Visiting India has been my dream for as long as I can remember. I always imagined posing in front of the Taj Mahal, decorating my hands and forearms with henna, and indulging in all the Indian delights from authentic chai to fresh mango lassis.
Last month that dream had come true, and while it included these touristy activities, my journey could not have been planned using a Lonely Planet guidebook. It was a unique kind of trip, one that exceeded any expectation for my first visit to this beautiful country. That’s because it was led by JDC Entwine, organized with elements of Judaism in mind.
JDC Entwine is the young adult engagement initiative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish humanitarian group. JDC Entwine hosts trips all around the globe to connect Jewish communities from around the world, with a focus on global responsibility. Inside India, JDC Entwine’s one-week program based in Mumbai, focused on meeting local residents of the Bene Israel community and seeing how JDC is making a positive impact with their local NGO partner, Gabriel Project Mumbai, which improves the lives of women and children in slums and rural villages.
When I told people I was going on a trip to meet Indian Jews, their responses were the same: “Jews… in India?!” I had the same reaction as well, which was why I knew I had to travel there and meet them myself.
The Bene Israel (“Children of Israel”) Jews, the largest of the three groups of Jewish people living in India, are believed to be one of the lost ten tribes of Israel who fled from the land of Israel around 175 BCE. It is said that they are survived from seven men and seven women whose ship crashed off the coast of Mumbai in the 4th century, ending up in surrounding villages. They’ve lived in Mumbai since the mid-18th century. Today there are 4,000 Jews in India, most of them Bene Israel in Mumbai.
The culture of the Bene Israel Jews is a harmonious blend of regional Indian customs, such as speaking Marathi and eating local foods, with the familiar Jewish traditions of keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and circumcision.
We visited synagogues dating back to the mid-19th century that are still in use today. These grand, ornate structures are protected by security guards 24/7 due to regulations by the Indian government, for which there is no great demand: India has virtually no anti-Semitism.
Still, I felt grateful for the ability to observe Shabbat safely in a foreign country. Attending a service at the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, one of the nine synagogues in Mumbai, was an experience I will never forget. I was in awe not only of the interior painted sky blue with gold trim and the long Victorian stained glass windows, but of the collective Jewish community I saw before me. It didn’t matter if you were a tourist who traveled from miles away, or one of the locals who was keeping his or her community alive: you were welcome with open arms to pray there.
On the Sabbath, we learned about special traditions of the community, such as reciting Kiddush with a banana and a date to symbolize plants and fruits. Another ritual that stood out was that while many of us are accustomed to covering our eyes when we recite the b’racha after lighting the Shabbat candles, the Indian locals in our group brought their hands to their lips to give them a kiss, while their eyes focused on the flames before them.
They also have a particular way of blessing someone on Shabbat, a greeting I found most endearing. You place your hands over someone else’s, look the other person in the eyes, wish them a Shabbat Shalom, and then bring your hands to your lips to kiss them, all while maintaining eye contact with the person before you. Partaking in this intimate tradition made me feel incredibly close and connected to people I had only just met.
The Bene Israelis also drink whiskey instead of wine during their Shabbat dinners and lunches, which is another tradition I can get behind!
A glimpse into Jewish India wouldn’t be complete without a visit to India’s only JCC, the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Centre, founded by JDC. Here we learned about the Jewish educational programming they offer, as well as some Bollywood dance moves! The community graciously fed us a dinner of chapati (unleavened bread made from whole wheat flour), lentils, paneer, bread rolls, and gulab jamun, a popular dessert consisting of fried dough balls soaked in cardamom syrup.
Engaging with fellow Jews from another part of the world is an enlightening and eye-opening experience. It is a reminder of how far our people have come, and where we continue to thrive, no matter the size of our communities.
Another important aspect of the trip was the emphasis of Jewish global responsibility. We saw this through Gabriel Project Mumbai, an NGO started by a Jewish man by the name of Jacob Sztokman, which works to improve healthcare, education, and nutrition in the slums and rural villages.
We had the opportunity to teach and play with the children in their classrooms, as well as learn about the many services GPM offers in the slums, including a new medical center, a water filtration system, and soap and paper recycling.
JDC did an excellent job of bridging the gap and bringing two sides of the world together through shared Jewish ancestry. We not only filled our bellies with biryani and made friends for life, but also saw examples of how to make a lasting impact in the world around us.
On the rooftop of our hotel on Friday evening, surrounded by palm trees and the warm glow of sunset, we lit candles and sang “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo” collectively, first in Hebrew and then in Hindi. During the song, we noticed an older couple approach our table of Shabbat candles. The man wore a Kippah, and both he and the woman wore grins on their faces.
Together they lit candles, and when our song came to an end, the man said to us, “We thought we were alone.”
Someone from our group responded to him: “You’re never alone”.
About the Author: Miranda Lapides is the deputy director of communications for the pro-Israel think tank The Endowment for Middle East Truth. Miranda graduated from George Mason University in 2015 with a B.A. in psychology. Her claim to fame is being named GatherDC’s Jewish Instagrammer of the Week. You can find her serving up lattes at Coffy Cafe in Columbia Heights on the weekends, and trying new food around the city.