India but many are out of use and beyond repair. As well as the new Nariman House there are, however, others still worth a visit.
The oldest remaining shul is in Cochin. Built in 1568 on the very southern tip of India, the Paradesi shul is adorned in blue with hand-painted Portuguese tiles warming the floor while the tinkling glass chandeliers from Belgium move in the sometimes breeze. It is more peaceful than a visit to the Taj Mahal. This community is the oldest recorded, perhaps as ancient as 392 CE, arriving when the first temple fell while another wave of immigrants arrived after the second temple fell and subsequent Jewish immigrants who came to escape the Spanish expulsion of 1492.
India is a country with approximately 5,000 Jews melted into a sub-continent with a population of 1.2 billion people who are mostly Hindu. There is also a strong love of Buddhism, the nontheistic philosophical movement. In India spirituality is rife, often magical and usually mystical. At the same time, the Hindu ways are the antithesis of Jewish philosophy. Hindu’s create and adore images of their G-d’s which produces an infinite number of idols, often made from plaster-of-paris and costing pennies; many Indian’s will offer you a G-d for fun. Easy come, easy go.
It can be a circular conversation when explaining that we believe in the oneness of G-d. “What a waste. Have a few more.” say the locals, the shopkeepers and the tour guides alike. If only a few G-d’s more could have changed the outcome of the events at Nariman House. But good things will continue to come out of the Mumbai Jewish community in spite of the sad history. Rabbi Kotlarsky, spoke on behalf of the educational arm of Chabad and explained, “Their selfless love will live on with all the people they touched.”