NEW YORK, May 10 (JTA) — Rabbi Joshua Kolet has a dream. A native of Bombay, Kolet wants to make his home in the Jewish state. But before he moves to Israel, Kolet is trying to turn a plot of land in Bombay into a Jewish home for Israelis seeking spirituality in India. “Twenty thousand to 30,000 Israelis come to India every year,” Kolet said. “Except for Chabad, nobody is really taking an interest in the Israelis who are coming there.” In the meantime, Kolet said, the visiting Israelis — and some American Jews — are drawn to all sorts of Indian mystical cults, ashrams, tantric traditions and Buddhist practices while ignoring their own mystical and spiritual traditions. “Right now these people are getting away from Judaism,” Kolet said during a recent interview with JTA in New York. “We want to give these Israelis an opportunity to search their own traditions.” Kolet is in the United States this month raising funds for an institution he says will be a “holistic Jewish center” where Jews visiting India can explore their own traditions of meditation and spirituality. He estimates the project will cost some $1 million. He also sees the center as a place where visiting Jews, particularly Israelis, can meet and learn from the native Indian Jewish community, Bene Israel, whose ancestors are believed to have come to India two millennia ago. The Israelis “can interact with the Bene Israel community, which is a very traditional community,” Kolet said. “There’s a lot to learn from the Bene Israel way of harmoniously preserving the traditions.” The Bene Israel claim to be descendant from seven couples from the Land of Israel who survived a shipwreck and landed in western India not far from Bombay more than 2,000 years ago. Isolated from Jewish life elsewhere, for centuries they observed what they could remember and preserve of pre-rabbinic Judaism. When they were discovered in the 18th century by other Jews who had come to India, the Bene Israel had retained their monotheistic faith, practiced circumcision, knew the Shema prayer and observed some semblance of the Jewish Sabbath, festival and dietary customs. Today, the Bene Israel, who comprise about 5,000 of India’s 6,000 or so Jews, are universally accepted as Jewish. Most of the descendants of the Bene Israel emigrated to Israel in the early years of the Jewish state. The other Jews in India are the Cochin Jews, who arrived in India after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, and the Baghdadi community, comprised mostly of tradesman who fled Muslim persecution in Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. There also are several tribes in India who believe they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel but who have been practicing other religions and cannot prove their Jewish ancestry. The largest of these, the Bnai Menashe of northern India, has many members who seek to convert to Judaism. Kolet, 33, is from the Bene Israel. Raised in a traditional Jewish family on Bombay’s outskirts, he received a perfunctory Jewish education that left him with large gaps in his knowledge of Judaism. While a botany student at university, Kolet became involved with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which had launched educational and social welfare operations in India in 1964. He read Aryeh Kaplan’s books on Judaism in the JDC library, learned ritual slaughter at a JDC community center and became convinced that he needed to go to Israel if he wanted to learn more about Judaism. In 1995, with funding from the JDC, Kolet went to Jerusalem to study at a yeshiva. He stayed for more than six years, getting his rabbinic ordination in 2001. In the meantime, his family emigrated to Israel. Soon after Kolet returned to India, he became a community rabbi for the JDC. But after Jerusalem, Kolet wasn’t satisfied with the level of Jewish life in his native country. “Sadly, there isn’t much outside of JDC education,” he said. The JDC office in Bombay operates a Jewish community center, runs informal Jewish educational programs, maintains an old-age home and does international development work with the Indian community. The JDC also has a network of social workers and volunteers in the country. Kolet says he wants to “do something with more consistency in Jewish education.” In Thane, a suburb of Bombay, Kolet says a Jewish learning center is under construction that will include a kindergarten and an after-school program. Kolet also is trying to raise funds for a kashrut program, a new Jewish educational program and the purchase of tefillin in Bombay. “The kinds of projects that he’s initiating are indicative of a kind of renaissance of Jewish life that has taken place in India over the last decade,” said Leon Morris, who was a volunteer educator for the JDC in India 13 years ago and has returned to India many times since. Now a rabbi and director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning in New York, Morris said Kolet is “helping to restore lost knowledge to his people, helping them to feel secure in their Jewish knowledge, more clearly oriented.” For now, Kolet — who says he has committed to spending 10 years shoring up Jewish communal life in India before moving with his family to Israel — has his sights focused on bringing Indian Jews and visiting Israelis closer. The rabbi supports himself by working for the Star-K kosher certification agency in India, mainly supervising the production of spices. Pained to see Israelis get lost in the idolatrous traditions of India, Kolet said, “We cannot have Jews thinking they are achieving mystical union by worshiping idols.” Judy Amit, director of JDC’s programs in India, said the JDC doesn’t work with Israeli travelers to India but that many Israelis visit the JDC-run community center in Bombay to learn about the country’s Jewish history. She described Kolet as “very personable” and said, “Anybody that’s prepared to come and work with the Jewish community in India is certainly welcome.” Aside from raising funds for his holistic Jewish center, Kolet is on the lookout for rabbis to serve as educators there. “I’m looking for rabbis who have a very open outlook — who have integrated meditation and other techniques,” he said. Kolet, who practices Orthodox observance but rejects any denominational labels of Jews, says the rabbis at his center need not be Orthodox. What is essential, Kolet says, is that the Israelis who come to India “return with the feeling that Judaism is a rich tradition and they want to continue to be Jewish. And if they become observant,” he adds, “let them choose what level of observance they want.”
Uriel Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at 70 Faces Media. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.