“Before, so many people used to come,” says David, says Chaim, say Tzion and Bentzion, say Dina, Moshe and Hazel. Anyone connected to the Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai’s Byculla area says the same thing, almost word for word, about the place: “There wasn’t even room on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, on Saturday) for everyone to come inside. And on the high holidays of New Year, Yom Kippur and Passover? Forget about it! The number of people who had to remain outside was at least double that of those inside.”
Usually, the conversation ends here; nostalgia for the past seems to be the only relevant topic of conversation. Most of Mumbai’s once-thriving Jewish community has emigrated to Israel and there are so few worshippers here now; not even always the mandatory 10 men who need to be present in order to take the Holy Torah Book out of its ark and read it. The once truly grand sky-blue Gothic building fell long ago into a state of decay and disrepair, with no one left among the scattered and ageing community to shoulder the cost and effort needed to return it to its past splendour.
The cracks prior to the repair. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
But now, there is new hope, cautious and shy, among those who worship here. The synagogue, built a century-and-a-half ago by the great Bombay businessman and philanthropist David Sassoon, has been renovated on the initiative of another famous Jew, Moshe Levy, an official Hero of Israel. So, on a Tuesday morning in late November, as 10 men and one woman, Dina, share their daily breakfast of chai and pao bhaji in a small room off the synagogue’s main hall after morning prayers, the talk among them is about the inaugural function on December 1, when Israeli dignitaries, the sponsors of the renovation, and perhaps as many as 300 members of the community will come together here to celebrate the first night of the Jewish festival of lights, Chanukah.
“We have our own Chanukah miracle to celebrate,” says David. He and the others speak of their new benefactor, Moshe Levy, and the Rs 45-odd lakh he and his partners Yossi Avrahami, David Mimoun, Phil Beinhaker and Isaac (Levy’s son) have spent on structural repair, painting, redoing the crumbling roof and other restoration work lasting a year-and-a-half at the synagogue, over which time the worshippers have seen their spiritual home slowly return to beauty. “You can feel it when a place has been cared for, it makes so much difference,” whispers Dina, a Parsi-Jew who has been praying here since childhood and who vows to continue doing so until her last day.
“My heart broke when I walked in and saw the state of the place. I had to do something immediately,” says Moshe Levy.
Moshe Levy, an Israeli born in Tunisia in 1946, arrived by chance at the Magen David Synagogue two years ago (though “nothing is by chance”, according to Benztiyon, the elderly caretaker at the synagogue). While on a business trip to Mumbai, he had asked to be taken to see a synagogue. “My heart broke when I walked in and saw the condition of the place, and I decided to do something about it immediately,” he told Outlook from his office in New Jersey, where he currently lives. Levy went on to personally hire contractors for the renovation, and supervise it closely, along with Isaac, over several business trips to Mumbai.
Levy is well known in the Jewish world both as a philanthropist and a man of action. One of only five men awarded the title Hero of Israel, he saved many soldiers in an extreme and rare act of heroism when they were caught in an ambush during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 on the Egyptian front. He himself lost his right arm and was critically injured: even today, his survival is considered to be a medical miracle.
Later, Levy became a businessman. His company, Safeguard Security Systems, has laid down the security systems for nuclear and chemical plants, airports, and other high-risk properties in the US and elsewhere; last year it was chosen to secure the international airport in Mumbai, and it was this contract that had brought him to India. “Moshe Levy told us what he would do, and he did it. That is rare, and we are overwhelmed,” says Solomon Sopher, who runs the Sassoon Trust, in charge of the synagogue and other Sassoon Jewish institutions.
Worshippers at the synagogue. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
Walking through the crowded streets of Byculla, now a predominantly Muslim area, it is hard to imagine that over 10,000 Jews once lived here, with their kosher shops and bakeries, infirmaries, courts of Jewish law, and schools. “We loved our Jewish neighbours,” says Salim Ahmed, a local shopkeeper, “and were sorry to see them disappear from the neighbourhood”.
After Sassoon, an aristocratic Baghdadi Jew who emigrated to Mumbai in 1830, built the Magen David synagogue in 1864, Jewish men of learning came from all over the eastern world to teach and lead the strictly observant community in the ways of their forefathers. At that time, the Baghdadi Jews did not mix with other Jewish groups, fearing their ritual observance was more lax than their own. “We are not strict anymore”, says Sopher, “There are so few of us, who are we to be strict? Better we all come together as long as we are still here”.
Today, despite the dwindling numbers, the worshippers’ mood is lifting. “There is a change, I can feel it,” says Chayim, who leads the prayer sessions in the mornings. “India is moving up, and Israelis and Jews are coming here for travel and business. Many stay on for years. They will need a place to pray, kosher food, a school for their children. They will come, you will see, they will start to fill the place, and on Shabbat, there will be nowhere to sit.” “Amen,” says an elderly man as he folds his prayer shawl and smiles ruefully. Then they all leave, blending in with the throng on the crowded, noisy street.