Shrinking Jewish student numbers in Mumbai reflect depleted community

In a country where more than 30,000 Jews once lived, only about 5,000 remain, 4,000 of them around Mumbai.

indian jews 88 (photo credit: )
indian jews 88
(photo credit: )
In many ways, Queenie Mendoza, 34, is a typical success story for ORT India's Vocational Training and Computer Center. She worked as a servant before entering ORT's beautician program on her employer's recommendation. After graduating, she started a full-time job in the school's salon, and has worked there for 13 years. But Mendoza is not the type of student the founders had in mind when they established the school 45 years ago: She's Catholic. ORT, the Organization for educational Resources and Technological training, is an international Jewish organization with a mandate to help impoverished Jews. When the school opened in 1961 in Bombay, as this coastal metropolis used to be known, its student population was almost entirely Jewish. Three years ago, its boys' school closed due to a lack of Jewish students. Today, one of 18 girls studying early childhood care and education is Jewish, according to the program's coordinator, a ratio consistent across every other vocational course except computers. ORT is not the only local school that has seen its Jewish population virtually disappear. Two Mumbai high schools started by Jewish donors, which previously had Hebrew and Torah classes for the Jewish students, also have only a handful of Jewish students left. Religious schools with diverse student bodies are common in India. Nevertheless, the Mumbai Jewish schools reflect a depleted Jewish community. When asked about the community's future, ORT India Director Benjamin Isaac said confidently, "We will always have a Jewish presence in Mumbai." Then he qualified, "At least for the next 15 to 20 years." In a country where more than 30,000 Jews once lived, only about 5,000 remain, 4,000 of them around Mumbai. To stay open, Jewish schools have had to accept a broader population. Part of the reason for this, in the case of ORT, is that Mumbai's remaining Jews are leaving blue-collar jobs for fields like management and computers, Isaac said. Rabbi Joshua Kolet added that for a decade now the Jewish population has been moving to the suburbs, taking away schoolchildren. But the main factor is emigration, especially to Israel. "Young people are migrating to Israel because there are better prospects," said Elkan Palkar, 29, head of ORT's computer department. "All families have relatives in Israel." This doesn't mean Jews have no religious life around Mumbai. ORT sells kosher wine, challah, chicken and baked goods. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee runs a Jewish community center for 500 members who attend classes on Hebrew and Judaism, holiday parties, youth discos and clubs for children and seniors. Kolet, 36, a Mumbai native and the community's rabbi since 2001, started the Hazon Eli Foundation for Jewish Life in India two years ago to teach Torah, Hebrew and Jewish law in suburban Thane. He runs a Sunday school that attracts about 25 students each week. But many question whether these measures will re-energize the remnant of a formerly vibrant community. Even Palkar, who has family in Mumbai and a steady job at ORT, said he would consider leaving. Palkar travels more than an hour by train one Sunday a month to teach Torah in local villages. He visited Israel last summer on birthright israel, and said he wants to move for religious reasons. In Mumbai, he said, synagogues have trouble getting a minyan, and unless one works for a Jewish organization, it's difficult to take off work for Shabbat and holidays. Mumbai's remaining Jews are descendants of two communities, the Baghdadis and the Bene Israel. The Baghdadi Jews, who at their peak numbered 5,000, came from Iraq about 250 years ago. The Baghdadis, many of whom were wealthy traders and businessmen, were generally anglicized and comfortable under British rule. After Indian independence virtually all of them left for England, Israel or other countries. Less than 200 Baghdadi Jews remain in Mumbai. About 1,000 Baghdadi Jews live in Israel, according to Ze'ev Schwartzberg, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel's India desk. Most of Mumbai's community is made up of Bene Israel, Jews who trace their origins to a shipwreck off the Maharashtra coast around 175 B.C.E. According to legend, the shipwreck left seven Jewish couples from the Galilee living on the Indian coast. Their progeny today speak Marathi and maintain customs peppered with Indian traditions. "They eat rice and mangos, play cricket and wear saris," Isaac said. "If you live in a village for 2,000 years, you're not going to be eating matzah." For the past half century, the Bene Israel also have been emigrating in large numbers, motivated by Zionism, a sense of Jewish identity and economic uncertainty in the early years after Indian independence. Immigration to Israel started in 1948, and increased after the Israeli government accepted the Bene Israel as Jews in 1964. Part of the reason the ORT school was founded in 1961 was to help Jewish men gain skills in draftsmanship, electronics or mechanics that would make them employable in Israel. There are between 55,000 and 60,000 Bene Israel in Israel today, according to the Jewish Agency. Today, the largest Bene Israel synagogue in Mumbai, Magen Hassidim, attracts about 60 worshippers on Shabbat, Isaac said. The other synagogues get fewer than 30 worshippers. According to community leaders, aliyah has slowed over the past decade - particularly in the past two or three years - and Mumbai's Jewish population has remained constant. Kolet said aliyah has declined largely for economic reasons. "If the community wants to continue, it's viable," Kolet said. "And the community doesn't want to move."