As far as exotic rabbinic positions go, leading the centuries-old Paradesi synagogue in Kerela, South India, is right up there. In an exclusive interview, Perspectives meets the family working to revive this old community and discusses its plans for the future.
Where did you grow up and what was your knowledge of Judaism?
I grew in North West London in a traditional family that was connected with the Reform community. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors and we regularly had Shabbat meals together. I always felt deeply connected to our people, especially the story of my grandparents and their survival. My uncles were the youngest children to travel on the Kindertransport; that story is something that has always resonated with me.
Is there a moment on your journey that stands out and shaped you as a person?
After studying at King’s College London, I became involved with many Jewish organisations which helped me discover more about my Jewish heritage. That journey ultimately led me to learn in Yeshiva in Israel. Despite trying my hand at a number of Yeshivot, I found my place at a Sephardic Yeshiva that focused on Jewish law and mysticism. The discovery of a system of learning which fuses the letter of the law with its spiritual-mystical meaning has proved a defining moment for me and has helped shape my life and my teachings.
Why did you decide to become a rabbi?
My wife, Elisheva, and I were living in Cape Town, South Africa and we became involved with the Muizenberg community. We would teach Torah from our home, and although I had taught classes at the Yeshiva in Jerusalem before, I had never had to prepare material for students on a daily basis. I found that this actually inspired me and strengthened my learning, helping me to have new insights; and then all of a sudden we had a full Shabbat table and group lectures every week.
After returning to Jerusalem, we made the decision that with our unique life experiences and love of all Jews, we wanted to share our passion with others. I enrolled in a rabbinic training programme and my wife began to teach at a Seminary in Jerusalem. We grew enormously from this experience and have never looked back.
You could be a rabbi anywhere, why choose India? And what is your role?
Actually, my wife is really responsible for this!
We were offered a variety of positions in various countries and institutions that did not feel right. Personally, I was unsure we were ready to lead a community and the prospect of leaving Jerusalem after we had finally settled there was daunting. However my wife met with our rabbi to discuss positions for us and India came up as potential option.
Rabbi Joel Weinberger from Star-K, a Kashrut authority based in Baltimore, met with me and I flew out to meet the community and visit the synagogue. He explained the nature of the position, a combination of community work and kashrut work for Star-K.
During the week, I travel the country working as a Mashgiach (Kashrut supervisor) across India, and on Shabbat and festivals I run the Paradesi Synagogue. No one has been more supportive and dedicated than my amazing wife Elisheva, who runs various parts of the community life, the Mikvah and has set up a kosher kitchen that feeds many Jewish travellers to Kerala.
For us, the combination of community work in a centuries-old community, alongside the opportunity to travel across this country, was something we were very excited about.
What has your experience been since moving to India?
The experience is hard to put into words. Moving to India has been life changing. In general, our experience has been very positive, but it was certainly a daunting task to move to India with small children, Asher David, our youngest, was only a few months old when we came for our pilot trip. We saw this as an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity to move to India and to provide support for the Jewish travellers visiting Cochin.
My first impressions on entering the Paradesi Synagogue were of awe and inspiration. I saw the original Torah scrolls in their silver covered wooden boxes. I walked over the original ceramic tiles, a gift from the emperor of China to the Maharaja of Cochin in the 1500s. We were honoured with bringing a new Sefer Torah to the rebuilt Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Ernakulam and with the 450th anniversary celebration of the Paradesi Synagogue in Fort Kochi.
The synagogue had been lovingly cared for by Joy, a local Indian, whose grandfather, father and now his son have spent their lives dedicated to the care and maintenance of the synagogue. In the centre, before the Ark, burns a singular Ner Tamid (“eternal light” lamp) lit with coconut oil as a symbol of his family’s ongoing dedication to the Jews of Cochin, who had once numbered in their thousands and have since dwindled to only a handful.
India is an intensely spiritual country and I find the welcome and friendship we receive here very genuine and loving. We regularly meet locals with an interest in Torah and Judaism or who feel a resonance with the State of Israel given their own struggle for independence.
For me, this posting in India has been a return to self. I grew up in a family where my mother and father had extensively travelled in India, I grew up with stories of the streets of Delhi and the smell of my parents’ suitcases when they would return from their trips. My mother would cook excellent Indian food and I had travelled to the north with my father by train and been deeply moved by this.
What are your plans for the community?
At the moment the community is dwindling as the last Jews of Cochin make Aliyah to Israel and the remaining generation passes (we were able to celebrate Sarah Cohen's 97th birthday recently!). We get a lot of visitors to the synagogue from Israel, England, Europe and America and more recently we have had a regular minyan every Shabbat as this is peak season.
We know that this placement is an amazing opportunity to do something really unique, we have met incredible people and already forged deep, meaningful relationships.
Aside from the Jews who frequent the Paradesi Synagogue, we have had the opportunity to be involved with the various religious communities in India and to speak to Swamis, Priests, Gurus and other Indians interested in Torah and Jewish traditions.
Although we are still at the beginning of this Indian experience, we feel very privileged to be part of this community and are excited to see how it will develop.