One can forgive a Panvel resident for being in the dark about the Beth-el Synagogue. Camouflaged in the heart of the busy MG Road, this 165-year-old building that is a place of worship for the Bene-Israel community remains one of the area's best-kept secrets.
Since the Sabbath falls on Saturdays, people often confuse the Beth-el Synagogue with the actual Shani Mandir, a Hindu temple, which lies about 150 metres away from the building. Pics/Nevin Thomas
Roots in Israel
The synagogue is where 20 families spread across Raigad and Navi Mumbai attend service. The forefathers of the community migrated to villages in the Konkan after reaching Navgaon in Alibaug nearly 2,000 years ago.
The Ten Commandments are inscribed on the main door of the Beth-el Synagogue
Today, Bene-Israeli settlements in India are spread across Pune, Ahmedabad and Kolkata, while some families have returned to Israel. Originally, associated with professions like oil pressing and carpentry, they were given positions of authority during the colonial rule, which led to people pursuing other jobs.
Kenesseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in Mumbai. Pic/AFP
The first installation of the synagogue was in 1849. Back then it was constructed of mud and clay, like every other building in the region during that time.
The community has since been making constant changes inside the synagogue. The synagogue received its most recent facelift in 2010 that saw the inclusion of Dholpuri tiles for the exterior façade, and white marbles in the interior.
Sign of the times
Though situated in a busy part of the town, one is transported to a world of peace and tranquility, once you enter the small blue gate that leads into the space.
The first thing that we notice is the warm smiles with which one is greeted with. “We get a lot of visitors from across the world who are not necessarily Jews,” informs Moses Jacob Korlekar, secretary of the Beth-El Synagogue.
“They believe in the divine power of the synagogue. Many even return after their prayers are fulfilled. Last year, we had visitors from America, Australia and Israel,” he shares. We also learnt that their cemetery located at a walking distance from the synagogue has tombs that date back to over 250 years.
The entrance of the synagogue has a list of the commandments on a glass plate. Every year, the families gather to celebrate the Shavout, the day when God gave them the Ten Commandments.
They also get together and celebrate Kippur and Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). The families get their Kosher food from Panvel itself. The community members manage the synagogue.
A committee of seven members, of which five are women, presently runs the trust. “We believe in equal rights,” asserts Korlekar. The committee is presently preparing for the 165th anniversary of the Synagogue, which will be celebrated on June 8 this year.
Jews in India
India is home to three main Jew sects: Bene Israelis, Baghdadi and Cochinese (divided into Ancient and White Jews). Bene Israelis at their peak in the 1950s and 60s numbered 25,000 (all India); today, 4,500 remain. They are also known as Konkani Jews. The Baghdadi Jews arrived from Baghdad in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Their highest numbers were 6,000 in the 1950s and 60s. Today barely 50 families remain. The Cochinese Jews arrived on the Malabar coast in Kerala from Israel. Some records date back to King Solomon’s time. Less than 10 Cochinese Jews survive today.