There are an estimated 200 Jews living in Pune. That’s not many. But Pune is home to two synagogues, and one of them is the largest synagogue in all of Asia, outside Israel.
The first Jews in Pune were probably from the Bene Israel (Hebrew for ‘children of Israel’) community. This is a group that claims descent from 14 Jewish men and women who survived a shipwreck and were washed ashore at Navagaon, near Alibag, about 20 miles south of Mumbai, some time between 100 and 300 AD. Settled in the northern Konkan region, the Bene Israel were in the administrative and military service of several princely states and later the British, and who moved to urban centres like Bombay (Mumbai), Tanna (Thane) and Poona (Pune) in the 1800s.
Another Jewish community in Pune, although with much smaller numbers were the Baghdadi Jews. The first known Baghdadi Jewish immigrants to India arrived in Surat in 1730, but most of the community eventually moved to Bombay, which continued to attract Jewish immigrants from modern-day Iraq. One such immigrant was a man named David Sassoon.
David Sassoon was the chief treasurer to the governor of Baghdad, who fled to Bombay in the early 1800s as Dawud Pasha, the ruler of Iraq and a vestige of the Ottoman Empire, began persecuting the Jews of Baghdad. In the 1830s, he made a fortune in Bombay with his triangular trade network between India, China and England. Such was the wealth of him and his family that members of the Sassoon family were often called the ‘Rothschilds of the East’.
In the mid-1800s, a Baghdadi Jewish community was settled in Poona by David Sassoon. He started the construction of the magnificent Ohel David Synagogue at Camp in 1863, but unfortunately died the next year, before the building could be completed. He was buried in the compound of the synagogue he had decided to build, which was complete by 1867. He and his family built many public institutions, most of them in Bombay and Poona, that still function today.
Built in the English Gothic-revival style, it was designed by architect Henry St. Clair Wilkins, a British army officer who had served in the army of the Company, and had subsequently worked in the public works departments of the British Indian administration. Owing to its striking red colour, it came to be known as ‘Lal Deval’ (Marathi for ‘Red Temple’) locally.
The Ohel David Synagogue is reasonably well known today in Pune. Many who don’t know what a synagogue is or who goes to one know it by its Marathi name of Lal Deval. If you’re passing by Moledina Road today, it’s unmissable; after all, its imposing tower stands at 90 feet tall. There is, however, another synagogue in Pune, which few people know about: the Succath Shelomo Synagogue.
According to the Indian Jewish Heritage Centre, the Bene Israel Jews of Poona had initially established four congregations, which operated independently of each other for years. By 1916, the four congregations merged under the name Hebrath Beth Yaacov (Hebrew for ‘House of Jacob’), and for a few years, they held prayer services in a rented facility on Rasta Peth. Soon, they acquired a site nearby to build their own synagogue. This land was owned by Subedar Major Solomon Balaji Jhiradkar, a local Jew. The name that they give this synagogue, inaugurated in 1921, was Succath Shelomo Synagogue (‘Succath Shelomo’ is Hebrew for ‘a temporary structure for peace’), built on Jew Lane in Rasta Peth. For about thirty years, this synagogue served a modest and active congregation, but many Bene Israel Jews started leaving the country for Israel in the 1950s, and the active membership of the synagogue dwindled. Having said that, the congregation still remains active, and the synagogue continues to operate even today, with regular prayer services.
No matter how often I think of it, the diversity of our country never ceases to amaze me.
Neither synagogues are open to public without prior permission, after the attack on a Jewish prayer house in Mumbai on 26 November 2008. One can, however, see the buildings from the outside. The Ohel David Synagogue is located on Moledina Road near SGS Mall, and the Succath Shelomo Synagogue is located on Lakerya Maruti Lane (also known as Jew Lane) in Rasta Peth.
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