Bringing an Indian touch to synagogue
TORONTO — For 30 years, Congregation BINA has celebrated the High Holidays with a distinct Indian flavour.
The services, which are mostly in Hebrew, include prayers that use traditional Indian melodies, though the words are the same as Ashkenazi and Sephardi prayers – and they use a Sephardi prayer book.
The congregation was formed three decades ago when the founders, who originally came from India, were trying to find a way to educate their children in their traditions.
Founder Ann Samson said her children were studying at an Ashkenazi Jewish day school where they learned Ashkenazi traditions.
“They’d come home and say to me, ‘You’re doing it wrong. You’re singing it wrong.’” she said. “And we would try to say to them, ‘It’s not wrong. It’s different, but that doesn’t make it wrong.’”
The synagogue’s services allow Jews from an Indian background to maintain their traditions after immigrating to Canada, and introduces Jews from other backgrounds to the unique melodies of the prayers.
Shai Abraham, vice-president of the synagogue, said she was born in India, moved to Israel with her family as a child and finally relocated to Toronto.
When she attended her first BINA service, “it was very emotional and meaningful,” she said. “There was nostalgia, and these memories and tunes I had as a child all came back.”
The B’nai Israel Jewish community was primarily based around Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, she said. It began around 730 BCE, when Jews left Canaan to flee the Syrians. They headed to the west coast of India, but their ship was wrecked. Fourteen people – seven men and seven women – settled not far from their intended destination and began a community there.
They lost their religious artifacts at sea, she said, but they continued to follow many Jewish traditions, such as strictly following the laws of kashrut, avoiding fires during Shabbat, reciting the Shema and circumcising their sons on the eighth day.
In the 11th century, David Rahabi, a Jewish merchant, found the community and identified them, she continued.
“We learned some of the new developments, but we kept some of the old traditions,” she said.
Many of the concepts behind the traditions are consistent among the various groups. For example, on Rosh Hashanah, many Jews follow the custom of eating apples and honey to symbolize a sweet new year.
Some families in Congregation BINA tend to cook the apples in sugar water to make a spread, Samson said; however, the idea behind the food is the same.
Although there are cultural differences, Abraham stressed that Jews everywhere adapted the religion to fit the culture of their areas, just as Indian traditions influenced B’nai Israel.
BINA is the Hebrew word for “understanding,” and is also an acronym for Beth Israel of North America. Although the congregation wanted the name B’nai Israel of North America, Abraham said, it was already taken, so they settled for Beth Israel.
Their goal is to eventually have their own building so that they can run Saturday services and keep their Torahs in one location, said Victor Abraham, a founder of the synagogue. The congregation currently rents space from the National Council of Jewish Women at 4700 Bathurst St. in Toronto for services. But they don’t expect to get their own space any time soon.
“It’s like waiting for the Messiah,” he said. “The dream is there, but we are not saying it must happen tomorrow.”
One challenge is the need to keep the costs low, Samson said. One of the reasons the synagogue started was that immigrants often could not afford to pay the high membership fees at other shuls.
If the congregation bought a building, the operating costs would dramatically increase, and they want to maintain their ability to integrate new immigrants through their affordable membership fees, she said.
Instead, some people in the congregation belong to other synagogues and meet at Congregation BINA for the High Holidays, Victor Abraham said.
Meanwhile, the synagogue continues to grow, with many new, young families joining the congregation, Shai Abraham said, adding that they now have 120 members, some single people and some families.
The founding members of the board have passed on their positions to the younger generation in order for the congregation to continue evolving, Samson said.
“You can’t stay on the board forever,” she said. “For an organization to survive, you have to have others take control.”