The Sir Elly Kadoorie School, one of the five schools runs by Jews in India — and the only one to instruct its students in Marathi — will complete 141 years on Tuesday. No Jews study in the school, with the last two students from the community passing out in 2007.
Located in the leafy locality of Mazagaon, the quaint two-storey stone structure symbolises the link that the Bene Israeli community, which makes up the major chunk of Jews in India, shares with the Marathi language.
The Jews believe that they came to India in 175 BC, after being shipwrecked off a village near Alibaug in Raigad district. The community spread across India from this small village and many of the Bene Israeli Jews have an affinity to Maharashtrian culture, choosing to speak Marathi at home.
The school was set up in 1875 by Haeem Samuel Kehimkar, who had devoted his life to the community and particularly to the advancement of Jewish education among the Bene Israel children. The Marathi and Hebrew elementary school was initially named Israelite School and operated out of a small bungalow in Dongri.
“Kehimkar set up the school after noticing that girls from the community did not have access to education. The school initially operated out of a bungalow and moved into the present premises only after Kehimkar could accumulate sufficient funds to purchase this plot in Mazagaon. The school has been running from the present site since 1899,” Ezra Moses, Honorary Treasurer and Trustee of the school, said.
In 1935, the school was formally named after Sir Elly Kadoorie, an Indian-born businessmen based in Shanghai who gave it a considerable endowment.
Sometime before Independence, the school opened its gates to both the sexes as well as all communities that lived in the vicinity. It would provide Hebrew classes and lessons in Judaism to its Jewish students and secular education to the rest of the class. However, with the formation of Israel — which led to an exodus of Jews from the country — the number of Jewish students began to fall.
“From a time when nearly 90 per cent of our students were Jewish, we reached a point where we do not have a single Jewish teacher or student. Our last Jewish teacher retired in 2001 and we had two Jewish students who passed out in 2007,” Ezriel Penkar, Honorary Secretary of the school, said.
The bulk of the 1,100 students, till Class XII, are Maharashtrians and Muslims who stay in Mazagaon and the surrounding areas of Byculla. Some of the well known alumni of the school include Shashikant Shinde, a minister in the previous Congress-NCP government, and former MLA Bala Nandgaonkar.
The only Jewish link left for the students is the small Jewish prayer that the students recite during morning assembly, seeking goodness and mercy.
“I do not know who Jews are. We are never told or taught anything about any religion. Our teachers just ask us to be good individuals,” Rakesh Kochrekar, a student from the school said.
The trustees are keen on expanding and have started a semi-English section, whose first batch cleared their SSC exams this year. “The idea of our forefathers was very clear. They wanted to help the poor and do something to help foster the Marathi language. We want to carry on this legacy as long as we can,” Moses says.