Delhi's last ten Jewish families guard an ancient heritage

Mon May 23, 2011 4:11am EDT
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By Henry Foy

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - In the capital of one of the world's most religiously-diverse countries, a Rabbi who has never been ordained bends ancient customs, ensuring New Delhi's ten Jewish families a place to worship.

Unlike most synagogues, there is no separation of men and women as Jewish-born worshippers, converts and followers of other faiths chant Psalms in perfect Hebrew, with doors thrown open to all. The service leader never asks attendees what religion they follow, and envisions his daughter becoming India's first female rabbi.

"Being a small community, we cannot be so rigid, so orthodox," says Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, honorary secretary of the synagogue whose unpaid job of thirty years has overlooked religious convention to keep this tiny group together.

"Our openness, our liberal approach is what allows us to survive. For reading the Torah, you must require ten men, a minyan. But I made radical changes, because why should we discriminate between women and men? I count the women."

In the small Judah Hyam Synagogue, tucked between one of the city's most popular markets and most expensive hotels, the tight community, as inconspicuous as the small black plaque outside, gathers every Friday to bring in Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.

The synagogue and its adjoining cemetery, gifted to Delhi's Jews by the Indian government in 1956, is one of over 30 in India, where Jews first arrived 2,000 years ago but account for barely 5,000 people in a population exceeding 1.2 billion.

Lieutenant General J.F.R. Jacob, a former governor of Punjab and Goa and the synagogue's President, leads the service alongside a Canadian tourist for a dozen worshippers who have travelled up to 30 kilometers (19 miles) across the city.

Some of the small crowd have been coming to the small, brightly-lit synagogue for decades, and say the weekly services are crucial in binding together the city's Jewish families.   Continued...

<p>Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, honorary secretary of the Judah Hyam Synagogue synagogue, poses with a shofar horn inside the synagogue in New Delhi May 20, 2011. REUTERS/B Mathur</p>