In the capital of one of the world’s most religiously diverse countries, a rabbi who has never been ordained bends ancient customs, ensuring New Delhi’s 10 Jewish families a place to worship.
Unlike most synagogues, there is no separation of men and women as Jewish-born worshipers, converts and followers of other faiths chant psalms in perfect Hebrew, with doors thrown open to all. The service leader never asks attendees what religion they follow, and envisions his daughter becoming India’s first female rabbi.
“Being a small community, we cannot be so rigid, so orthodox,” says Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, honorary secretary of the synagogue whose unpaid job of thirty years has overlooked religious convention to keep this tiny group together. “Our openness, our liberal approach is what allows us to survive. For reading the Torah, you must require 10 men, a minyan. But I made radical changes, because why should we discriminate between women and men? I count the women.”
In the small Judah Hyam Synagogue, tucked between one of the city’s most popular markets and most expensive hotels, the tight community, as inconspicuous as the small black plaque outside, gathers every Friday to bring in Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
The synagogue and its adjoining cemetery, gifted to Delhi’s Jews by the Indian government in 1956, is one of more than 30 in India, where Jews first arrived 2,000 years ago, but account for barely 5,000 people in a population of more than 1.2 billion.
General J.F.R. Jacob, a former wing commander of the Indian Air Force, and the synagogue’s president, leads the service alongside a Canadian tourist for a dozen worshipers who have traveled up to 30km across the city.
Some of the small crowd have been coming to the small, brightly lit synagogue for decades, and say the weekly services are crucial in binding together the city’s Jewish families.
During the High Holidays, the synagogue’s sparse but dedicated crowd is substantially bolstered by Israeli diplomats and other Jewish expatriates, while up to 10,000 international travelers visit during India’s busy winter tourist period.
“We are a tiny, miniscule community, but what keeps us together is a special bond. We are one family, we meet, we talk, we share with each other,” says Shulamith, Malekar’s daughter, minutes after her father offers a blessing for the daughter of a 94-year-old woman he knows from Kolkata.
After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which six Jews were kidnapped and killed by militants who had stormed a Jewish outreach center, the government posted ten paramilitary soldiers outside the tiny Delhi synagogue, a precaution repeated following the killing of Osama bin Laden this month.