My mom always told me that I could go anywhere in the world, enter a synagogue and feel a part of the Jewish community there, through familiar Hebrew prayers and songs.
When I arrived in New Delhi at the Judah Hyam Synagogue, I felt her presence as we began saying the Shema. I noticed that, Eli, the Indian Jewish young man who was leading our service, covered his eyes in a way I had never seen before. He made the letter “shin” on his forehead by folding his thumb and pinky and pressing them into his eyelids, positioning 3 fingers above.
As I watched a new way of saying and engaging in this prayer honoring our oneness, I felt my mother standing with me, and was reminded of her words. This had been our special prayer together.
The first time I was in India, I had saved up memories from my trip to tell her about everything I had experienced. This time, I do not have her alive on this Earth to share my reflections. As I looked passed my new friend saying the Shema, I noticed the oil burning in the ner tamid, the eternal light. Every synagogue around the world has a beautiful and unique ner tamid. I thought about the eternal light of my mother’s spirit and her wisdom to teach me from a young age that Jews live all over the world. 4,400 Jews live in India, carrying on the tradition of the lost tribe from which they originated.
Though I’d been to India before, this time I traveled with a group of Jewish leaders participating in a study mission through the Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet. On our visit to Mandwa, we learned that the Jews shipwrecked there 2,000 years before and only 14 survived. Though the Jewish community in India is vibrant, there are no rabbis leading services in New Delhi. Ezekiel Malekar greeted us as he had greeted my husband and me in 2005. He was joined by the next generation: Eli Ramrajkar and Ze’ev Steeve Gabriel Galsurkar who led our group in song while our Israeli scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Leon Morris, also guided us in soulful prayer.
When it was time to recite the Kaddish (mourner’s prayer), Rabbi Morris asked if anybody was marking a yahrzeit (anniversary of a loved one’s death). After all the contemplation about my mom and the eternal light, I realized in that moment that her yahrzeit was to come before the next Shabbat and this was my moment to mark the anniversary. The words of the prayer would barely come out of my mouth. My tears came instead, and I felt as though my heart was breaking. Once I was able to compose myself, sit and rejoin my group in prayer, I returned my gaze to the ner tamid. I had a renewed sense of what that symbol means, again. It reminded me that my eternal love for my mother meant that I had brought her with me to India.
My mother was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She gave me life. While some on our mission proposed that perhaps the Jews in India would shrink to nothing, I left our trip with the hope that the young, charismatic leaders there will continue to breathe life into Judaism in India. They are survivors in their own right, helping to bring up those living in the slums and in communities around them. The Jews of India keep singing, praying and doing mitzvot (good deeds) to make the world a better place.
I have faith that when my children are able to travel with me for a return trip to India, they will be greeted by these inspiring Indian Jews and we will pray together looking into the eternal light of the oil lamp, blessing those who came before us.