Revive Judaism in India


Jews have lived in India since the time of the Buddha, some 2,500 years ago. While this link does nothing to explain the popularity of Buddhism among Jews (the Buddha lived in northern India, the Jews, of course, preferred to live in the south), it does make it all the more sad that the Jewish community in India is on the verge of collapse. Especially in Calcutta where the last remaining handful of Jews will be gone within a generation.

Jews have lived in India since the time of the Buddha, some 2,500 years ago. While this link does nothing to explain the popularity of Buddhism among Jews (the Buddha lived in northern India, the Jews, of course, preferred to live in the south), it does make it all the more sad that the Jewish community in India is on the verge of collapse. Especially in Calcutta where the last remaining handful of Jews will be gone within a generation.

The reason for the demise of Jewry in India has nothing to do with anti-Semitism and everything to do with Israel. The Jews of India went home. This should make me happy. Jews belong in Israel, right? I mean most Jews. Or at least every Jew but me, who finds the thought of living in a socialist theocracy almost as scary as living in a capitalist one.

I am troubled by the end of the Indian Jewry because I love India, and have been enthralled with her culture and religious life since I was 16 years old. I even visited India once as a visiting lecturer, and celebrated Tu b'Shvat (the New Year of the Trees) in a New Delhi synagogue. I find it terribly sad that a 2,500-year-old piece of Jewish history is ending. And all the more so when that very community could, along with a small Hindu-Catholic movement in the country, provide a bridge between eastern and middle-eastern thought.

Here is my fantasy. Jews in America and Israel who, like myself, love Judaism and India would raise the money to purchase at least one of the failing synagogues in India. Rabbis in America and Israel who, like myself, love Judaism and India would form a network and provide continuing rabbinic presence in the synagogue(s) we buy. We would turn these synagogues into centers for Hindu-Jewish learning and dialogue. We have so much in common (see the book Torah and Veda by Barbara Holdrege) and so much to learn from one another.

Our India synagogue would attract tourists and students. Slowly Jews would move into the neighborhood and set up small shops (Shiva and Shabbos: Your One Stop Shop for All Things HinJew, the New Delhi Deli, and ShaktiShekhina, a feminist bookstore devoted to the Divine Mother, etc.). Within a few years the community would be thriving. Of course few if any of us would be native Indians, but so what? At least a 2,500-year-old tradition would live on.

I foresee this growing into a large campus, a true Indian yeshiva where swamis and rabbis teach side by side, and Hillel, Chabad, and Campus Crusade for Krishna compete for members. OK, may that is a bit much, but there is so much possibility here.

So here is my offer. If someone wants to fly to India, talk to the people, make a business plan, raise the funds, buy the building, and do everything else that needs to be done to make this idea a reality, I will be happy to be the first rabbi to take the pulpit. Just call me when my house is built. And please don't forget air conditioning. Shanti. Shalom.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is director of the One River Foundation in Murfreesboro, Tenn. A version of this column appeared originally on his blog.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro appears in EthicsDaily.com's DVD "Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists' Relationships with Jews."

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