Friday, May 02, 2008

Magain Shalome Synagogue in Karachi

According to 1998 census there are no Jews living in Pakistan ,but at the turn of the twentieth century, Karachi had a Jewish population of about two to three thousand.They were mainly traders and a few were civil servants. They spoke Marachi, which was spoken by most of Ben-e- Israel people living in various parts of the British India. The community was well to do, vibrant and fun loving.

It seems under British jurisdiction, the Jewish people were treated with tolerance. A small community lived in Peshawar where apart from the Bene Israel, the Baghdadi Jews and Bukharan Jews formed a small community and city had a synagogue. It has disappeared now. Few Jewish families lived in Rawalpindi and some in Lahore also.

Karachi had couple of synagogues. The famous Magain Shalome Synagogue was built in 1893 in Karachi by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon. Some accounts suggest that it was built by Solomon David, a surveyor for the Karachi Municipality and his wife Sheeoola bai. It soon became the center of a small but vibrant Jewish community.

There existedvariety of social and welfare organizations to serve the Jewish community. The Young Man's Jewish Association, founded in 1903, whose aim was to encourage sports as well as religious and social activities of the Bene Israel in Karachi; the Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund, established to support poor Jews in Karachi; and theKarachi Jewish syndicate, formed in 1918, to provide homes to poor Jews at reasonable rents. Abraham Reuben, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, became the first Jewish councilor on the city corporation in 1936.

After the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 and Arab–Israel war , things got ugly for small Jewish community in Pakistan. The synagogue in Karachi was set to fire and Jews were attacked.The synagogue was later on repaired and restored by the community. The situation got worst and the plight of Jews became more precarious following disturbances and demonstrations directed against the Jews during the Arab-Israel wars in 1956, and 1967. Eventually most of the Jews moved to India, Israel and the United Kingdom. By 1968, thenumber of Jews in Pakistan had decreased to about 250 to 300.

However Magain Shalome Synagogue , a welfare organization, and a recreational organization kept functioning in the city. The small community in Peshawar and other parts of Pakistan ceased to exist, and the synagogue in Peshawer disappeared.Magain Shalome Synagogue, Karachi's last synagogue, was demolished in 1980s to make way for a shopping plaza in front of the last few Jewish families still braving in Karachi, with the understanding that in the new building a smaller synagogue would be built,that never happened.The Bene Israel (People of Israel) graveyard situated in Mewa Shah, alongwith the graveyard of Kutchi Memons and is the last resting place for hundreds of Karachi's Jews, many of whom preferred to stay on in Pakistan instead of going to Isreal or Europe or United Staes.

Unofficially some Jewish families do remain in Karachi, but they prefer to pass themselves off as Parsis. I met a Karachi Jew in 2004 and he told me that there are about 10 to 12 Bene Israel families in Karachi and they observe Sephardic Jewish rites. He also told me that Bene Israelis still living in Pakistani are living comfortable life and have excellent friendships with many people here in Karachi.

Majority of the Karachi Jews now live in Ramle, Israel. The Older members still speak Urdu or Marachi and have built a synagogue there, and named it, Magen Shalome.what else.

Written in September 2005 for Writers' Forum.