Meeting the Jews of Andhra Pradesh

After years of emailing, it was thrilling to meet Sadok Yacobi in the flesh.  Yacobi is spiritual leader of the Bene Yacob synagogue in Andhra Pradesh, in southeastern India.  This Telugu-speaking group, known as Bnei Ephraim by their oral tradition, is separate and apart from the four other groups of Indian Jews Kulanu has been following (the Bene Israel, the Cochini Jews, the Baghdadis, and the Bnei Menashe).

Yacobi has been inviting Kulanu teachers and rabbis to visit for almost a decade, but their village, with the tongue-twisting name of Kothareddypalem, is too isolated for many.  We met in February in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, where my husband Aron and I were traveling.

The Bene Yacob synagogue was foundedonly 15 years ago, but this community of India’s so-called “untouchable” caste may have ancient Jewish roots.  Sadok and his brother Shmuel grew up Christian but they remember their father and grandmother telling them, when they were young, that they were Jews.  Their father had fought with the Indian Army during WWII, receiving a rare opportunity (for an “untouchable”) to learn English and become a teacher.  After their father died, Shmuel became a Christian preacher, which enabled him to study the Old Testament and to travel to Jerusalem.  There, in the early 1980s, he had a spiritual awakening and decided to leave Christianity and live as a Jew.  Sadok agreed to join him, and they convinced 30 families in their village to follow their example.  The House of the Children of Yakob (Bene Yacob) was founded in 1992.

Now the brothers live in separate cities, with little contact.  Sadok Yacobi’s flock at Bene Yacob numbers about 200, and there are an additional 150 outside Kothareddypalem who come in for Shabbat.  They have no Torah scroll, but on Shabbat they read the parsha from a Hebrew-English chumash.  They recite blessings in Hebrew and readings in Telugu, using an Ashkenazi siddur transliterated by hand into Telugu.  They need an additional 40 chumashim.

His family of five lives in the synagogue since their hut was destroyed in a storm. The huts of other congregants weren’t so badly destroyed.  Yacobi ministers to his flock like a social worker, he says, visiting and talking out problems.  He is unsalaried but some make donations.  Like other “untouchables,” he and his congregants survive primarily by toiling in the fields of landlords for very low pay.  He sends his children to college using high-interest loans.  The community is sending 25 of its children to an English-medium school (Hindu), costing $180/year/studentHis goal is to one day start an English- and Hebrew-medium school.  (An English-medium school conducts its classes in English rather than the local Indian language.)

It is the hope of his children, and indeed all of the congregation’s children, to make aliyah and apply their computer and other education in Israel.  Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail visited the community in 1994 for three days.  According to Yacobi, he taught them some Hebrew songs, advised them to practice carefully, and told them “when the time comes the Lord will arrange for aliya.”

Aliya could not come at a better time.   Two years ago, Sadok saw a headline in a newspaper that members of a Pakistani Muslim terrorist group, Laskar E Thoiba, had orders to kill all local Jewish communities, as well as visiting Jews from the US and Israel at the Hyderabad airport.  The terrorists were arrested and the police check on the community’s welfare every day.  But the Jews have stopped wearing their kippot on the street because they are afraid of Muslim terrorists.

That day of aliya may be closer.  Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of New York has taken an interest in the group, and he, together with Kulanu, may be on the verge of locating teachers and rabbis for the community.

Meanwhile, there are a few modest steps that can be taken to alleviate some of the poverty-related suffering.  The community needs buffalos for selling the milk.  They could also use capital for supplies to make kosher candles. Also on their wish list are a sewing machine, cassettes of Jewish music, money for a musical keyboard ($175), laptop computers (there are NO computers in Kothareddypalem), and bicycles for selling vegetables in the city, as well as investment money to buy the vegetables.  And sponsors for the 25 students in school would also be accepted extremely gratefully.

Yacobi left with a parting gift.  He was accompanied at the interview by his wife Miriam, his three grown children, and another member of the congregation. (His son Yacob attends an engineering college in the village, while daughters Sarah and Keziya and congregant Yehoshua Korahi happened to be in Hyderabad on a three-month academic program for their Masters Degrees in computer applications). The six of them agreed to tape some of their religious songs for Kulanu.  The hotel lent us their business lounge, Aron appeared with his videocam, and they sang away – beautifully and with heart.  Hopefully, we will have this music available on the Kulanu website before too long.

(Contributions to Kulanu can be earmarked for the Telugu Jews.)