One of the most densely populated cities in the world, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is home to the majority of Indias Jewish population. Among the 12 million people that make up the city are some 4,000 Jews.
While many of Indias Jews have immigrated to Israel, the US, Great Britain and elsewhere, around 5,000 Jews continue to live in the ancient community, which according to some sources dates back to the time of King Solomon.
A group of 22 young Indian Jews, mostly from the Mumbai area, recently visited Israel on a Taglit-Birthright Israel educational trip for 10 days (June 5-14) to explore the Jewish state and meet with their Israeli peers, some of Indian origin as well.
It was an amazing trip, said Adina Tambde, 21, from Mumbai. I didnt feel like a tourist here; I felt very at home. Israel is very welcoming, she told Tazpit. The moment when we first landed was very special.
Its easier to keep kosher here you can eat almost anywhere, Tambde said. Although 10 days, without spicy food was a bit hard, she joked.
Tambde also met her Israeli cousin for her first time during the trip: Tomer is an IDF soldier and accompanied the group for some of the visit.
I dont have Jewish friends back in India, Tamde said. Two days before the trip, I found out that I had a cousin that I would meet.
Tamdes uncle had made aliyah to Israel years before and Tomer grew up in Holon.
Tambde recently completed her college studies in business in Mumbai and is currently exploring options to pursue her masters degree in Israel. In India, people admire you for being Jewish and its safe for Jews there, she says. But its difficult to fully follow Judaism and traditions too.
Like the other Indian Jewish participants, it was Tambdes first visit to Israel.
The group toured around the country, including Tiberias, the Golan Heights, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Yad Vashem and an Indian spice shop in the Ramle market.
The first Taglit-Birthright trip for Indian Jews, with around 12 participants, took place in 2001. Since then, the numbers have grown, with as many as 40 participants in some years. In 2014, around 32 Indian Jews participated.
Sifron Penkar, 26, from the city of Pune, near Mumbai, said that many things about Israel surprised him. Theres a lot more discipline here drivers stop at the red light, he says. Mumbai is a lot busier, chaotic.
The technological and scientific advances of Israel attracted Penkar, who also said he came to check out work opportunities during the trip. He wants to work on improving his Hebrew when he returns to India through self-study.
For others, like 18-year-old Steffi Elias, who studies fashion design in India, the trip to Israel was a significant spiritual experience.
The Wailing Wall had a huge spiritual impact on me, she said. I would love to come back here in the future but we will see where time takes me, she said. Im too young to decide where my future will be now.