In India, Ecumenical Support For Small Jewish Community
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In India, Ecumenical Support For Small Jewish Community

Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), the capital of West Bengal, was once home to a flourishing Jewish community, dating back to the 1700s, mostly Jews from Iraq and Syria who traveled to Asia for commerce. Among the prominent Jews there was a conductor of the now-defunct Symphony Orchestra.

At one time, some 6,000 Jews lived in Calcutta; by the 1940s, the number had fallen to 3,000.

Most moved to Israel after 1948.

Today, the city’s Jewish population is thought to be less than 100, maybe as few as 30, and the community needs outside help to sustain itself.

For example, Sheik Gufran.

Gufran, above, who is a Muslim, works as a caretaker in Calcutta’s Beth El synagogue.

“My father, who also worked here for 40 years, said that all religions are equal,” he told Getty Images. “Maybe outside they fight, but in Bengal Jews and Muslims live and work together with no problems.

“Indian culture is about including people and it’s about humanity,” he said. “First there is humanity, then comes religion.”

Another Muslim, Sheik Masud, works at Beth El, which was built in 1856. Generations of Muslims have worked as caretakers at the city’s three extant synagogues, which are considered “protected monuments” under the supervision of the Archeological Survey of India.

Khalil Khan, another Muslim caretaker at Beth El, told Al Jazeera that it takes a week for him and his two sons to clean the building. “By Friday afternoon, the work has to be complete,” he said,

Too few Jews live in Calcutta to conduct regular worship services, but a member of the Jewish community lights a candle in Beth El on Friday evenings, and the synagogues are a popular venue for Jewish tourists.

steve@jewishweek.org

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