Kolkata's historic Synagogue is in the care of Muslims

Story by  ATV | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 11-06-2024
Author and activist Jael Silliman in the Asia's largest synagogue Magin David
Author and activist Jael Silliman in the Asia's largest synagogue Magin David


Mansooruddin Faridi/Mohammad Shamim Hussain

The city of Joy, Kolkata is the repository of stories of communal harmony and religious tolerance of its people. One such story is about the relationship of Muslims with synagogues, cemeteries, and schools belonging to the Jewish people. This centuries-old synergy is as alive as it was when an influential Jewish community was part of the city’s social and cultural milieu. Today only a few people of Jewish faith live in the city, their institutions are safe and flourishing under Muslim caretakers.

The caretaker of Asia's largest synagogue Magin David built in 1884 is in Kolkata. It’s being looked after by a Muslim family.  Similarly, the Jewish cemetery is located on a plot of land donated by a Muslim and the three Jewish schools founded by the community long ago today have the largest number of Muslim children on roll.

Notwithstanding the conflicts between Muslims and Jews for many generations that we do read in world history, in the city of Joy, the vibe of peace and respect flow between the two communities.

Speaking with Awaz-the Voice, prominent Jewish scholar and writer Jael Silliman said that along with Jewish synagogues in Kolkata, Jewish schools, cemeteries, and many institutions are also under the care of Muslims.  Muslim students are a majority in these schools.

She said at a time when Israel is pounding Gaza and killing thousands of Arab Muslims in its war against Hamas, many perceive it as a conflict between people of two religions. Jill Solomon says,” What is happening in Gaza is sad, we are worried about the loss of human lives. We pray that peace will be established as soon as possible and the situation will return to normal.” She however said it’s not a religious but political battle.

The inside of Magin David Synagouge (Courtesy: Rangan Datta Wikepeadia)

Jael Silliman, a women's rights activist, said that along with Jewish synagogues in Kolkata, three Jewish schools are also under the care of Muslims.

In the 1940s the city had a thriving Jewish community that maintained close, friendly relations with all people including the Muslim community. Because of their closeness and friendship, the two religious groups lived side by side for decades.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish people of Kolkata started migrating to their new home state. About 6,000 Jews were living in the city, but now their population has dwindled to 15. Most of them are elderly people.

Jael Silliman says, “When the Jews came to India, they already had strong ties with the Muslims. Our roots were connected through Syria and Iraq. Both religions had their respective heavenly books. Our Prophet is also the same, our food and drink are also similar.”

“We also use halal. Our places of worship are looked after by Muslims because we do not believe in religious discrimination,” she says, adding that from 1796 until the country's independence, Jews were a large community. Actually, we came to India from Syria and Iraq. There were three synagogues in the city, but this is the largest one.”

Highlighting the Jewish life in Kolkata, Jill Suleiman says that there are three synagogues in the city, but the Magna David Synagogue is the largest. The building of this synagogue draws its features from central European churches.

It was built by 19th-century business tycoon Elias David. Jill says, “It seems when we came to India from the Arab world, the Jews built synagogues in the style of Syria and Iraq. That is the reason why the synagogues look like churches. Magn David was built in such a way that from a distance it looks like a church. It was named  Lal Gurja (Red Church).

ASI protected Monument Magin David Synagogue 

Jael Silliman says that the places of worship still hold special significance. These three beautiful spiritual places are a reminder of our presence in the city. "In this city, we achieved growth and prosperity through trade and business endeavors, while two places of worship in Kolkata. It has been declared a national monument by the Archaeological Survey of India."

She says that at least ten people are needed for holding the mass in a synagogue and given the population of the community, no prayers are being held there for a long time. When Jews visit the city, sometimes a mass is offered.

The schools established by Jews are mostly located in the Muslim majority areas of the city and for this reason, Muslim children  are hugely benefitted from these.

On Jews' relationship with India, Jill Suleiman says that this land is very special. Every religion has freedom in this country and everyone lives together and there is unprecedented communal harmony.

Jael Silliman said, “We are a small community, we are always happy, no matter who the government is, we have never faced any threat from anyone because India is a special land. We respect India.”

Prayer hall of the Magin David Synagogue

The friendship and respect between the Jewish and Muslim communities of Kolkata can be traced back to the establishment of the cemetery. Historical records show that Obadiah Cohen, the founder of Shalom Harun Calcutta, the Baghdadi Jewish community, approached a Bengali Muslim friend for the land for the cemetery.

He was new in the country and needed help. A Muslim friend offered him a plot of his land for free, but Cohen gave his friend a gold ring as a sign of solidarity between the two communities. There are 8,625 graves including that of Cohen there.

After the flight of Jews to Israel and other countries their population started dwindling and today their presence in the city is negligible, leaving the synagogues empty. However, their Muslim guardians hope that one day these synagogues will be filled again. “We can work in a temple, in a mosque, in a gurudwara - these are all houses of God. They are simply called by different names,” Rabul Khan, who took charge of the synagogue from his father in 2008, says. His father maintained the building for 50 to 60 years before retiring.

The Jews of Kolkata believe that Muslim custodians of synagogues and cemeteries and other friends with Muslim friends are as close to us as ever. The situation in Israel and Gaza has not affected our relations at all.

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Jael Silliman says that my message is that every human life is very precious, and everyone is equal. Religion is very private, we should all work together.