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NUMBERS DWINDLING BUT BETH-EL SYNAGOGUE STILL STANDS TALL

synaqoqueFor most parts Panvel is an ordinary, badly-structured town of Navi Mumbai, lost between rapid urbanization and village economics. Yet at the centrally located Tapalnaka on MG Road, a bit of Israel nestles peacefully. The Beth-El synagogue – religious home to the Jews of the city that is also a reflection of the rich heritage and history that sleeps within Panvel. Amongst busy roads and street market lies the Beth-El synagogue, tall and erect. If it wasn’t for the Star of David placed above the gate at the entrance, you wouldn’t even know it was a place of religious worship, let alone a synagogue. From the outside it looks like any other building, the exterior walls now fitted with slabs, the roof covered with Mangalore tiles and a high iron gate leading you inside. This is the Beth-El synagogue of the Bene Israeli community, the oldest in the region built in 1849 on Panvel’s main street near Tapal Naka. The synagogue is housed near the entrance; the building next door has the office and the residence of the caretaker. On days when prayers are not held, there is an eerie silence all around. Somehow even the sound of the traffic on the busy street outside gets muted. Still, we think this is perhaps a good time to visit the synagogue, sit on one of the old wooden benches, and marvel at how well 160 years of history have been preserved. Just at the entrance of the synagogue is the Ten Commandments of Moses, the religious and moral imperatives for the Jews. But, the first thing you notice when you enter the synagogue are the old light holders with oil lamps in them which are hung from the wooden ceiling. One of the lamps called the Tamid has been lighting since the inception of the synagogue, never letting the fire of the lamp to settle down. Another unique lamp of the synagogue is placed at the right hand side and is named after Prophet Eliyahoo Hannabi. Right below the lamp are placed two chairs called the Eliyahoo Hannabi chair where the circumcisions are performed by a local Jew. At the centre of the main hall is a small section called the Teba. It is in the Teba that the Torah or the holy book of the Jews is read by the Hazan in Hebrew. The Hazan is the official of a synagogue who conducts prayer service by singing or chanting. For the Jews, prayer services are held thrice a day, the first being the Arbith, the evening prayer held after sunset, the Minha – afternoon prayers and Shaharit – the morning prayers. For Jews a day starts at sunset and ends at sunrise, so the evening prayer is the first service of the day. The prayer books and the prayers are all in Hebrew. Only the rabbi is allowed to read the Holy Scriptures and while he does so, he has to face west towards the holy city of Jerusalem. At the back, is the Ekhal – a bookcase with a heavy velvet curtain where the Holy books or Sefar Torahs are preserved. Jews from all over the world, when visit the city, make sure that they visit this synagogue as it is believed that this where all the prayers are heard. The Jewish community has been in Panvel for over 200 years, so in a sense it is deep-rooted. But while it seems all right to gape at what you see, the worrisome factor is the dwindling number in the community. Fifty years ago there were 50 families, now there are barely 15. You will notice that although they are Jewish by faith, the surnames are traditionally Maharashtrian. With cameraperson Abhay Prasad, Sana Warsia for NMTV News.

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