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Jewish Communities in India


The Jews of India
The story of the Jews in India has, on the whole, been a happy one where Jews dwelt in complete security and have been accorded an honorable place in the social structure of the land. India, predominantly a Hindu country of more than a billion people has approx. 130 million Moslems, 25 million Christians and less than 5000 Jews. She has been a generous mother but the pull of Israel besides economic factors prompted the Jews to emigrate. However with 14 synagogues and 2 Jewish schools still functioning, the fear of extinction has been kept at bay. But for how long?

The Jews of India consist of 4 distinct groups, each maintaining its separate identity with little admixture:

1) The Cochin Jews or Cochinis
2) The Baghdadis
3) The Bene Israel
4) The B’nei Menashe

The Cochin Jews
These Jews originated by settling in Cranganore and around in Malabar. They lived there for centuries. In the 15th. Century C.E. they took shelter in Cochin further south after being attacked by the Moors and later by the Portuguese. They numbered about 2500, but today there very few Jews in Cochin, mainly elderly men and women.

The Baghdadis
This sect consists of Jews from West Asia, mainly from Baghdad and Syria who came in the 19th. century as traders and refugees. They settled in Bombay, Calcutta and Pune. They first arrived in Surat which was the most important port on the West Coast. They spoke Arabic or Persian and English. At one time there were about 5000, but today less than 200, most of them having emigrated to U.K., Australia and Canada.

The Bene Israel
At the present moment it is the Bene Israel who predominate the Jewish presence in India. Their story is an old one. How old? It is and will continue to be a scholarly dispute. Oral tradition and probably the most favored is that descended from the Jews who fled in 175 B.C.E. from the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, were ship wrecked at Navgaon near the port of Cheul on the Konkan Coast, 30 miles South of Bombay. Seven men and seven women survived and from there the Bene Israel spread to many of the surrounding villages in the Konkan.

Most of the Bene Israel have surnames ending with “kar” identifying the villages where they resided. There are 142 such surnames. One, David Rahabi of Cochin is credited with the revival of Judaism amongst the Bene Israel. Fully convinced that the Bene Israel were Jews, he re-taught them Hebrew and the details of the Jewish religion. He appointed 3 Kazis from the prominent families who then became the teachers and preachers of the community. With Bombay becoming an important port of British India, the Bene Israel were encouraged to move to Bombay where opportunities were better for employment.

Click Here to learn more about the 100th anniversary celebration of the rededication of the Magen Aboth Synagogue in Alibag, Konkan, India

The B’nei Menashe
A new group which came into being in 1964 and has an interesting history with more than 5000 living in North East India. Many have recently emigrated to Israel.