Portrait of a Congregant: Nissim Moses

Nissim Moses is a large presence, tall and avuncular. Fluent in Hindi, Hebrew, English and Marathi, he also speaks a little German and French. Maps of Israeli cities hang on the walls of his small office in New Delhi, and a lot of high-tech equipment sits on its desks and tables.

A Bombay-born citizen of Israel, Moses moved temporarily to New Delhi in 1993. In the past 14 years, he has been a fixture at Delhi’s Judah Hyam Synagogue. He participates regularly in the services, gives talks about the Bene Israel Jews of India to outsiders, hosts holiday celebrations in his home, and has donated generously to make shul renovations, including a new water system, air conditioning, carpeting, and furnishings. He has done all of these things with the support and help of his wife Betty, who died suddenly in March.

Moses was born in 1942 and lived in Bombay until the age of 25. Although his family was active in the Bene Israel community, he attended Christian schools and studied the New Testament, Judaism, Hindu philosophy, and a little Koran. In 1959 he took the top prize for Christian religious knowledge at his school, and the Bishop of Bombay bestowed the award.

Moses emigrated to Israel in 1966 and studied for a Master’s degree at Technion in electrical engineering. He spent most of his career with Israel Aircraft Industries, as the founder and head of the Acoustic Department, specializing in the control of aircraft sound and noise. In parallel he established the Acoustic Department of the Israel Ministry of the Environment and taught Environmental Acoustics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He fought in the Yom Kippur war at the crossing of the Suez Canal, receiving injuries that still remind him of that time.

In 1993, when India and Israel re-established diplomatic relations, Moses was selected to establish a liaison office for Israel Aircraft Industries to do marketing and sales of defense projects. In its first 4 years, the company won $450 million in contracts from the Government of India. (Today, Israel has more than $2 billion per year in defense contracts with India, second only to Russia in the defense market share.)

One of his passions is the history of the Bene Israel community. In his spare time in Delhi, he has compiled a 5-CD “book” titled The Heritage of Bene Israel in India, with separate disks devoted to Synagogues (in India and Israel), History, Recipes, Habdalah, and Prayers and Songs. (For information on ordering the book, contact Ralphy Jhirad at ralphyjhirad @ hotmail.com or tel. 91-9821344259.)

There were 31 Bene Israel synagogues in Bombay from the 1800s through modern times. (Today that number has decreased, but there are more than 50 Bene Israel synagogues in Israel.) In 1890 there were 10,000 Jews in Bombay and Hebrew was designated an official second language of study in Bombay. According to Moses, all the pioneers of education and some of the best schools in the Bombay area in the 1930s thru the early ‘60s had Jewish principals. He loves to speak about the myriad of accomplishments of the BI community in India in fields ranging from law and medicine to the arts and the military. The Padma Shree (the highest national decoration to acknowledged Indian leaders in their respective fields) has been awarded to Jews four times. He is compiling a “Roll Call of the Gallant BI Soldiers in the Indian and British Army.”

Another of Moses’s passions is genealogy. The Integrated Family Tree he is compiling will shortly be available for general viewing through interactive kiosks to be located at several synagogues and later online. The current databank of the Bene Israel community, which has 9,517 names and more than 7,000 photographs, prints out on several thousands of pages. His own family tree, with entries dating from the 1600s, fills 132 pages. He laments the fact that men were often chauvinistic and did not write their sisters’ and wives’ names in the genealogy records.

With all his contributions to his tiny congregation in Delhi, one wonders how it will survive when he moves back to his home in Israel, within 2 years. When I asked him about this, he answered, “God will provide. God is great.”

Peaceful Co-existence

Moses’s fondest prayer is that the religions of the world exist together in peace. He cites the Jewish experience in India as proof that this is possible. The Jews, he said, never experienced anti-Semitism there (except for Portuguese-occupied Goa).

Growing up in India, he had friends from every community. He had Christian and Hindu girlfriends before he met his wife Betty. His best man at his wedding was a Muslim; that same Muslim sat shiva in his place when his sister died and he was far away

“I feel no animosity to anyone,” he states. “That’s how we grew up.”

This approach is possible, he believes, when one realizes that there is a kernel common to all religions. “The philosophy of all religions is basically the same,” he says, “and religions differ only in their explanation of the existence of the Holy Being.” But this is understandable, he insists, since different groups have different needs.

He points out that Hinduism and Judaism are very similar, with Adonai and Brahma occupying the same position as Creator. He notes that Jews have the prohibition of a graven image to encourage people to go to a higher plane.

“But we say we have a God of love, of justice, of anger — qualities of God, and you superimpose these qualities to create a mental image from that. But not all societies can understand in that way, and you cannot explain to people more than they can understand.”

He reminds his audiences that Jews pray to God for rain, while others may pray to their rain god. We pray to God who brings sun, and they pray to their sun god. Despite its appearance of worshipping thousands of gods, “Hinduism’s ultimate teaching is to become one with the all-powerful God and is very much monotheistic,” he says.

He notes that Jews have the light of Shabbat candles as a way to focus on our abstract God, and we recognize different facets of our God — a God of justice or love or anger. Hindus also have representations of God, and at certain seasons they worship a certain facet of their God.

Moses notes that “Judaism is a very progressive religion that has evolved slowly,” but he warns, “You cannot bring an abstract God…to some people; they wouldn’t understand.”

Therefore, we need to be more tolerant in understanding our neighbors — not to adopt their religion, but to understand their ways and form of worship.

He believes that “for the past 700 years our rabbis made a great mistake in not studying the religion of our neighbors. Christian scholars have always studied Judaism.”

We should, he believes, point out where our religions are similar and differ, and make them understand why they differ. We should make them understand it’s not that they are wrong, but that their people have a certain type of need. We merely have different concepts of God. We should be able to dialog with each other.

Moses believes it is not a coincidence that there has been no anti-Semitism in India. According to their oral history, the Bene Israel have been in India for 2,000 years. He states, “We did not eat beef in India for 2,000 years (respecting the Hindu prohibition on eating beef). And we invited vegetarian Hindus to our homes and easily accommodated them. We should never refuse to eat in their houses because eating creates a reason and active environment for dialog and leads to understanding.”

He believes Jews should still follow our traditions when we can and notes that one of the reasons the Bene Israel were accepted as Jews in Israel was because they could identify kosher fish and knew how to cut away the non-kosher portions of lamb.

However, he says, “You can be yourselves and still dwell peacefully among others.”