New Delhi Shul Thriving at Age 50 Despite Dwindling Numbers

New Delhi’s Judah Hyam Synagogue, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, was designed by the well-known Bene Israel architect, Joshua M. Benjamin, who also designed the Parliament House annex. Its membership at one time peaked at 250-300, but now only 10 Indian Jewish families remain in Delhi.

Despite the dwindling numbers, spiritual leader Ezekiel Malekar says the synagogue survives because “we must keep the light of Judaism burning in this part of the world.” Malekar is fond of reminding his audiences that New Delhi, as the capital of the world’s largest democracy, cannot be without a Jewish flag flying.

Indeed, the Sabbath eve services are always augmented by diplomats, Jewish resident expatriots and visitors, and visiting Indian Jews from other parts of the sprawling country. (There are about 5000 Jews in India, most in the Mumbai area.)

From Indian independence in 1947 until 1956, there was no synagogue in the capital city. After its construction in 1956, the shul served as the unofficial Israeli Embassy — until 1993, when India and Israel established diplomatic relations and an official embassy was set up. Now the synagogue serves the Israel Embassy community, and the Embassy continues to hold some of its functions there. A highlight of its history is the 1995 surprise visit by Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.

Malekar, 62, grew up in Pune, India, where he studied Economics and earned a degree in Law. He worked for the Ministry of Health for 25 years, transferring from Pune to Hyderabad and then to Delhi. Then he spent a decade with the National Human Rights Commission. His current work with the National Commission on Religious and Linguistic Minorities involves assisting the socially, economically, and educationally backward and downtrodden in claiming their legal rights. He notes that many so-called “Untouchables” converted to Christianity to escape Hinduism’s caste system, but they are still experiencing discrimination in that they are not allowed to pray together with upper-class Christians or to be buried in the same cemetery.

As the spiritual leader, Malekar welcomes about 10,000 visitors to the synagogue each year. Outside the synagogue, he has frequent opportunities to represent Jews and Judaism. He was invited to blow the shofar on the president’s birthday. He was present, wearing his tallit, at the cremations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. (He once heard Indira Gandhi recite Psalm 23 in Hebrew!) He attends memorial prayers for Nehru. He was asked to represent Judaism in conferences when the government was developing a uniform civil code. He says Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi greets him personally, recognizing him from his appearances at memorials and interfaith gatherings. Malekar figures he has attended 5,000 conferences representing Judaism over the past 30 years, speaking about various aspects of the religion. He has contributed over 100 articles in the major newspapers about Judaism. Although he is not following the majority of the Bene Israel in making aliya, he has been to Israel 4 times. He took special courses at Kibbutz Shefayim to learn about Torah — and how to protect synagogues from terrorism.

Malekar presided over the synagogue’s Golden Jubilee celebration on January 23. He cited the synagogue’s Shabbat services, Hebrew classes, interfaith meetings, and library. He said that the congregation began recognizing women in the minyan since last year, declaring, “If I want Judaism to survive in India, I must shed all the religious beliefs which are not practical in today’s world.” Indeed, the next spiritual leader may well be Malekar’s daughter, Shulamith.

Certificates and gifts were distributed to major figures in the community, and a special International Distinguished Leadership Award was presented to Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of New York, who was present with 45 fellow travelers. Tokayer was recognized as an “honorary member of the Indian Jewish community” who began coming to India in 1963 and leads annual tours. In fact, prior to his stop in New Delhi, Tokayer had been to Alibag, where he donated a Torah to a synagogue to replace one damaged in the monsoons of 2006. In the reception there, the Torah scroll was carried under a red and gold huppah, while men sang and danced on a street carpeted in white cloth on which rose petals were scattered.

In his acceptance speech, Tokayer recognized the Judah Hyam group as “a small but high-quality Jewish community.” He went on to recall some of its distinguished past members, including architect Joshua Benjamin, a doctor who treated Mahatma Gandhi, the founder of a zoo, a poet laureate of India, a woman who founded a Muslim girls’ school, another woman who developed a mobile kindergarden “crèche” for street children, and the “greatest living military hero of India sitting right here – General Jack Jacob.”

Nissim Moses inaugurated the shul’s latest feature, the Bene Israel Jewish Inter-Active Heritage & Genealogy Kiosk. This kiosk has a touch-screen to enable visitors to learn about the community, including family trees of the Bene Israel. In fact, Bene Israel visitors will be able to contribute their family data and even be photographed for incorporation into the family tree data bank.

Following a maariv service, the crowd adjourned to a festive pavilion tent for an elaborate Indian dinner. At the meal it was announced that Rabbi Tokayer was enabling the congregation to make the evening’s temporary tent a permanent feature, to be known as the Jerusalem Pavilion. Thus, despite its demographics, the synagogue continues to grow.