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As lives were snuffed out,faith burned brighter

When Muslims in Mumbai observe Bakr Eid on November 28,two days after the first anniversary of the most audacious terror...

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Mumbai |
November 26, 2009 8:41:07 am

When Muslims in Mumbai observe Bakr Eid on November 28,two days after the first anniversary of the most audacious terror attack on the financial capital,some 500 of them will offer prayers inside the compound of a synagogue in Byculla,an unusual coming together of communities. “They needed space and requested me,” says Solomon Sopher,the chief managing trustee of the EEE Sassoon High School in whose property the Eid prayers will be held and also chairperson of the Indian Jewish Congress. “It’s just how the Jewish community in Mumbai has always been,” he says,adding that nearly 90 per cent of the students at the EEE Sassoon School are from Muslim families.

It is a unanimous feeling among the Jewish community in Mumbai a year after 26/11: We’re safer here where there is no Intifada; there are shared concepts of kosher food that keep Jewish and Muslim colonies in close proximity; we’ve integrated so well that we’re like any other Maharashtrians. Ask any Jewish family in Mumbai about how vulnerable they feel one year after the Chabad House in Colaba,a centre of the orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement,was attacked,and those are the first responses,the stress always on the fact that 26 /11 has not altered cordial relations between the Indian Jewish and Muslim communities.

“But a fear psychosis is there,” admits Jonathon Solomon,a Mumbai-based lawyer and president of the Indian Jewish Federation. “There is more alertness regarding allowing those who are not Jewish into our institutions,” he adds.

Businessman Ralphy Jhirad says that the Jewish community is also a lot more conscious about security these days. From wedding celebrations to religious functions,security guards and metal detectors are now a mainstay. It is not unusual to see a police van parked outside a synagogue.

As vice-president of the Federation of Indo-Israeli Chambers of Commerce & Industry,Jhirad is also concerned about the drop in foreign Jewish travellers to India,especially those from Israel. “They are definitely deterred,” he says. “Any foreigner needs to feel safe here to visit the country. With the Israel government alert going out around the time of the Jewish New Year,end September and early October saw a nearly 80 per cent fall in the numbers of Israeli tourists and business travellers to Mumbai.”

Given that Chabad House was a soft Jewish target with an Indian location but a global identity,and given that there are several such Jewish institutions in India,discourages Israeli tourists. Many of these are members of the Indian Jewish community settled abroad,but continuing to support Indian Jewish institutions. “There were 30,000 Jewish people in India in 1960,now there are 5,000 or 6,000,” says Solomon. “But the Indian Jewish community in Israel numbers 100,000. And when they stop visiting,their financial support to institutions built or patronised by their forefathers also shrinks.”

The other change,more imperceptible,is a stronger inclination towards orthodoxy,more curiosity about the Chabad movement than ever before — even Solomon,who has an office in South Mumbai,did not know the location of Chabad House until the attack — and a distinct sense of community. Among the 500-odd Jewish families worldwide who named their newborn children after Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg who were killed in the attack is Dr Aaron Abraham,who was born a Hindu and who last week completed a one-year formal conversion process. While Abraham declined to comment,the Israeli media highlighted him as the “doctor who smashed idols” before going on to study Orthodox Judaism from the late Holtzbergs.

“There’s increased Jewish pride now,” is how Jhirad sees it,himself a close friend of the Holtzbergs and now ever willing to support the Chabadniks in Mumbai. “We’re concerned not only for family but also our fellows from the religious community. Gestures of solidarity are stronger now.”

The shared sense of loss with victims of terror now brings larger numbers of the community together. That’s why,candles lit at a memorial service at Kala Ghoda’s Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue on Wednesday night were no ordinary candles; they were Ner Nishamas shipped from Israel,candles that would burn nearly all day long in their glass holders. There were more than 150 of them,one for each life lost on 26/11.

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