The renovated Magen
The restored Magen
David synagogue, built by Sassoon in 1864, is set to open its doors
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
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.
heart broke when I walked in and saw the state of the place. I had to
do something immediately,” says Moshe Levy.
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
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.
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,
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