The special journey of Bene Israel’s Shalom Torah

Bene Israel are the largest and oldest of three Indian Jewish communities, followed by the Cochin and Baghdadis.

The Shalom Sefer Torah (photo credit: COURTESY NISSIM MOSES)
The Shalom Sefer Torah
(photo credit: COURTESY NISSIM MOSES)

David Reuben Pingle, a founding member of one of the first Bene Israel synagogues in Israel named Shaar E Shalom in Lod, once told this author a very interesting story of how a Sefer Torah from the erstwhile Magen Shalom Bene Israel Synagogue in Karachi was salvaged and transported to Milan, Italy. There it was found by another Bene Israel member, refurbished, and brought to the synagogue in Lod.
Bene Israel are the largest and oldest of three Indian Jewish communities, followed by the Cochin and Baghdadis. There are estimated to be more than 80,000 Bene Israel and their descendants living in Israel today, and they have some 70 synagogues from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat.
Another part of the Shalom Torah puzzle fell into place in an interview with Sasson Meir about his famous father, Rabbi Meir Eliyahu (Muttath), a sopher (scribe) and stam (Torah writer), from the Malabari Jewish community of Cochin.
He would make a complete Sefer Torah on his own, from preparing the klaf (parchment) to the writing of the scroll. His son, Sasson, helped him in the preparation and processing of the parchment.
The hazan (cantor) of the Magen Shalom Synagogue in Karachi was a Malabari Jew named David Hai Moshe Madai, who was appointed cantor in 1923 and served there for 30 years. He then made aliyah and settled in Moshav Taoz, where he died in 1966.
Sometime early in the history of the beautiful Magen Shalom Synagogue, the management decided to acquire a Sefer Torah from the famous rabbi, Meir Eliyahu. This Sefer Torah was in use for several years until after the partitioning of India into Pakistan and India.
Following the partitioning, it became unsafe for the Bene Israel and Jews in general to continue to reside in Pakistan, and they gradually started moving to India, Israel and elsewhere in the world.
In 1988, the Karachi’s Magen Shalom Synagogue was razed to the ground by then president-dictator of Pakistan, Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, to make way for a mall. As a result of this destruction, various artifacts of the synagogue found their way to other destinations outside Pakistan.
One of the Torahs, the one specifically made by Rabbi Meir Eliyahu, found its way to a Jewish synagogue in Milan named Ohel Shalom.
It so happened that one of the families of the congregation were Bene Israel named George (Shalom) Solomon (Kharvilkar) and Ruth Solomon (nee Hannel Mirzoeff).
During the performance of Jewish rituals in the synagogue, Solomon happened to notice that one particular Sefer Torah was never taken out and he inquired as to why. He was informed that it was from the Bene Israel Magen Shalom Synagogue in Karachi, and furthermore, it was pasul (defective) – due to improper maintenance and transportation, some of the letters had faded or been rubbed off.
He convinced the management of the synagogue in Milan to have it returned to a Bene Israel synagogue in Israel. Coincidentally, the first Bene Israel synagogue in Israel that had a large membership of Jews from Karachi was named Shaar E Shalom.
The management of Ohel Shalom accepted the proposal from George (Shalom) Solomon and his family that the Sefer Torah should go to a Bene Israel synagogue, and gave it to him as is. When Solomon and his family made aliyah in early 2003, they decided to invest their money to recondition and refurbish the Sefer Torah with the help of a leading stam, Rabbi Haskel.
After the reconditioning, they donated it to the Shaar E Shalom Synagogue in Lod at a special dedication ceremony in late 2003.
While interviewing the Sasson Meir family in Ramle, this author became aware of this story about the Karachi Sefer Torah being from India and brought to Israel. The author made additional inquires and correlated the scribe of that specific Sefer Torah to be the work of Rabbi Meir Eliyahu and the one in the Shaar E Shalom Synagogue.
At a farewell party to Indian Ambassador Jaideep Sarkar and his wife, Minako, in 2016, at the ambassador’s residence in Herzliya, the author noted that Ruth Solomon, wife of George (Shalom) Solomon, and Sipporah Meir, wife of Sasson Meir, had been friends. It soon became obvious that they had no clue as to the close relationship between them.
When asked to give a short lecture at the farewell party, I chose to talk about “The Living History and Salvaging of the Shalom Sefer Torah and Correlating the Families of the Scribe of the Sefer Torah and the restorers and saviors of a Historical Artifact and Monument of Bene Israel Heritage.”
I called upon the two sides to come to the front and introduced them to each other anew. Ambassador Sarkar, his wife and the audience were thrilled that history was coming alive in their home. The two sides could not believe their eyes – and that despite knowing each other for so long, they had no knowledge as to how closely they were connected!