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Tense times for Mumbai's Jews

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Mumbai

The mood at Monday morning prayers at the 124-year-old, green-painted Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue in Mumbai was grim as members of the city's Jewish community paid homage to the six people who lost their lives in the attacks that hit the city last week.

Moshe Holtzberg at Monday's prayer meeting
The dead rabbi's son moved the congregation to tears
The outreach centre of Chabad Lubavitch - a New York-based orthodox Jewish organisation - in a nondescript building in a crowded and grubby sliver of a lane in Mumbai, was taken over by gunmen who held hostages before Indian commandos rappelled down to the building in helicopters and cleared it out.

Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, were among the six people who died in the attack at Nariman House. The couple, who moved to India in 2003 from Brooklyn, New York, offered lodging and ran a kosher kitchen for Jewish travellers out of the four-storey building.

Their son, Moshe - who turned two on Saturday, three days after the attack - survived, along with his maid Sandra Samuel and family cook Zakir Husain.

At the prayers Moshe, cradled in his grandfather's lap, cried out "Ema!" (mother).

"Everybody at the prayer was crying. These are very tense times for our community, which has never faced anything like this before," says Reena, a Mumbai Jew.

'Sense of discomfort'

About 90% of India's approximately 6,000 Jews live in Mumbai and the neighbouring suburb of Thane. It is a low-profile community which since the attacks has been avoiding the media.


Indian Jews have never faced anti-Semitism, we have never been persecuted

Reena, Mumbai Jew

I tried to get in touch with a prominent Jewish community centre and vocational training institute in the city, but they would not even reveal their locations, let alone allow me to speak to the people who run them.

"There is certainly a sense of discomfort. There is a feeling that community members could be under threat," says Ruth Krishna, a Mumbai Jew and former hospital administrator.

The community has seen its numbers dwindle fast in India from around 30,000 in the early 1960s.

Jewish outreach centre
Heavily-armed militants stormed the centre as part of last week's attacks

Most have migrated - by one estimate, more than 50,000 Jews from India live in Israel today. Many of them have married outside the community in India, leading to further depletion in numbers.

The first Jews - Bene Israel - arrived in India about 2,000 years ago. Later, they arrived from what is now Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other, Arab countries.

In Mumbai, the community has nine synagogues, and runs a number of schools, a prominent community centre and an organisation running vocational courses. Most of the Jews here are employed and a few run small businesses.

Closer to Muslims

The attack on the centre has thrown an unwanted spotlight on the community.

Jonathan Solomon

We have been targeted once and the terrorists have succeeded - that makes us vulnerable

Jonathan Solomon,
community elder

"It does not feel good at all. This was like a bolt out of the blue. I am an Indian first, and I am married to a Indian Hindu. I wear the Star of David, and I have never even thought of hiding it. But suddenly I am feeling conscious that I am wearing it. I am feeling vulnerable," says Reena, who was born in India.

"Indian Jews have never faced anti-Semitism, we have never been persecuted. India and Israel enjoy the best of relations. But I felt hurt by the way the rabbi and his wife were killed. As an Indian I have to be careful of terror attacks anyway. And now it seems as a Jew I have to be doubly careful."

Despite differences elsewhere, the Jewish community here is close to Muslims, closer than to Hindus, and has traditionally lived in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods like Byculla and Dongri, and shared business ties. The majority of students in Jewish-run schools in Mumbai are Muslims because they are located in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods.

"That is why we never believed we could become a target, though for many years some people have told us to be careful," says Jonathan Solomon, a community elder, who runs a nearly 100-year-old family-owned law firm in central Mumbai.

"We are not a part of the Middle Eastern animosity between the two communities. We are far away from all that.

"This is a very traumatic moment for the community. We have been targeted once and the terrorists have succeeded. That makes us vulnerable as soft targets."



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