It’s not often that you meet a rabbi whose command of the Hindi language surpasses his knowledge of, say, Yiddish or Ladino. Or, for that matter, one whose academic training was in the field of botany. Then again, Rabbi Yehoshua Kolet is no ordinary spiritual leader. A 34-year-old native of Bombay, Kolet is a member of the Bene Israel community, which traces its roots on the subcontinent back over two millennia. After spending several years studying in Israel, he is back in his hometown together with his wife Ahuviyah, determined to help strengthen the level of Jewish knowledge and commitment among India’s remaining Jews. “The community is very Zionist and they are very pro-Israel,” he says. “That is the faith they grew up with. They are very devoted and very believing, but the level of Jewish observance needs to be raised.”
Located on India’s western coast, Bombay is a sprawling metropolis that serves as the country’s financial center and most important port. The city is home to an estimated 15 million people, including some 4,000 of India’s 5,500 Jews. Aside from some 100 or so Jews of Iraqi origin, the rest of the Bombay community consists of Bene Israel, who according to tradition are descended from seven Jews who were shipwrecked off India’s southwestern coast during the Second Temple period.
They and their offspring clung to Jewish practice and tradition over the centuries, and after the establishment of Israel in 1948, most of the community made aliya.
While those who remain in Bombay have access to an extensive array of Jewish communal infrastructure, including nine functioning synagogues, Rabbi Kolet would like to inject a renewed emphasis on traditional Jewish learning.
Twice a week, he teaches a group of 15 boys, focusing on the weekly Torah portion, Mishna and Jewish law. But his dream is to open a Jewish supplementary school, one that would offer students two hours a day of intensive after-school studies five days a week. “They have a strong sense of Jewish identity,” he says about Bombay’s Jewish youngsters. “But we are not taking it anywhere. They need to be given more of a structure and an opportunity to express themselves.”
Kolet knows of what he speaks. He himself hails from a traditional background, though his Jewish education was minimal. When the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) opened a library in Bombay, the young Kolet became exposed to a wider range of Jewish thought and literature. “As I started reading more, I became more observant,” he recalls. He went on to study the laws of ritual slaughter at the local Jewish community center, under the tutelage of the late Rabbi Zion Cohen. With support from the JDC, Kolet went to Israel, where he studied for six years at the Midrash Sfaradi, which is located in the Old City and headed by the dynamic Rabbi Sam Kassin. After receiving his rabbinical ordination, Kolet returned to India, expressing a desire to work with the community. For two years, he oversaw summer camps and other Jewish educational activities for the JDC, before deciding to launch his own initiative, which is known as Hazon Eli, “the vision of Eli.”
In one respect, at least, working in Bombay has an advantage over other Diaspora communities – the utter lack of anti-Semitism. “We are a minuscule minority, just 5,000 out of a billion people. Anyway, Indians are very accepting and very tolerant,” Kolet says. Prof. Nathan Katz, chairman of the department of religious studies at Florida International University and a leading expert on Indian Jewry, agrees. “The Jews of India generally hold firmly to their Jewish identity, while at the same time they participate fully in the dominant culture,” Katz says. “India has always treated her Jews well, and in turn Jews have always been patriotic, loyal citizens.”
Bombay newspapers frequently run feature stories explaining Jewish holidays, and the city has had three Jewish mayors. “Indians are rightly proud that they have never stooped to anti-Semitism. They are proud of their Jews and proud of themselves because for perhaps two millennia the Jews there have never experienced bigotry,” Katz adds.
If anything, asserts Kolet, many Indians feel an affinity for Israel, as both countries are ancient civilizations with hostile Muslim neighbors. “India is one country that understands Israel’s struggle. They have had the taste of terror and face some of the same challenges,” he says. But along with the tolerant atmosphere in which they live, India’s remaining Jews have also begun to feel the pinch of intermarriage, which has become more widespread than it once was. “I know of no reliable statistics, but everyone says the intermarriage rate is high,” asserts Katz. “Whether or not the non-Jewish spouse converts, or how they convert, I do not know,” he says.
By contrast, Kolet estimates the intermarriage rate to be “about 30 percent,” while acknowledging that “the community used to discourage it, but today it has become more common.”
In addition to his work with the Indian Jewish community, Kolet also has his sights set on reaching out to the tens of thousands of young Israelis who travel to India each year, many of whom are looking for a dose of sanctity in their lives. “I want to start a Kabbala center for Israelis. They come here searching for spirituality, and we must find a way to compete with the ashrams,” he says, referring to the secluded Hindu sites where many Israelis fall under the sway of dubious gurus. Though nearly his entire family now lives in Israel, Kolet plans to devote the next 10 years of his life to outreach work in India, before returning to the Jewish state.
“India is too beautiful not to see G-d here,” he says. “People just need to open their eyes and they will see divinity.”
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