Mumbai’s Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue that turns 130 this year presents a picture of neglect

The scene rarely changes on Friday evenings at the Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue. A rabbi enters and waits for 10 men to congregate. Once the quorum is present, he recites prayers in Hebrew that resonate through the house of prayer. Soon, the men huddle together and break into a dance invoking the queen of the Sabbath. Women, who can only watch the proceedings from behind a wooden partition, wish each other “Sabbath Shalom.”

But the synagogue, which turns 130 this year, was not always deserted. Built in 1884 by Jason Sassoon in memory of his father Eliyahoo, the synagogue with its large, light-blue exterior became a favourite with the Baghdadi Jews who settled along the coast in Colaba. Then women sat in the upper gallery and the prayer hall was always full. “Even today, like then, we are not allowed to be seen by men in the prayer hall,” says Lena Karkera, a Bene Israel Jew, recalling the synagogue’s glorious past.

It was in the 1880s — when the city boasted a neo-Gothic skyline with buildings such as the High Court and the University, and later the Victoria Terminus and the municipal headquarters — that this robust structure bearing characteristics of the neoclassical style came up. The synagogue, recognised as a grade 2A heritage structure, has spectacular stained glass windows, the likes of which can be only seen at the St. Thomas Cathedral and the Afghan church in Mumbai.

After 1948, however, many Jewish Indians flocked to the newly-formed Israel. “Many years ago, most synagogues in the city were filled to capacity during festivals. Now, there are just about 4,000 Jews in Mumbai. There are times, when we do not have a quorum of 10 men to start prayers,” says Solomon Sopher, president of the synagogue. After the 26/11 attacks, when terrorists targeted the Jewish community, the synagogue turned into a fortress with policemen guarding it round the clock.

A dwindling community has meant fewer hands to look after the place of worship. Though a Rs.1.2-crore restoration plan was proposed four years ago, it has not taken off owing to paucity of funds. “The World Monument Fund has agreed to help once we manage to raise half the funds. I hope we start the project by the year-end,” says Mr. Sopher.

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