JAFFA, Israel — Zohar Reuben, 24, of Mumbai, explores the narrow alleyways and stalls of Jaffa’s outdoor flea market with fellow young Jews from India after a long journey that has taken them from the Galilee to Jerusalem.
It’s on this birthright tour of Israel, thousands of miles from home, that Reuben has found, for the first time, close Jewish friends his own age from India.
In Mumbai, he explains, Jews live spread out across the vast city. Although he comes from a kosher home and goes to synagogue regularly, he does not have a group of young Jewish friends. Most of his friends are Hindu or Muslim.
“When I tell them I’m a Jew they say, ‘Huh? What’s a Jew?'” said Reuben, who works in marketing.
He said he has been excited to see life in the Jewish state.
“It’s good to be one of the crowd. I want to rediscover my Jewish roots,” said Reuben, who visited Israel for the first time through birthright. Like many from his group, this was his first trip outside India.
For many Indian Jews on the trip, birthright offered a first glimpse of life in a place where Jews make up the majority.
This was the second time a group of Jews from India has come on birthright. The group of 40 is mostly from the Bene Israel community centered in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), Calcutta, Delhi and Ahmadabad.
The community, which is ethnically Indian, claims descent from Jews from the Galilee who fled persecution in the 2nd century BCE and landed in India after a shipwreck.
Today the community of Indian Jews numbers about 5,500. Aside from the Bene Yisrael, there are Cochin Jews from southern India and Baghdadi Jews who are descended from former Iraqi Jews, as well as Jews from Syria, Yemen and Iran.
Sharon Galsurkar, 30, a Jewish educator from Mumbai, said bringing the young adults on a trip like birthright gives a huge boost to the community, which struggles as a tiny minority to keep younger members involved.
“They relate more intensely here. It’s like, quick,” he said, snapping his fingers. “As a Jewish educator, I feel this is what is making our community strong.”
Seeing Israel and visiting sites helps deepen the participants’ connection to their heritage and history, Galsurkar said. Visiting a place like Yad Vashem encourages their curiosity about the Holocaust, he said, something about which many in India’s Jewish community know little.
Birthright provides free 10-day trips for Jews between the ages of 18 to 26 who have never come to Israel on an organized tour. The goal is to strengthen their sense of Jewish identity and connection to Israel.
Nisha Namia, 26, the one Cochin Jew on the trip, found Jerusalem and the sight of a country with so many Jews deeply moving. She comes from a village in the Ernakulam district that has only 52 Jews. Her family is the only Jewish one in the village.
“We don’t have a community life there. There are many synagogues in the region but only one that functions, because of the lack of people,” Namia said.
Most of the Jews in her region immigrated to Israel, she said, but she plans to stay in India.
Sitting next to Namia on the tour bus as it snaked its way through Tel Aviv’s clogged streets was Oshrith David Gadkar, 19. Unlike Namia, she sees her future in Israel.
Being in Israel, her first time outside India, “makes me feel strongly that I need to make aliyah,” she said.
Gadkar hopes to come with her entire family — but only after she finishes a master’s degree in architecture. She explains that she’d rather study in her native language and come to Israel with a profession in hand.
Like many others on the trip, Gadkar has many relatives in Israel. Hers have settled in Beersheba, Jerusalem and Ashdod.
Samuel Satamkar, 21, also has relatives in the country. He said he was excited to have a chance to learn more about his Jewish heritage.
Satamkar, who works at a call center in Mumbai and plans to study for an MBA, said Indian Jews are proud of their Indian heritage too, but sometimes lack the tools to explain their own identities.
“It is very difficult to explain to other people what being a Jew is,” he said.
Experiencing Shabbat in Jerusalem, where the whole city winds down and takes a collective rest, took him by surprise.
“It’s so different from what we feel in India. We don’t feel it on such a grand scale,” he said.
Shalom Penkar, one of his new friends, agreed.
“To be with our people is a great feeling,” he said.