Bene Israel community finds a home in Toronto

Keeping Bene Israel traditions alive is the core mission of Congregation BINA based in Toronto. Home to Bene Israel—a community of Jews from India—the 200 member congregation holds High Holiday services and events to ensure Southeast Asian Jews have a home in the Canadian Jewish context.

Considered to be one of the descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes, Bene Israel is the largest of three Jewish communities in India—the other two being Cochin and Baghdadi. At the end of the 1940s, the Bene Israel population peaked in India with an estimated 24,000. After 1948, many members of the community began emigration to the new state of Israel and a minority moved to England, the U.S. and Canada (the next wave of Bene Israel emigrating from India occurred in the early 1970s).

In Canada, many of the Bene Israel that settled, primarily in Toronto, found that most synagogues followed Ashkenazi traditions. There wasn’t a place for the Indian Jewish community to call home. That’s why Congregation BINA was formed in the late 1970s. 

I talked to the congregation’s president Ramona Abraham to discuss Congregation BINA’s history, the importance of inclusivity in Judaism, and her favourite traditions during the holidays. 

Ramona, tell me a bit about yourself; how did you become involved with Congregation BINA? 

My family is one of the founding families of Congregation BINA. In the 1970s my parents moved here and met other Bene Israels, and found they were missing their own melodies and customs. So, they founded the congregation to bring together those traditions and to also have their own cemetery plots. 

I was born in Canada but grew up in the [Bene Israel] community, so I grew up with the culture, but also with Ashkenazi culture—we belonged to an Ashkeazi synagogue in Hamilton. I went to Hebrew school with the Ashkenazi Jews and at home it was all Bene Israel. I got to know both cultures very well. Now, I’m president of the community because it’s important to keep the congregation going. Sadly, it’s dwindling. People choose to go in different directions, by either marrying outside the faith, or going into other communities, or joining other synagogues, or wanting a more Orthodox service—we’re Conservative Egalitarian. Many in our community are getting older and the younger generation isn’t as interested in partaking but that’s a problem many synagogues have. 

That must make the mission for you even stronger. 

We want to maintain our traditions for our children and we want them to know where they come from. It opens your experiences knowing what your background and traditions are, and our customs are very different from other Jewish groups. We can’t always share it with other non–Bene Israel Jews, so it’s nice to share the traditions within the community. At the same time, you can walk into any synagogue and know the prayers. That’s a great connection all Jews have.

I’m curious to know a bit more on how Congregation BINA was founded. 

It began back in the 1970s when a family lost their son and couldn’t get a plot to bury him because no synagogue believed they were Jewish. The family couldn’t believe it because they were an Orthodox family from India, but lo and behold no one was willing to give their son a burial plot. They wanted to bury their son in a Jewish cemetery so they contacted other Bene Israel families and asked, “What do we do?” All these families started searching for where they could get plots and finally Chabad agreed to sell a plot to this family. After this experience, the Bene Israel families wondered, “Why are we just getting together for these sad occasions? We should meet more often and buy some plots for our community.” They got some money together and started charging an annual fee for any who were interested in joining their gatherings, and that’s how the congregation began. 

At first, they met for social occasions like Hanukkah and Purim parties but they missed their tunes and customs for the High Holidays. So they rented out halls at the Jewish Women’s Council House on Bathurst Street, where they resided for around 35 years. But when the building was sold the congregation had to find a new home, which they found with the Lodzer Congregation. They allow us to rent out their chapel on the High Holidays and they use their upper level social space for their own High Holiday services. I’m happy we can provide services to our members who don’t want to forget or lose touch with their own tunes and customs, otherwise they miss what they grew up with. It’s also important to maintain BINA for cemetery plots for any Bene Israel that will need it. 

The origins of that story, I think, sadly resonate with many Jews today who don’t fit that Ashkenazi mold, often being questioned if they’re Jewish because they’re not white. How can we create a truly inclusive Jewish community that celebrates all identities and cultures? 

Growing up in an Ashkenazi community people would ask, “Are both your parents Jewish?” or “How can you be Indian and Jewish?” I never took it in a negative way because it’s all about education. There are Jews all over the world. You can likely find a synagogue or small community of Jews in most countries. We were nomads once upon a time and existed in all parts of the world. Some people could take offense to the questions I received, but at least they’re asking so you can tell them and educate them. But it can be a strange experience. One time, an Egyptian Jew asked me to say the prayer over the candles for Shabbat to prove my Jewishness. I thought, “This is weird, why should I have to prove myself to you?” I’ve never been asked to prove myself that way . . . to be inclusive it’s important to remember there are Jews from different walks of life. And maybe put yourself in the shoes of someone like me. Would you like it if you were asked if you are a converted Jew? Or why is your skin is lighter than your parents? We know about the Lost Tribes and that they dispersed all over the world. Why is it so hard to believe I could be Jewish. I think it’s so important to educate others and that can happen by simply sharing recipes from your culture—I find food is a good way to connect because people understand it. 

Speaking of, are there some favourite dishes you have over Passover? Seems timely with the holiday having just ended. 

So growing up all of my friends had brisket but we had rice and lamb curry or chicken curry. You make a green masala with lamb or chicken and use coriander, garlic, salt, lemon, all of that good stuff. You make it all from scratch. It’s a tasty and different tradition. We also eat the lamb shank on our Seder plate at the end of the service. Our charoset is made out of dates, I prefer it to the Ashkenazi one, but I guess it’s because I grew up with it. I got all of these recipes from my mother and mother-in-law, it’s how we learn the traditional dishes. We also make rice chapati for Passover. We’re allowed rice, so you don’t have matzah all the time.  

That’s great, it allows for some much needed variation for the week. And are there any special traditions outside of Passover that you love? 

Well the Bene Israel love to celebrate happy occasions and we do this with Mailida, which is also known as the Eliyahu Hanavi (or Giving Thanks) ceremony which is performed during any happy event such as weddings, bar or bat-mitzvahs, engagements, births, graduations, new jobs . . . you name it. We eat parched rice with sugar, nuts, and raisins. And you can have five or seven fruits. It always has to be an odd number, don’t ask me why. 

The Bene Israel are connected to Eliyahu, he’s like their prophet. There’s a story that when he ascended to heaven his chariot was on fire, with his wheels also burning. In India there’s a rock that has burnt lines as if the chariot on fire took off from it. You can see two lines that look like they’re burnt into the rock and people say it’s where he ascended into heaven. You can go to India and find the rock. Apparently, it’s there. 

That’s really cool, I’d love to see that.  

Me too.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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