The Bene Israel

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

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Jewish Education and Communal Organization

While Christian missionaries were trying to convert the Bene Israel, in 1826 a group of dedicated Cochin Jewish teachers left their community in order to live among the Bene Israel in Bombay and Kolaba District and teach them about mainstream Jewish observance. A second group of Cochin teachers arrived in 1833.

On weekdays, they taught Jewish religion and Hebrew reading and writing; on Saturdays, they conducted morning prayer services and discussed halakhah and Jewish beliefs in the afternoons.

More Bene Israel synagogues were founded, and each became a vital center of religious, social, and communal life. With no ordained rabbi, the synagogue was served by a hazan (cantor), usually a Cochin, Baghdadi, or Yemenite Jew who also served as shohet (slaughterer for kosher meat), mohel (ritual circumcisor), and sofer (scribe).

During the 19th century, Bene Israel families also settled in Pune, Ahmadabad, Karachi, Delhi, and other Indian cities. Initially, Jewish prayer services were held in the homes of community members, but in time a substantial synagogue or--where there were too few Jewish residents—an attractive prayer-hall was erected.

Two main factors contributed to the community's dispersal throughout the Indian subcontinent. First of all, during the British period, educated Bene Israel were favored for civil service positions. Second, relatively large numbers of Bene Israel served in the government police services, the army, navy, merchant marine, and (in the 20th century) the air corps. All these vocations tended to involve permanent or temporary postings far from Bene Israel population centers.

For those stationed in remote places, the only reminder of their Jewishness would often be home life and the Jewish calendar--that is, the Jewish High Holidays, Passover, or family rites of passage. On these occasions, they would travel to Bombay, to their native villages, or to the nearest Jewish congregation in order to celebrate with family or at least be together with fellow Jews.

The Bene Israel in Recent Times

Over the course of the 19th century, Bene Israel were confronted for the first time with the simultaneous influences of Jewish orthodoxy, secular education, and Western ideas. The choices they made then--and continued to make in the 20th century--depended upon such variables as proximity to other Jews and to a synagogue, finances, and degree of actual contact and familiarity with various expressions of Jewish observance.

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

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