Today most Indian Jews live in and around Mumbai, particularly in Thane, a suburb 35 kilometers from the city. The community is composed of three distinct groups: the dominant Bene Israel, who believe themselves to be the descendants of the original settlers who came to India as early as 2,000 years ago; the Jews of Malabar, centered in Cochin, whose forefathers arrived in India from Europe and the Middle East as early as 1,000 years ago; and the Iraqi Jews, called “Baghdadis,” who began settling in India at the end of the 18th century.
The Indian Jewish community has shrunk considerably in recent years, primarily due to emigration.
Myths surround the origins of the Jews of India, particularly the Bene Israel and the Jews of Cochin. The Bene Israel claim to have arrived in India in the 2nd century b.c.e.
The first documented evidence of this community dates from the 17th century. Isolated from the rest of Jewry, the Bene Israel adopted many Muslim and Hindu customs.
The Bene Israel began to move to Mumbai in the late 18th century and built their first synagogue, Shaare Rahamim (Gates of Mercy), in 1796. In the early 19th century, the Bene Israel numbered approximately 6,000 and peaked at 20,000 in 1948.
The Cochin community was divided into three distinct groups, Paradesi or “White Jews,” “Black Jews,” and Meshuhrarim or “Freedmen.” These divisions were maintained until recent times by a rigid caste system. The Paradesi are descended from a mixture of Jewish exiles from Cranganore and (later) Spain, the Netherlands, Aleppo, and Germany. Firm evidence of their presence dates back to around 1000 c.e., when the local Hindu leader granted certain privileges to Joseph Rabban, the leader of the community. The Paradesi in Cochin still have the copper tablets on which these privileges are inscribed. The Black Jews, whose origins are less clear but are believed to precede those of the Paradesi (and may date back to antiquity), closely resemble their Indian neighbors and often bear biblical names. The Meshuhrarim were manumitted slaves, whose offspring were affiliated with either the Paradesi or the Black Jews.
The Baghdadi Jews first arrived from Iraq, Syria, and Iran around 1796, fleeing persecution in their native lands. The most prominent Baghdadi Jew was David Sassoon, who established the Indian House of Sassoon in 1832 and paved the way for the arrival of many other Iraqi Jews in India.
Keneseth Eliyahoo SynagogueThe central communal organization is the Council of Indian Jewry, which was established in 1978 in Mumbai. There are a variety of other organizations, including the Zionist Association, B’nai B’rith, a Jewish Club in Mumbai, Bikur Cholim, and two women’s associations.
Council of Indian Jewry / WJC Affiliate
c/o The Jewish Club
Jerro Bldg., 2nd floor
137 Mahatma Gandhi Road
Mumbai 400 023
Tel. 91 22 270 461, Fax 91 22 274 129
Magen Hassidim Synagogue
8 Mohd Shahid Marg, Agripada
Tel: +91 22 301 48 27
Magen David Synagogue
340 Sir J.J. Road, Byculla
Tel : +91 22 230 06 675
Kurla Bene Israel
275 C.S.T. Road, Jewish Colony, Kurla
Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue
55 V B Ghandi Road
India 400 001
Tel: +91 22 831 502
Ohel David Synagogue
9 Dr. Ambedkar Road
India 411 001
Tel: +91 20 261 320 48
There are three Jewish schools in Mumbai, but over the years, the percentage of Jews in their student bodies has dwindled. In the ORT school, for example, fewer than half the students are Jewish. There are also two small Jewish schools in Calcutta.
At its height, the community maintained 35 synagogues and prayer halls, but that number has declined to 18, the majority of which is in Mumbai. While at different periods, rabbis served these congregations, there are currently no rabbis officiating at these synagogues. A committee deals with important religious rituals such as marriage and conversion. Kosher food is available and shechita is performed locally.
India has many sites of Jewish interest, including numerous historic synagogues. Among the most magnificent is the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, which houses the copper plates on which the community charter of independence is kept. The synagogue, built in 1568 and reconstructed in 1662, has a clock tower featuring numerals in Roman, Hebrew, and Malayalam characters. Another place steeped in history is the Bene Israel cemetery in Navgaon, where it is thought that the original members of Bene Israel were shipwrecked.
Since 1992 Israel and India have enjoyed full diplomatic relations. Aliya: Since 1948, 26,641 Jews from India have emigrated to Israel.
Embassy of Israel
3 Aurngzeb Road
New Delhi 110003
Tel: 91 11 3013 238
Fax: 91 11 3014 298
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database