Nestled in a bylane and away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi’s chaotic Paharganj area, lies a quaint “Jewish oasis” where weary Israeli travelers stop by to feel at home.
At the corner of the bylane, dotted with bilingual – English and Hebrew – commercial signboards, a flight of stairs takes visitors to a world, which could well be mistaken for a traditional household in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
Welcome to Chabad House, a rendezvous point, a community center and a watering hole, all rolled into one, for Israelis to “meet, greet and eat” together, and after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to that country, the place is brimming with excitement.
“From weary tourists to people visiting India for business purposes, they come first to the Chabad House and seek guidance for hotel and lodging facilities in Delhi as much as for socializing with fellow countrymen,” says Rabbi Akiva.
“Travelers, who are visiting other parts of India and transiting through the city, also come here just to experience a slice of Israel. They pray, eat kosher food, share Israeli snacks, celebrate Jewish festivals and make merry,” he adds. And the center is indeed a home away from home, the room on the first floor of the House, replete with Jewish paraphernalia.
Rabbi Akiva takes his seat surrounded by a library of books on Judaism stacked up against the walls while kippah- wearing men perform tefillah (Jewish prayer) in one corner. In another part of the room, a group of backpackers chat up, share ‘Bamba’ (famous Israeli snack) and exchange pleasantries, before moving to their hotel rooms or the next destinations.
Nitzan Zeira and Shir Arzuan, two friends from Tel Aviv, who stopped by at the Chabad House before travelling to Dharamsala, are super excited that Modi became the “first Indian PM to visit my country”.
“We Israelis have been travelling to India in good numbers, and we really hope that after Modi’s visit, the tourist influx from India to our side would go up,” Zeira says. “I left Tel Aviv for Delhi, the day the Indian PM arrived there. During my stay here, I read about and saw pictures on Internet of his (Modi’s) meeting with our PM (Benjamin Netanyahu) and the Jews of Indian-origin there. I felt very happy. The visit would surely bring the two countries closer,” says Zeira.
During the visit, Modi had also met 11-year-old Moshe Holtzberg, the Israeli child who lost his parents in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, a gesture that has warmed the hearts of Israelis, from Delhi to Tel Aviv.
“For us, this was the most touching gesture from India. More so, because Moshe’s parents – Rivka and Gavriel Holtzberg – were killed by terrorists at the Nariman House (Mumbai’s Chabad House), where they were serving as its emissaries,” Akiva said. After the terrorist attack, the house has been provided with round-the-clock police security.
A Chabad House is a community center for disseminating traditional Judaism by the Chabad movement. These houses are run by a Chabad Shaliach (emissary), his wife – a Shlucha – and his family.
Rabbi Akiva is the Shaliach at Paharganj’s Chabad House. “We moved two places in the vicinity before settling here off Main Bazaar Road. It was established in 1993, the first in Delhi. A second one came up some years ago in Vasant Vihar,” he says.
The atmosphere inside the House is very homely, as his three little daughters play with guests, while Akiva and his wife offer them hospitality and guidance to feel at ease in a new country. Giant portraits of the Rebbe, the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, adorn the walls on the first floor, and the second floor, which houses a restaurant offering Jewish cuisine.
“The Chabad House is a part of a Jewish community network, headquartered in Brooklyn in New York. Around the world there about 5,000 such houses while in India the number is close to 20, including at Manali, Pushkar, Dharamsala and two in Delhi,” adds Akiva, who moved to India six years ago from Israel.
Outside in the street of bustling Main Bazaar, a mid-air hanging vinyl-made signage in Hebrew points towards the Chabad House in the bylane, while many shops and tour operators display bilingual advertisements.
“It is like a ‘Little Israel’ and most of the foreign tourists coming here are from that country. This is the peak season and from Delhi, they mostly move to Leh, Ladakh, Dharmasala or Manali as their next destination,” explains Anil Bhardwaj, who runs a tour agency from his office near the House.
“Delhi is their transit point, but economy accommodation and a Chabad House at the heart of this place, make Paharganj very attractive to them. In my travel agency, on an average 20 Israelis are booking tickets on a given day, and sometimes that number swells to 60,” he says.
In the streets, an Indian is likely to bump into an Israeli national, among other foreigners, he says. Guest houses and hotels are packed with Israelis tourists.
“Close to 90% of our guests are Israelis. We display bilingual signage and notices (English and Hebrew) for their benefit,” says a staffer at the reception of Ajay Guest House, as he shows the booking register with ‘Israeli’ crowding the nationality column.
Twenty-three-year-old Dor Pinhas, after serving in the Israeli Defense Force, has come to India on a maiden visit. “Chabad House makes me feel I’m in Israel. It is like home, we get our culture and our food and language and people.”
Ruth Slashman, a Jewish woman, who moved to Jerusalem from Washington few years ago, visited the House, to seek help in “finding a good hotel” and Rabbi Akiva guided her to a place in Connaught Place.
“We are thrilled that Indian PM visited Israel. Not many Indians know about Israel, but I think it is a good thing in a way, as they do not have any bias or prejudice about it. I really hope now, after Modi’s visit, Indians will begin to look at Israel from a different perspective and choose it as their travel destination,” says Slashman.