The Bene Israel

The oldest and largest of the three Jewish communities in India.

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indian synagogue

Synagogue in Ahmedabad,
courtesy of Emmanuel Dyan.

In the 20th century, the Bene Israel Conference (1917-37) and the All India Israelite League (1918-25) became foci of Bene Israel communal development. Both organizations deliberated upon social, religious, educational, and economic matters affecting the community.

At the end of the 1940s, with India's total population at 350 million, the Bene Israel population in India peaked at an estimated 24,000 to 25,000.

After 1948, many members of the community began emigrating, mainly from the cities, to the new State of Israel. They were motivated by a combination of three equally compelling factors: a sense of Jewish identity, Zionist idealism, and concern over Bene Israel economic prospects in the newly-independent India.

A minority of Bene Israel emigrated to England, the United States, Canada, or Australia. Large-scale emigration from the Villages did not occur until the early 1970s. Since then, the total number of Bene Israel remaining in India--almost all in urban centers--remains fairly stable at around 5,000.

In Israel, the Bene Israel population (i.e., persons with at least one Bene Israel parent) was estimated as of 1994 at 40,000, almost all of whom have settled in cities or in
development towns.

When members of the community first arrived in Israel, very little was known about the history or cultural background of the Bene Israel, which exacerbated their problems of absorption. Although the years that followed their immigration were therefore made unnecessarily difficult, the community's situation has greatly improved.

The Bene Israel in Israel have established several social and cultural organizations, which serve as foci of community identity. At times these organizations present information about the Bene Israel to Israeli society at large. Mainly, however, they help both the young and the older members of the community maintain a link with their heritage and with India, the country that provided a friendly home for generations of Bene Israel.

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Shirley Berry Isenberg is the author of India's Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook.