Bombay, India — It is Saturday, the Sabbath, the holiest day of the week for Jews. But 75 year old Freddy Sopher sits in a nearly empty synagogue.
The vacant benches represent the dramatic change that Bombay’s Jewish community has experienced in the past 40 years and a troubling forecast for the future.
At the time of India’s independence in 1947, there were more than 27,000 Iraqi Jews in Bombay. Now fewer than 100 mostly older men and women are registered in the synagogue.
“Ks a kid I remember we weren’t allowed to sit on a chair (in the synagogue) because it was so full,” Sopher said.
Iraqi or Baghdadi Jews fled to the port cities of Bombay and Calcutta more than 200 years ago to escape religious persecution in the Persian Gulf region.
“There’s hardly anyone left,’ said Sophie Kelly, a trustee of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, the oldest Baghdadi Jewish temple in Bombay.
Two waves of emigration the first when the state of Israel was created in 1948 and the second after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war drained India of much of its Jewish community.
Once the exodus began, those who stayed behind found it difficult to remain.
“Everyone was trying to get their children out … because there was no Jewish community,” recalled Lulu Patel, whose children now live in Israel.
“My children asked, “Who will we marry?” said 80 year old Ory Ezra, who himself moved to Israel in 1968 but had returned for a visit.
Without holiday visitors, barely a dozen people show up for evening services in the spacious, meticulously cared for synagogue in the city center.
Most of the Jews who have decided to stay tenaciously cling to religious rituals.
“Byen in this minimal community, prayers are still an intense religious experience,” Kelly added.
Many feel the only way to keep their identity in India is to strictly adhere to ancient Jewish dietary, health and social practices.
“The Jews have not assimilated at all,” said Kelly. “There is a high standard of orthodoxy here.”
Yet Indian culture has inevitably seeped in. Dinner at Kelly’s house starts with Jewish chicken soup and matzo balls, but ends with Indian mutton curry.
The effortless blending of cultures is surprising. India is notorious for bloody religious rivalries among its native Hindu, Moslem and Sikh communities. Yet Jews have found a welcome haven.
“Of all the countries in the world, India is the most hospitable,” said Kelly. “There never is, never was, and never will be any persecution whatsoever.”
“India is very religious minded,” added Moshe Sultoon, the synagogue’s head trustee. “They respect people who are religious.”
The street outside the synagogue reflects the harmony.
Hindu sacred cows saunter past on Gandhi Road. While Indian children playing outside a Bengali sweet shop listen to Jewish chants floating from the temple’s open window.
“Twenty years from now, the synagogue will still be standing here,” he said.
When asked if there would be any Jews left to’ pray there, he said, “We have to carry on. There will still be somebody here.”