Muslim caregivers oversee synagogues in Kolkata, eastern India. They claim that the Israel conflict won’t alter that.
Bangalore, India – Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal in eastern India, houses the Maghen David Synagogue, which is illuminated by the afternoon light via large stained-glass windows.
Anwar Khan is at work wearing his starched white uniform with the synagogue’s name embroidered on his breast pocket. He arranges the elaborately polished teakwood chairs in symmetrical lines with immaculate rattan seats. These days, few Jews remain in the large metropolis, therefore it is unusual to see individuals at the synagogue.
However, Khan’s devotion and sense of pride in his work remain unaffected. The 44-year-old is in charge of maintaining the synagogue. To maintain the temple clean, he swabs, sweeps, and dusts.
Israel has been bombing Gaza, which is over 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) away, nonstop for the past month, killing over 10,000 Palestinians. After Hamas terrorists invaded Israeli territory on October 7, they killed over 1,400 people and captured over 200 more. This marked the start of the assault.
However, there is no mention of the Palestine-Israel dispute in the serene hallways of the Maghen David Synagogue.
They do their namaz [prayer] while standing. As we do our namaz, we sit. That’s the only thing separating us,” claims Khan, who has been a custodian at the 140-year-old synagogue built in the Renaissance style on Brabourne Road, in the heart of Kolkata’s commerce and commercial sector, since the age of 20.
The synagogues in Kolkata were vibrant places of worship till around 75 years ago. Near the close of the 18th century, the city welcomed its first Jewish settlers. The thriving metropolis, which was formerly the center of the British empire in the Indian subcontinent, now has just three synagogues, and the number of Jews living there has decreased from over 5,000 to barely 20.
However, one thing has been consistent for almost 200 years: the synagogues’ attendants. They have been from a village named Kakatpur in the Puri district for centuries; it is located in the neighboring state of Odisha, 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Kolkata.
They’re all Muslims, too.
There are six Muslim rabbi’s amongst the city’s three synagogues; they all live on the grounds in designated apartments and visit their families on occasion. They get to work early in the morning, dusting, polishing, cleaning, and checking that the lights and other electrical equipment are functioning properly. In addition, they provide guest and visitor escorting, a rare service these days.
“It’s sad that Jews and Muslims are fighting.”
It’s not as though the atrocities of the Israel-Hamas conflict or Israel’s bombardment of Gaza escape the notice of the Jews of Kolkata or the Muslim nannies of the synagogues.
Kolkata has seen pro-Palestinian demonstrations by certain Muslim organizations and left-leaning activists, much like many other cities across the world. In West Bengal, where a political party opposing the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power, Muslims make up around 27% of the population.
However, the Muslim caregivers claim that they have not experienced any pressure from the community or their families as a result of working at synagogues.
“This synagogue is the home of ‘Khuda’ [God] in my opinion, just like our own ‘Khuda ka ghar’ [mosque],” Khan states. The conflict between Muslims and Jews in Gaza and Israel today is terribly depressing. However, the Godly abode they share with us is our own. We’ll look after it for the rest of our lives.
The only caretaker of Neveh Shalome, the oldest synagogue in Kolkata, which is located close to Maghen David, is Masood Hussain, 43. He claims he frequently attends prayers at a nearby mosque, but no one has questioned him about his Jewish heritage.
“We visit our mosque for prayers, but neither the general public nor the religious authorities have said anything,” he claims.
Hussain, who dropped out of college, moved to Kolkata from Odisha ten years ago, following in the footsteps of his father and father-in-law, who were both synagogue caretakers. Hussain, a tall, slender guy with two college-bound children back home, gestures to a modest display of pictures showing the early Jews in Kolkata. He is well familiar with both of their names and pasts.
“Why do you work for the Jewish people?,” no one has questioned. Hussain claims, “No one in my family or community has told me to quit my job.
“We proceed to our masjid [mosque] to do namaz. There is also silence there. The maulvi, or imam, is amiable. Together, we sip tea. He has never asked, “Why do you do this, Masood?” I’ll reply if he says something. But in my opinion, peaceful solutions to all issues are preferable.
Regarding the anti-Israel demonstrations taking place in the city, Hussain claims that there has never been a synagogue attack. And there won’t be one in Kolkata at all. The citizens of Kolkata are excellent. But we’ll deal with it if it does. What will happen, at worst? We’re going to die. But this is the home of God. For this God-given house, we are prepared for anything.
We Muslims will be the first to confront any members of our community who come here [to cause problems] until we are the only ones here. We shall do a muqabla [resistance] if that occurs. As long as we are alive, synagogues will not suffer any harm.
The history of the interfaith link that is evident in synagogues dates back to the construction of Neveh Shalome in the early 1800s. There were perhaps 300 Jews in the community at the time, most of them were Baghdadi Jews from Iraq and Iran, who had followed in the footsteps of affluent Aleppo-born businessman Shalom Obadiah Cohen, who is said to have been the first Jew to arrive in Kolkata in 1798.
Calcutta, or Kolkata as it was then called, was a highly sought-after location for dealers of opium, textiles, diamonds, and other goods. In addition to the Chinese, Parsis, and Armenians who came to the city that served as the East India Company headquarters, the Jewish community expanded.
Yet many Jews in Kolkata departed after Israel was established in 1948. Families fled to Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, as a newly independent India was in convulsions due to horrific communal rioting and a brutal partition.
The majority of the 20 Jews who still live in the city now are older than 70. From a peak of 30,000 Jews, there are now only an estimated 5,000 Jews living in India.
President of the board that oversees Beth El Synagogue, David Ashkenazy is also an honorary secretary at Maghen David, a board member at Neveh Shalome, and he is unsure of how Muslims from a hamlet hundreds of kilometers distant ended up taking care of synagogues. However, he affirms that the position has been handed down through the generations.
Khan, the custodian of Maghen David, was hired because his grandpa Ajju Khan and father Khalil Khan had taken care of Beth El Synagogue and had supported him during his employment search.
It’s hardly strange, according to Ashkenazy, that Muslim caregivers from another state would get in touch with the Jewish immigrants at the time.”The Muslims from a village 500 kilometers south and the Jews from Baghdad were both strangers in a new land,” he remarks. “We have some similar dietary laws as well.”
“I never give it a second thought. It’s typical. About the harmony between the city’s Muslims and Jews, renowned Jewish novelist, painter, and women’s rights campaigner Jael Silliman remarks, “It is natural.” For centuries, Baghdadi Jews coexisted with Muslims throughout the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. We are Jewish Arabs.
Another illustration of the relationship given by Silliman is the 1881-founded Jewish Girls’ School in Kolkata, where 90% of the student body is Muslim.
“Like the Muslim stewards of our synagogues, that is a beacon of hope as well,” she remarks.
Muslims are naturally inclined to be caregivers.
According to Navras Jaat Aafreedi, assistant professor of history at Kolkata’s Presidency University, where he teaches a course on worldwide Jewish history, at first, wealthy Bagdadi Jews in Kolkata would employ Muslims as chefs in their houses.
“The absence of idolatry and comparable dietary regulations were the main drivers of Jewish and Muslim harmony,” he claims, adding that the latter led the Baghdadi Jews to hire Muslims as chefs.
He continues, “Muslims were a natural choice for caretakers once the synagogues came up.” “The historical amiability between Jews and Muslims has not been undermined in India by the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Nonetheless, the caregivers are thinking about the current conflict in Gaza.
Sheikh Gufran, the eldest of Maghen David’s three caregivers, explains, “Our’mazhab’ [faith] doesn’t teach us to hate,” as he carefully polishes the synagogue’s teak chairs.
Every time I do namaz, I offer prayers for the victims of the conflict—both in Israel and Gaza—across all religious lines. There, Muslims are suffering. Jewish people suffer. I’m hoping that their agony ends soon,” the 48-year-old said.
Gufran receives several holy books from Ashkenazy, who requests that he dust them well. The books must be handled carefully since they are valuable and ancient.
Gufran needs to say his prayers now. He exits the synagogue, turns to face the west, and starts to pray outside in the courtyard.