The Bene Israel of India

The Bene Israel story starts 2,100 years ago after a shipwreck stranded seven Jewish families from Judea at Navagaon near Alibag, just south of Mumbai. They were engaged in pressing oil and were nicknamed the shanivār telī ("Saturday oil-pressers") by the local population as they abstained from their work on Saturdays, Judaism's Shabbat. Bene Israel communities and synagogues are situated in Pen, Mumbai, Alibag, Pune and Ahmedabad with smaller communities scattered around India. Mumbai had a thriving Bene Israel community until the 1950s to 1960s when many families from the community emigrated to the fledgeling state of Israel. The Bene Israel community has risen to many positions of prominence in Israel. In India itself the Bene Israel community has shrunk considerably with many of the old Synagogues falling into disuse. In Mala, Thrissur District, Jews have a Synagogue and a cemetery.

Bene Israel burial site in Navgaon

 

The bodies that washed up onshore from the original shipwreck were buried in this Navgaon cemetery. There are no headstones, just a memorial that was constructed centuries later.

 

The cemetery in Navgaon has a memorial for the Bene Israel that died in the shipwreck.

History

The community traces its origin to Jews who escaped to India to avoid persecution in Galilee in the 2nd century BCE. Although the Bene Israel resemble the non-Jewish Maratha people in appearance and customs, they have maintained the practices of Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and observation of Sabbath as a day of rest.
Under British hegemony, many Bene Israel rose to prominence. They were only somewhat affected by racially-discriminatory policies, and as such were able to gain higher, better paying posts in the British Army when compared with their non-Jewish neighbours. Many Bene Israel rose high enough that when the British left India in 1947, they felt that they stood to lose more than they could possibly gain under Indian independence. As such, most emigrated to Israel.
It is estimated that there were 6,000 Bene Israel in the 1830s, 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century, and in 1948—their peak in India—they numbered 20,000. Since that time, their population in India has decreased through emigration (mostly to Israel) to under 5,000.

A Bene Israel woman in her kitchen.

Bene Israel home in India

A Bene Israel home on the Konkan Coast, south of Mumbai. The home is adorned with Magen David and Menorah symbols.

The Bene Israel synagogue in Alibag, India.

Bene Israel Chazzan of the synagogue in Alibag, India

The Chazzan of the Bene Israel synagogue in Albag, India.

Bene Israel Alibag, India

The Bene Israel observe the custom of removing their shoes before entering a synagogue.

Bene Israel: Jews of Mumbai (Bombay)

Life in Israel

In 1962, authorities in Israel were accused by articles in the Indian press of racism towards the Bene Israel. In the case that caused the controversy, the Chief Rabbi of Israel ruled that before registering a marriage between Indian Jews and Jews not belonging to that community, the registering rabbi should investigate the lineage of the Indian applicant for possible non-Jewish descent, and in case of doubt, require the applicant to perform conversion or immersion. The alleged discrimination may actually be related to the fact that some religious authorities believe that the Bene Israel were not fully Jewish because of inter-marriage during their long separation. In 1964 the Israeli Rabbinate declared that the Bene Israel are "full Jews in every respect".
The town of Beersheva in Southern Israel has the largest community of Bene Israel. There is also a sizable community in Ramla.