Cochin Jews
A Cochin synagogue in the Israeli town of Nevatim. Photo by Yehudit Garinko / Wikipedia
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Courtesty of Chabad
Rabbi Zalman Bernstein Photo by Courtesty of Chabad

A Chabad rabbi who was serving the tiny ancient Jewish community in Cochin, India, and his wife were expelled to Israel on Tuesday for allegedly engaging in illegal activities. Indian authorities accused Rabbi Zalman Bernstein of failing to declare on his visa application that he would be conducting religious activities and of trying to convert foreigners. A local daily accused him and his wife of spying for Israel.

Bernstein, of the Chabad Hasidic movement, dismisses all the charges and says he was always open about the purpose of his stay in India ¬ providing religious services. With his departure, the Jewish community in Cochin is now down to fewer than the ten Jewish men required as a quorum for organized prayer.

Bernstein and his wife, Shendi, say they were invited by the local Jewish community to come to Cochin two and a half years ago after the death of the community's long-time rabbi. He told Haaretz that the couple had noted on official government forms that they were conducting religious activities in Cochin. Their work there included organizing prayer, celebration of Jewish holidays and administration of the large synagogue in a neighborhood of the city known as "Jew Town" and was conducted openly, they say.

Spy allegations

A report by a local correspondent for the Times of India daily reported that the rabbi held numerous suspicious nighttime meetings at his home in Cochin and that the large size of the home engendered suspicion that he was receiving outside financial support. The reporter went on to say that the couple had been accused of spying for Israel, but the basis of his allegation was simply a conclusion drawn from a reference in a police report to strange activities conducted by the rabbi.

Following the press report, Bernstein denied that he had engaged in spying, and Israeli consul Eyal Siso of the embassy in New Delhi said the espionage allegations were "nonsense." He said there was speculation hat a Libyan Muslim initiated the effort to have Rabbi Bernstein and his wife expelled but this has not been confirmed.

Chabad, which is based in Brooklyn, New York, is an ultra-Orthodox movement that is well known for its outreach to unaffiliated Jews. Its centers have become a popular destination among Israeli and other Jewish backpackers. The Chabad House in the Indian city of Mumbai was targeted by terrorists in 2008, killing six people including the Chabad rabbi and his wife.

Chabad has 4,000 centers run by husband and wife couples in countries all over the world. Chabad sources said since the Mumbai blast, senior officials of the movement in India have kept a lower profile.

For his part, Bernstein speculated that the expulsion order was issued because the owners of numerous boutique hotels and restaurants in the area wished to rid themselves of competition from Chabad House, where Shabbat dinner is offered at no charge. The Chabad rabbi said he had also been accused of attempting to expand the Jewish community in Cochin by attracting foreigners who would then be converted to Judaism. He denied that he was engaged in such an effort. Over the past month, he and his wife tried to persuade the local Indian court to allow them to remain, but to no avail.

Although the expulsion order issued against Bernstein and his wife did not accuse the couple of espionage, it unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comment on the Internet. Hebrew University professor Shalva Weil, an expert on Indian Jewry, said there is no history of the anti-Semitic targeting of Indian Jews. Weil said the Jewish community of Cochin ¬ in the Indian state of Kerala ¬ at one time numbered 2,400 people, but most moved to Israel in 1954.