| Bene Israelis at the Alibag synagogue. (Reuters)
Alibag, Feb. 23 (Reuters): The gentle chants from Friday Hebrew prayers rise from the synagogue into the afternoon heat, mingling with the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.
But in Alibag on Maharashtra’s coast, where Judaism literally crashed into India 2,000 years ago, there are fewer and fewer voices in the synagogue every year as the members of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities return to Israel.
India’s Bene Israelis, or Children of Israel, have dwindled to barely 4,000 from a peak of about 80,000 a few decades ago as thousands moved to Israel for a better life.
“India is our motherland, but Israel is our fatherland,” says Abraham Jacob Awaskar, treasurer of Alibag’s whitewashed Magen Aboth synagogue, which is nearly a century old.
Extensive DNA testing has found the Bene Israelis, clustered in and around Mumbai, are direct descendants of a hereditary Israelite priesthood that can be traced back 3,000 years to Moses’ brother, Aaron.
On Alibag’s Israel Lane around the corner from the synagogue, the Wakrulkars, one of the last three families in the alley, is preparing to sell up and join their sons in Israel.
“We are Jews. The biggest thing for us is our faith,” explains 68-year-old Mozel Moses Wakrulkar. “In these last days of my life, I want to be in Israel with my kids.
“Over the years, everybody has gone. In my mind, I have this longing to be there.”
Around 175 B.C., a boatload of Jews fleeing persecution was shipwrecked on the west coast, a few kilometres from Alibag.
Legend says only a few men and women survived to found a community that stayed genetically pure through the centuries.
The cemetery where the victims of the shipwreck were buried in mass graves still stands, the sounds of waves floating through the palm trees. The site and its weed-covered rocks scattered around like an ancient ruin have become a quiet place of pilgrimage for many Bene Israelis visiting India.
Now only a handful of families remain in Alibag and many of them plan to follow their friends and family to Israel, where they can draw a pension worth a fortune here.
Alibag’s small Jewish community eats only kosher food and celebrates all Jewish festivals and rites. It has no rabbi, and Jewish traditions have been passed from generation to generation within the family. On special occasions, a rabbi travels from Mumbai, two hours’ drive to the north.
Some of the Alibag Bene Israelis do occasionally go to Hindu temples with their neighbours. “We do have friends, we do mix, but we don’t get close,” says Mozel.
For the local Hindus, the Bene Israelis have always been something of an oddity, often mistaken for an obscure kind of Muslim. Even the synagogue is known locally as a masjid.
“I miss them, I feel bad they have gone,” says Prakash Ranade, a 58-year-old quarry owner. “But they have gone to their own country. Although they lived in India, they always thought of Israel as their own country.”
At the synagogue, Reuben Aliyahu Kamarlekar is visiting from Israel, where he moved in 1965.
“I feel at home in both places,” says the 65-year-old former soft drink plant worker, who visits India every year.
Despite the constant drip of Bene Israelis to Israel, Kamarlekar believes there will always be a small core in India.
One is Awaskar, the synagogue treasurer, who is happy with his job at a fertiliser plant and his five acres of rice fields.
“Life is better over there, but we have no problems here. We are settled,” he says, standing on the synagogue steps under towering green coconut palms.
“I am not concerned, God will take care of us,” added the treasurer.