Home > Calcutta (Kolkata), Calcutta (Kolkata) Jews, Calcutta Festival, Calcutta Heritage, General > Beth El and Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata, Re-dedication & Celebration of Restoration

Beth El and Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata, Re-dedication & Celebration of Restoration

Beth El and Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata

Re-dedication & Celebration of Restoration

Also See: Kolkata (Calcutta ) Jews

As the Muslim boys of Elias Meyer School (popularly known as Jewish Boys School) sang Hebrew song of peace Oseh Shalom at the Magen David Synagogue in Kolkata Ezra Moses could no longer hold his tears.

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Re-dedication and Celebration of Restoration of the Beth El Synagogue, Kolkata

A emotional Ezra Moses, presently a resident of Miami, USA, murmured “this is where my parents got married, long time back, probably in 1943. This is the city of my birth.”

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Daniel Carmon, Ambassador of Israel in India, leads the way inside the newly opened Beth El Synagogue

Ezra Moses was not alone. Over 50 Jewish men and women, from different parts of India and world, have made it back to the city of their  roots.

They were there to witness the restoration and re-dedication of the two synagogues of Kolkata, Magen David and Beth El.

But all those present in the reopened Synagogues had a Kolkata connection. Irene Judah has come from Pune.

She is a Maharashtrian Jew with no Kolkata connection, she didn’t want to miss out the historic event.

The reopening of the Synagogues turned out to be one of the greatest gathering of the Indian Jews in recent years and Irene Judah didn’t want to give it a miss.

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A group of Jewish ladies enjoy a moment of nostalgia at Beth El Synagogue

Kolkata has always been a melting pot of various cultures & religions. Jews were one of the last communities to arrive in Kolkata.

Within a short span of time they made their presence felt by controlling a large section of the trade in Kolkata.

According to historical records, the first recorded Jewish immigrant to Kolkata (Calcutta) was Shalom ben Aaron ben Obadiah Ha – Cohen, in short Shalon Cohen..

He was originally from Aleppo, in present day Syria, arrived in Kolkata from Surat in 1798, little more than a hundred years after the arrival of Job Charnock. Soon other Jews started making Kolkata their home.

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Prayer by Rabbi Tzvi Rivkin and his three sons at Beth El Synagogue

Apart from Aleppo, they came from Bagdad & Basra (Iraq) and Isfahan (Iran). They were known as the Bagdadi Jews and spoke Arabic and wore Arab styled clothes. By the early nineteenth century there was a thriving Jews settlement in Kolkata.

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L: Jo Cohen (general secretary Jewish Community Affairs) with the inaugural speech. R: Daniel Carmon, (Ambassador of Israel in India) with is speech. Beth El Synagogue

By the middle of the 19th century there was drastic change in lifestyle of Jews in Kolkata. They started discarding their Arab style of dressing and started adopting the European dress code. There language changed from Arabic to English and Hebrew names were anglicized. They wanted the British to recognize them as Europeans but it never happened.

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Students of the Jewish Girl School sings Shalom Aleichem (song of peace) at Beth El Synagogue

In the early 19th century as the Jewish population in the city grew, they were in need of a Synagogue. Neveh Shalome Synagogue (also called Neveh Shalom Synagogue), the first Calcutta (Kolkata) Synagogue was built in 1831 by Shalom Cohen.

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Ornamental Casing holding Torah (holy Jewish text), Beth El Synagogue

Neveh Shalome Synagogue was just a simple prayer hall at the intersection of Brabourne Road and Canning Street (Biplabi Rashbehari Road.

As the Calcutta (Kolkata) Jews community grew in numbers and power they were no longer satisfied with the simple prayer hall.

In 1856 the magnificent Beth El Synagogue was built at the nearby Pollock Street. In 1884 the simple prayer hall of Naveh Shalome was demolished to give way to the grand Maghen David Synagogue.

Magen David is still considered as the grandest and the most ornate synagogue in the whole of Asia. (See also: Synagogues of Kolkata and Naveh Shalome Synagogue). In 1911 Naveh Shalome was rebuilt next to Magen David and keeping in lines of the old prayer hall the new Neveh Shalome Synagogue was kept simple.

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Sons of Rabbi Rivkin enjoy themselves at the Beth El Synagogue

There were two other prayer halls in the city Magen Aboth Synagogue (1897) and Shaare Rasoon Synagogue (1933) but they no longer exist. But the three synagogues still remains in their former glory.

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Interiors of Beth El Synagogue, with the upper gallery reserved for ladies

Independence of India in 1947 and the formation of the Jewish state of Israel lead to the fall in Jewish population in the city. Israel encouraged emigration and provided housing and education to the emigrants, so many of the Kolkata Jews packed their bags and headed for Israel.

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A mosaic at Beth El complex showing the 10 commandments, menorah (candle stand) and the 12 tribes

As other Kolkata Jews headed for greener pastures in UK, USA, Canada and Australia the Kolkata population started rapidly shrinking. Today only a dozen Jews are left in the city.

Today the Magen David and Beth El are presently protected monuments under Archaeological  Survey of India (ASI) although the ownership still lies with the Jewish Board.

In 2015 the two synagogues was closed to public for extensive repairs and restoration. After two years of pain staking work the Synagogues were restored back to their former glory.

Conservation architect A G Krishna Menon said that this was not an easy project as roofs were leaking, there were cracks in the pillars and the plaster was peeling off.

As the Jewish community celebrated the reopening he too was emotional and said “heritage doesn’t have religion.”

17 December 2017 was the D day. After almost two years of restoration the gates of the two synagogues were again open to public. It turned out to be the greatest gathering of the Indian Jewish community in recent history.

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Grand Interiors of the Magen David Synagogue during the reopening

Ambassador of Israel in India Daniel Carmon came all the way from Delhi in his introductory speech he said although Kolkata never had a sizeable Jewish population (Jewish population in Kolkata rose to its height in early 1940s when they numbered about 5000) but the Jews have always considered Kolkata as there home.

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Photo session at Magen David Synagogue

He continued saying that the community has always been welcomed and well treated in Kolkata.

The Ambassador added that the Jews always had a strong cultural bond with the city and have contributed significantly in art and culture.

Jewish priest Rabbi Tzvi Rivkin came all the way from Bangalore. Rabbi Rikivin first came to India with Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, who was killed in 26/11 Mumbai militant attack.

Rabbi Tzvi Rivkin came back to India after Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg death as he didn’t want the terrorism to win. Today he heads the Chabad Lubavitch Centre and Jewish Community Centre in Bangalore.

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Lighting of the candles at Magen David Synagogue

He travels extensively in India and abroad and prefer to call himself the Flying Rabbai. He was in Kolkata with his wife and four little boys.

Both the Synagogues were inaugurated Rabbi Tzvi Rivikin by blowing the shofar (a bugle made out of animal horn).

The Ambassador cut the blue ribbon at the gates to officially reopen the two century old synagogues.

Jews community danced and sang. They hugged each other as tears of joy rolled down there cheeks.

It was a grand reunion as people took selfies and groupfies and  even posed for the traditional group photograph.

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Ashkenazy Brothers join Rabbi Tzvi Rivikin and his three kids in a song at Magen David Synagogue

The crowd also included representatives from other religion like the Parsees and the Armenian Orthodox Christians. Kolkata has always been a melting pot of people and Gopi Mundkur, with no Jewish connection, was also there.

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Ornate decoration at the Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata

Gopi Mundkur was there to meet his Jewish fellow alumni from the La Martiniere for Boys, the Ashkenazy brother (Isaac and David), well known names in the dwindling Jews community of Kolkata. Also present were the the staff and teachers of the Jews Boys and Girls School, none of whom were Jews.

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Ornate decoration at the Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata

I am no stranger to the synagogues of Kolkata (See also: Synagogues of Kolkata and Naveh Shalome Synagogue). I have visited the three synagogues on several occasion but most of the time it was a solo visit.

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Chandelier and Stained Glass, Magen David Synagogue

In a few cases I was accompanied by a handful of friends, but to see the synagogues buzzing with people was also an emotional moment for me.

The ceremony at the Beth El consisted of the official Dedication Sermon by Rabbi Tzvi Rivikin. It was followed by speeches by Joe Cohen (general secretary Jewish Community Affairs) and Daniel Carmon, (Ambassador of Israel in India).

The star attraction of Beth El Synagogue was the singing of Shalom Aleichem (song of peace) in Hebrew by the students of the Jewish Girl School, something that probably happen only in Kolkata.

Jewish Girls School is a school run by the Jewish Board. For a long time they have no Jews students in its rolls.

Presently the students consists of a high Muslim majority. No wonder the Hebrew song was sung mainly by the Muslim students of the Jewish Girls School.

As the song progressed chills ran down the spine of the old Kolkata Jews, a few of whom were ex students of the Jews Girls School. Tears rolled down their cheeks, as they recall fond memories of their old school.

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A chandelier at Magen David Synagogue

After a light but tasty snacks at the Beth El the group took a walk through the crowded streets to the Magen David Synagogue.

It was a similar affair in Magen David, which is often considered as the grandest and most ornate Synagogue of East.

The ceremony started with the lighting of the candles. Three of Rabbi Tzvi Rivikin four sons joined him in song and prayer.

It was then the turn of the boys Elias Meyer School (popularly known as Jewish Boys School) sang Hebrew song of peace Oseh Shalom. Again emotions ran high as tears ran down the cheeks of many a former students of the school.

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Boys of Elias Meyer School ( Jewish Boys School) sang Hebrew song of peace Oseh Shalom at the Magen David Synagogue

Finally it was the turn of the popular Kolkata singer Usha Uthup who mesmerized the crowd with her thundering voice. She was soon joined by the Student of both the Jewish Schools.

Muslim boys and girls singing Hebrew songs in a Synagogue my sound unusual but Kolkata is a city where one finds harmony among extreme contrast. No wonder Kolkata has always been a true melting pot.

For the ages the three of Kolkata Synagogues have been looked upon by Muslim caretakers.

Shiraz and Anwar are the third generation caretakers for the Beth El Synagogue. Their father Mohammed Khaleel Khan has retired but continues living in his quarters in the complex of Beth El.

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Usha Uthup, a long the students of Jews Boys and Girls School sings at the Magen David Synagogue

Ian Zachariah, a long term Kolkata Jew, find nothing surprising about Muslims looking after Jewish Synagogues. The retired school teacher says, “”What’s so surprising? We’ve never had any problems. They don’t have any problems either. This is how it should be everywhere.”

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Mohammed Khaleel Khan, ex caretaker watches Rabbi Tzvi Rivikin walking out of the Beth El Synagogue

Today the handful of Kolkata Jews are rapidly dwindling in number but the re-dedication and the celebration of restoration of the two Kolkata Synagogue shows that their undying spirit will live for ever.

Special Thanks: A special thanks Jo Cohen (general secretary Jewish Community Affairs) for the invite.

References:

  1. Message of Harmony as Synagogue Reopen by Shamayita Chakraborty. Times of India.
  2. Two synagogues, a cemetery, two schools and a bakery by Kathakali Nandi. Economic Times. 23 Dec 2017
  3. Jews from across the world attend the redidcation ceremony by Santanu Chowdhury. The Indian Express. 18 Dec 2017
  4. ‘বিশ্ব সাথে যোগে’ নবজন্ম দুই সিনাগগের by Riju Basu. Anand Bazar Patrika. 18 Dec 2017
  5. Muslim men take care of Synagogues by Shamayita Chakraborty. Times of India.

 

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  1. January 2, 2018 at 6:01 PM

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