Chief praises 'vital, exciting' India


Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis hopes his historic visit to India this week will act as a catalyst for Jews to support literacy and aid programmes in the developing world.

During his 10-day tour of the country, Rabbi Mirvis visited 19 synagogues and met leaders of India's Jewish community.

It is thought to be the first time a Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth has made an official visit to India.

Among the highlights on his itinerary was a sermon at the imposing Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue in Mumbai, a visit to see education provision in a slum, and an encounter with India's leading mohel.

Speaking to the JC from Cochin, on the country's south-west coast, on Tuesday, Rabbi Mirvis said the trip had shown him the strength of Jewish pride in the most populous Commonwealth country under his Chief Rabbinate.

He explained: "The Indian community is not as active as it once was, but there are around 5,000 people here who identify as Jewish.

"I have come across some remarkable people who have trained specifically to run and lead shul services or to maintain buildings. I met the mohel of Mumbai who has just done his 997th bris and is looking forward to number 1,000. It's amazing and that's the best sign of a vital and living Jewish community.

"The Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue was amazing, filled to capacity, charged with a huge amount of excitement and energy, and I just loved engaging with people."

Rabbi Mirvis said the Indian community was facing a challenge "not uncommon in some parts of the Jewish world - how to manage decline in numbers".

Around 100,000 Indian Jews have moved to Israel, and there are large Indian Jewish communities in cities including London and Sydney.

"The people here feel that absence of those who have made aliyah or moved abroad," Rabbi Mirvis said. "It's a question of how to manage buildings and sites and keep services going. In many places they are doing it impressively."

Rabbi Mirvis began his 10,000-mile round-trip in New Delhi, where he met the incoming Indian High Commissioner to the UK Navtej Sarna, who is also the former Indian ambassador to Israel.

From there, he flew to Calcutta, where he travelled to the suburb of Boral to visit an orphanage run by the Economic Rural Development Society, a local NGO funded by Jewish charities Tzedek and Calcutta Hope.

The children greeted Rabbi Mirvis and his wife with bouquets of flowers, which they had been taught to put together in time for his visit.

The children bombarded the Chief Rabbi with questions. "What is your impression of India?" asked one little girl. "Thank you so much for your excellent question… The best part of India is the people and you are wonderful," he replied.

One boy asked what Rabbi Mirvis would say if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called him to ask his advice on eradicating poverty. In response, he said that solution to the problem revolved around the letter "E" - education and employment.

In Mumbai, one of the Chief Rabbi's first stops was the Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue, where 200 people turned out to hear him speak.

He told them: "India has been good for the Jews and the Jews for India. You are incredible people. As I have understood, Eliyahu Hanavi is special for the Ben Israel community, and the prophet is also known as the symbol of the future. It gives us good hope for the future."

Rabbi Mirvis also visited Kavla, a Mumbai slum where Jewish charity the Gabriel Project provides education and primary health care to residents.

Speaking about the trip from Cochin, the last city on his itinerary, Rabbi Mirvis said: "We drew an enormous amount of pride in seeing what Jewish organisations are doing in India.

"To arrive in the midst of squalor and poverty at a depth that you just can't really explain in words, and to see a man with a kippah who is working there, and incredible programmes which teach literacy and train people to become employed and to go out and be responsible to their families and society, and it's happening on a mass-scale, is so deeply impressive."

Rabbi Mirvis said that while he was proud of the efforts of British Jews to help those suffering around the world, he would continue to urge the community to do more.

"I'm particularly focusing on what I call 'read and feed', two primary areas. We need people to be literate and self-sufficient and, as the result, they will have the means to earn a living and look after themselves and their families."

Rabbi Mirvis travelled to India with his wife, Valerie, and two of their sons.

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