Mumbai's Jews To Rebuild Byculla Synagogue Destroyed During December 1993 Riots

Mumbai's Jews To Rebuild Byculla Synagogue Destroyed During December 1993 Riots

The Rodef Shalom, or the Persuer of Peace, synagogue on the third floor of an apartment building on Dadoji Konddev Marg, formerly Sussex Road, was extensively damaged when fire from a second-floor flat torched by rioters engulfed the building

Manoj RamakrishnanUpdated: Tuesday, December 12, 2023, 11:45 PM IST
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An old photo of the Byculla building where the Rodef Shalom synagogue was located. |

As Mumbai's Jews celebrate Hanukkah, their festival of lights this week, the reformed sect in the community has announced the reconstruction of their synagogue in Byculla that was destroyed in the riots of December 1993.

The Rodef Shalom, or the Persuer of Peace, synagogue on the third floor of an apartment building on Dadoji Konddev Marg, formerly Sussex Road, was extensively damaged when fire from a second-floor flat torched by rioters engulfed the building. The fire destroyed the holy scrolls and the synagogue and the building were abandoned. The building has been lying in ruins since then.

The Reform Movement of Judaism, which used the synagogue as its main centre of worship, has said that they hope to inaugurate the rebuilt synagogue in 2025 when the sect will observe its centenary in India. 

The reform movement, which began in the West in the nineteenth century as a breakaway sect from the orthodox mainstream, was brought to India in 1925 by Dr Jerusha Jhirad, a Padma Shri-awarded gynecologist and obstetrician who had trained in London. "Dr Jhirad, who became the superintendent of Cama and Albless Hospital, was influenced by the reform movement and wanted to establish the belief in India. Other Jews joined her," said Elijah Jacob, honorary secretary of the Jewish Religious Union, the trust which owns the synagogue.

For weekly, festival services

Members of the sect bought an apartment building in Byculla from its Jewish owner and converted the top floor into a synagogue for their weekly and festival services. Two stone 'Lions of Judah' stand at the entrance of the building, indicating that it is a Jewish place of worship. 

The reform movement started as an effort to make religious services more accessible to the congregation by modernising cultural and liturgical practices. For instance, services at reformed synagogues are conducted both in Hebrew and English so that the scriptures are understood by even those who do not know Hebrew. "This made prayers more meaningful because you recite a prayer that you have understood," said Jacob.

Rivca Elias, a member of the movement and Churchgate resident, said that orthodox religious laws on food, restrictions on travel and handling currency during sabbath is difficult to follow in the modern age. "We are more liberal about such rules," said Elias.

Reform movement

The reform movement attracted Jews from the mainstream sects in India, especially after Hugo Gryn, a popular rabbi sent from the UK, led the community in Mumbai in the late 1950s. At its peak, the sect had around 800 members. The numbers have now dropped to around 200 after migration of members to Israel, UK, US and Australia.

Norma Suvarna, the treasurer of the trust said that they are awaiting permission from the municipal fire department to pull down the ruins. The old tenants will be accompanied in the new highrise building which will have the synagogue, an apartment for the rabbi, dining hall, and offices on the top floor. "We hope the RCC structure to be ready by 2025 so that we can use the top floor for services and keeping our holy books. The builders can continue the rest of the work," said Suvarna.

The community now use space at the Jewish Community Centre at American Joint Distribution Committee premises in Matunga or a hall in Worli for prayers. "When the Byculla synagogue was started most Jews lived in Byculla and Mazgaon.  Now they are spread out in the suburbs. This is an aging community. So it will not be easy to travel to Byculla, but we would still like to have our own prayer hall," said Elias.

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