Jewish Women in India Have a Powerful New Role Model

You can see the relics of this story just from walking down the streets in her Mumbai suburb of Byculla, an area that a few generations ago was a vibrant Jewish hub and today is an overwhelmingly Muslim neighborhood. The once beautiful Magen David synagogue is located on a massive campus that includes a Jewish guesthouse, Jewish schools with names of Jewish philanthropists on plaques that barely hide the peeling paint and broken windows, and abundant signs of neglect. While I stayed at the David Sassoon guesthouse––named for a 19th century Jewish philanthropist who built structures all over Mumbai––the enormous courtyard was repurposed for a Muslim wedding.

You can also see it with the synagogues all around Mumbai. There are nine synagogues in Mumbai, but most struggle to get young people to attend. Only one Mumbai synagogue, Tiphereth Israel in Jacob’s Circle––also known as Kandlekarranchi Masjid––has a strong community, with an estimated 70 families who regularly participate in activities.

Sharona is on a mission to change this, and to revive Jewish life here. And Passover gives her glimpses of hope. After all, last year the seder she and her husband, Sharon, ran in their apartment was so large that they had to split into two. This was a high-quality problem. They decided to turn the overflow crowd into a women’s seder, which Sharona led. This is the kind of activity where Sharona shines; she loves educating with stories, songs and rituals. What’s more, many of the women around the table, schooled in strict gender roles from both Jewish culture and Indian culture, had never spoken at a seder before. Many had never had the chance to read the Hagaddah out loud, or lift the matzah off the plate, because in this community, the man at the table traditionally has those jobs. Some women had never had the opportunity to engage intellectually and spiritually with the objects on the table. Sure, women probably prepared the maror (bitter herbs) and charoset, but they never were the ones to ask aloud, “Why are we eating this tonight?”

Interestingly, Sharona did not have any formal Jewish education growing up. “We lived in Thane, which was far from the center of Mumbai,” she told me during a Saturday-night interview after she had spent Shabbat feeding me, my husband and my daughter a delectable array of Indian and Israeli food ––some hummous, some dahl. She was dressed in an Indian kurta and an Israeli headscarf as we sat far from the main room where the incessant Mumbai honking made it impossible to talk. “In my family, we went to synagogue and Passover and things like that, but I asked lots of questions, and never got satisfactory answers. I actually went to a convent school, and I got a very good education, but not a Jewish one.”

Her route from testy teen to Jewish educator passed through the JDC, Machon Gold, and other Jewish encounters. “After 10th grade, I went to a summer youth camp organized by the JDC,” she explained. It was during a period in her life when she was ready to reject Judaism altogether, but the camp, which was run by Rabbi Hyim Shafner and Sara Winkelman, changed her entire outlook to Judaism. “They created such a beautiful Shabbat atmosphere, and for the first time I experienced what Shabbat can be, how magical that it could be.”

The camp also broke down a crucial language barrier. “They used a prayerbook that had translations,” she said. “Until then, I had only seen a siddur in Hebrew and I didn’t understand the words. I read the words ––peace in the world, kindness, compassion ––and I realized I wanted to know more.”

Following the camp, she made a few crucial decisions. One was to go to college in south Mumbai, close to the Jewish community center. She was immediately offered a job teaching Sunday school to Jewish kids. There she met another young woman who had recently returned from a year of study in Jerusalem at Machon Gold. Sharona asked her parents if she could go, too, and her parents said yes, which was a very big deal. “There are very few parents who would let their daughters to leave for a year,” she said. But they were very supportive. So were her employers: The Jewish Agency sponsored her tuition and lodging, and the JDC gave her a living stipend––on condition that she would return to Mumbai and work for them. Sharona agreed.

“It was the best year of my life,” she says of her first year in Israel. She loved it so much that she stayed for a second year, and then spent a few months afterwards working on the kibbutz Tirat Tzvi.

When she returned to Mumbai, she began keeping Shabbat, working as a full-time Jewish educator, and studying part-time, eventually completing both a BA and her M.Sc. in Early Childhood Education. It was during her time at the JDC that she met her husband, Sharon, who had also come back from an extensive stay in Israel and was working at the JDC. They married in 2003, together becoming one of the most Jewishly knowledgeable and involved families in the community. Of the estimated 4,000 Mumbai Jews, only three or four families are religiously observant.

Two years ago, Rebbetzin Chaya Kozlovsky, the wife of the Chabad rabbi of Mumbai, decided to open up a Jewish school. She immediately approached Sharona to lead the teaching, and Sharona said yes. “This is my dream, to work in a Jewish school,” Sharona said. “Because I believe in Jewish education, and this is what our community lacks. For many years we have not had a place where children can get a proper Jewish education. And it is very important for people to get this kind of education as kids.”

Historically, according to Elijah Jacob, the Executive Director of JDC, India, and one of the key historians of the Indian Jewish community, there were three Jewish schools in Mumbai (as well as others all around India). In Mumbai alone, The Sir Elly Kadoorie School founded in 1875, the Sir Jacob Sassoon High School founded in 1903, and the Elisha Ezra Ezekiel Sassoon School established in the early 1900s, (plus ORT India established in 1960s), all once served a vibrant Jewish population. Today, they cater to a predominantly non-Jewish clientele and do not offer more than two hours a week of after-school Jewish studies that, Sharona says, “are not taken seriously.” Formal Jewish education today had been almost non-existent in Mumbai––until the opening of the Chabad school.

Sharona hopes to change that. In the new school, she teaches Judaism to children in several different age levels, and prepares curricular materials. “I’m loving it. This is what I live for,” she says. “If in the next 5 or 10 years parents decide to send their kids to this school, this community will come alive again.”

The Chabad rebbetzin, a 28-year-old Jerusalem native who has bright eyes and a long brown wig and who is pregnant with her fourth child, agrees. “Sharona is completely dedicated to Jewish education,” she told me over a lunch of Israeli food at the Mumbai Chabad house––the location of the infamous 2008 terrorist attack that saw her predecessors murdered. “Sharona is one of the few people in this community who understands the importance of education.”

Today, the school ––only in its second year ––has 11 students, but the women have plans for growth, and hope to enroll 50 students within a few years.

“We want to reach as many people as possible,” Sharona says, speaking not only about the school but about all their communal educational activities. For the seder, for example, her husband makes wine for the entire community, and she prepares explanations, translations, commentaries and songs to engage people. They put all their energies into outreach.

The rebbetzin also told me that Sharona is challenging notions about what a Jewish woman can be. “A lot of women here are taught not to open their mouths,” she said. “There are a lot of rules about leaving the house, about talking over the husband, and more.” Many Indian Jewish women come to her for guidance on a wide range of issues, and she also organizes events for women, to energize them.

In that context, Sharona is a powerful role model for women. A smart, outspoken, passionate and independent Jewish woman, Sharona is teaching the women of the community that they can be active participants in the seder ––and in everything else.

“I really believe that women need to have roles and be an important part of Jewish life,” she concluded. “I’m very hopeful for the future of Jewish women.”


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.