The Bene Israel

The oldest and largest of the three Jewish communities in India.

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The Bene Israel Community in Bombay

In 1674, the British East India Company moved its headquarters to the islands of Bombay (Mumbai). By the mid-18th century, Bombay had developed into a metropolis with a bustling port city, attracting thousands of Indians from the countryside, including hundreds of Bene Israel.

Although most of the community remained in the villages, many Bene Israel were tempted by the opportunities in Bombay for employment and education. Others moved to the city in order to enlist in the "Native Forces" of the British East India Company's (and later the British Government's) Military Services. The relative proportion of enlistment, of decorations for bravery, and of promotion to the highest ranks possible for Native Forces was extremely high among the Bene Israel, given the size of their total population.

In Bombay, Bene Israel worked mainly in construction, in the shipyards, and as carpenters. Here, they were introduced to new techniques and new kinds of tools. Because an oil-pressing monopoly already existed in the city, they did not pursue their traditional occupation.

In 1796, the first Bene Israel synagogue, Sha'ar haRahamim, was founded in Bombay.

Thanks to the Missionaries

India's Bene Israel are unique among Diaspora communities because it was a Christian missionary who created--albeit unintentionally--a firm basis for the Bene Israel community's entry into mainstream Jewry.

The British did not allow missionaries into British territories in India until 1813, but soon thereafter European and American Christian missions were established with headquarters in Bombay. The Reverend John Wilson of the Church of Scotland (later of the Free Church of Scotland) arrived in India in 1829 and worked with the Indians of Bombay and Kolaba District until his death in 1875. He was a scholar, an erudite writer, and one of the founders of Bombay University (1857).

Wilson introduced Hebrew as a subject for matriculation and for higher education. He saw in the Bene Israel the biblical "remnant of Israel." It was Wilson who wrote, in 1838, the first serious account of the Bene Israel and their customs. Already in 1832, he wrote and published in Bombay The Rudiments of Hebrew Grammar in Marathi, "intended for the benefit of the Native Israelites."

Using Wilson's book of Hebrew-Marathi grammar as a first step, some pupils became very proficient in Hebrew. In due course, they themselves became teachers of Hebrew, not only in Wilson's schools but also at the college and university level. These Bene Israel scholars published Marathi translations of classic Hebrew texts, Jewish prayer books, rabbinical commentaries, and sermons. Each Hebrew text was accompanied by a parallel translation into Marathi, for the first time giving the Bene Israel access to a wide range of Jewish texts.

In addition, Bene Israel studied the English language and secular subjects in Wilson's schools, which opened up a whole new world of knowledge. Most important, their literacy in Hebrew and in English enabled them to communicate and maintain contact with mainstream Jewry.

It is remarkable that during a century of concentrated efforts to convert Bene Israel to Christianity, the various missions met with almost no success at all. In 1854, after Rev. Wilson had been in India for 25 years, he wrote "... the labours of the Bombay Missions have not yet been blessed to the conversion of any of their number."

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Shirley Berry Isenberg is the author of India's Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook.