Ancient Synagogue in India Holds First Shabbat Service in Decades, With Congregants From Four Continents
An ancient synagogue in India recently held its first Shabbat service since 1972, Religious News Service (RNS) reported.
According to the report, congregants from four continents gathered at Cochin’s nearly 900-year-old Kadavumbagam synagogue for what could be the last Shabbat service in a region that once had a thriving Jewish community, but has since seen most of its Jewish residents immigrate to Israel. Only about 30 Jews remain in Cochin.
“I’m very sad to see communities disappear,” said Yehoshua Sivan, who came from Israel to attend the service. “On the other hand, I’m very happy to see that after all these years of dispersion the prophecy of the return to the land of Israel is in my time — I’m part of it — is being realized. At least we see how life was once here.”
The service was organized after Ari Greenspan, a Brooklyn native and veteran immigrant to Israel, visited the synagogue a year ago while on vacation and met the temple’s Jewish caretaker, Elias Josephai. The synagogue’s emptiness saddened Josephai, who said, “I cry every Sabbath. Every holiday, I cry in my heart.”
The temple’s sacred Torah scrolls were donated years ago to a museum in Israel and Josephai, 60, runs a nursery and aquarium supply business in the synagogue, according to RNS.
“When he told us that they hadn’t prayed in that synagogue since 1972, I said to myself, I’ve got to come back with a group of 10 men,” Greenspan said, referring to a quorum of 10 men, also known as a minyan, that is required for a Jewish prayer service. He then organized a tour of India’s Jewish communities with help from the Orthodox Union, which encourages Jewish heritage tours.
“I came here out of interest to see the various ways Jews have lived throughout the world. With the changing situation there are fewer and fewer Jewish communities as things become more centralized,” said New Jersey resident Larry Linhoff, who was one of 35 people who attended the Cochin service.
Fellow New Jersey resident Michael Wimpfheimer added, “It’s wonderful to go into a building which hasn’t been used in a very long time. At least you’re able to have it function again for the purpose a synagogue was meant, namely to hold a prayer service. It’s kind of a revitalization, even for a short time.”
Seeing the synagogue fill with people was something Josephai had been waiting 44 years to see. Visitors entering the sanctuary stopped to praise their host and Greenspan said, “You’re sort of on the cusp because when he goes — he should live to be 120 years old — [but] when he goes, that’s it. Two thousand years of Cochin is gone.”
Jews began settling along India’s Malabar Coast because of the ancient spice trade that attracted explorers from across the globe, according to RNS. Jews from Yemen and Mesopotamia came to trade, but some stayed and settled in the area. Others came from Spain and Portugal after the Spanish Inquisition.
Cochin Jews, also called Malabari Jews, began leaving India for Israel in the 1950s, with the hopes of seeking better economic prospects and religious fulfillment. Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were handed over to the municipal authorities, but were often neglected or sought out for redevelopment.
There is not much history of antisemitism in India, and C. Karmachandran, a retired professor who leads a local historic preservation committee, said the Jews who lived in India were very good friends and neighbors.
“They were given all the protection by the rulers, as well as the local people, to maintain their culture, their religion. And this in fact is the living symbol of that particular lofty tradition,” Karmachandran said during a tour of another synagogue in the small town of Mala.
He added, “The coming generation must know that there was a Jewish community here. One of the most important criticisms that India faces at present is the religious intolerance between segments of society, and this is a lesson of tolerance.”