4    Feb 20109 comments

India: A remarkable community project

How many people are in your family tree? Two hundred, 500, 1,000, 5,000?

Nissim Moses has some 15,000 people in the project for his Bene Israel community of India (see below for the history of this community).

Most importantly, now there's a way to make it easier for Bene Israel families around the world to stay connected through MyHeritage.com and his community website.

This story should be an inspiration to others who wish to create a secure community or family site at MyHeritage.com.

"People have left India and gone to many other countries," he said on a recent visit to the MyHeritage.com office, where he met with genealogy and translation manager Daniel Horowitz and with me (see photo).

"They are away from their families and have lost some of this information. So many people have moved away and lost contact. They haven't heard their detailed family history."

Click to view photo in full size
From left, Schelly, Daniel, Nissim

Nissim, 68, also helps out with his expert knowledge in other ways.

He recently received an email from an American girl planning a wedding to her Bene Israel fiance. She wanted to incorporate Bene Israel ceremonies into their celebration. Nissim sent all the details on the special Malida ceremony, which is only performed among the Bene Israel.

Along with the family trees, he has posted thousands of photos to his community site at MyHeritage.com, and informed his contacts about the new website. Over the past few weeks, people have responded with updates, new names and additional photos.

MyHeritage already had some small trees from other community members, and 23 matches were found for 17 people in other trees in the database.

"This project is for the future of the Bene Israel community," Nissim stresses. "Our community has produced so many individuals who have contributed so much to Indian society."

"I wanted to know how I could help my people," he said. "I'm happy to have done this so far and to continue this project into the future."

Nissim's goal is to include 25,000 individuals in the community tree and to preserve this information for future generations. One problem, he says, is that "men were often chauvinistic and did not include the names of their sisters and wives in the genealogy records." His own family tree dates to the 1600s and fills 132 pages.

Seemingly, Nissim knows everyone in the community no matter what country they live in today. At a wedding, he can easily confirm how the bride and groom and their parents and grandparents are all related. Guests come up to him, introduce themselves; he immediately knows who they are and how they fit into the tree.

He himself is related to four or five of the major families - they are all cousins and all related.

There's only one requirement to become involved with the community site, says Nissim. He asks the families to send updates and information. Then he invites them to the community site.

His goal is focused, to preserve as much information about his community, and he decided to implement this requirement after others asked for information but never added data to the project. One researcher wanted Nissim's complete work, but wouldn't share his own.

"If they give data, they get data," he stresses. Most people are happy to comply with Nissim's request.

WHO ARE THE BENE ISRAEL?

Bene Israel oral history indicates that they are the descendants of seven men and women who arrived in India more than 2,000 years ago.

In 175 BCE, their tradition indicates, a group of Jewish men and women from the Northern Kingdom of Israel set sail for the Port of Cheul. During a severe storm on India's Konkan Coast, their ships sunk off the coast at Navgaon.

Only seven men and seven women survived and all Bene Israel today are descendants of those 14 people. Judaism among the Bene Israel has been transmitted from father to son over many centuries in a land of tolerance.

Bene Israel historian Haim Samuel Kehimkar (Nissim's great-grandfather) believed that because the survivors were oil pressers, that they must have been from the Tribe of Levi. There are no documents to verify the history, but DNA testing seems to support this belief, according to Nissim.

Today, there are some 90,000 Bene Israel around the world, 70,000 live in Israel. Some 5,000 still live in India - mostly in Mumbai - while another 15,000 are in Australia, Canada, UK and the US.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

In 1999, Nissim began gathering information not only on family trees, but on the community's heritage, history, music, cuisine, culture and photographs of people and places.

As he puts it, "I was looking for a project as a transition to keep me occupied in my retirement." He's much busier now than when he was working as an engineer and business executive.

A few years ago, Nissim established - with other community members - a foundation in India and Israel called the Bene Israel Heritage Museum and Genealogical Research Center. The goal is to disseminate information about the community, its traditions, customs, social and cultural values. They plan to establish a museum, a genealogy website and enhance exposure of the community's talented artists, writers and other professionals.

There's a website, a set of five CDs including music, food and more. The CD set is titled "The Heritage of Bene Israel in India."

The food section has more than 150 pages with more than 300 of his mother's delicious and very unusual recipes.

Fluent in Hindi, Hebrew, English and Maratha, Nissim also speaks some German and French. He has researched Bene Israel surname origins, demonstrating their Hebrew/Aramaic origins, and has discovered important artifacts and historical facts.

His database is being constructed through historical records of families, personal contacts, interviews and cemetery visits. Much data is in Marathi or Lodi script, records are in poor condition and hard to decipher.

Nissim holds degrees from the Institute (formerly Royal) of Science within Bombay University, an engineering degree (Birla Institute of Technology (BIT) at Ranchi University, one of India's leading technology institutes. In 1966, he immigrated to Israel to study for a Master's degree at the prestigious Technion.

Here's a photo (c1913) of a Hebrew class at the Huzurpaga High School for Indian Girls, a boarding school attended by many middle and upper-middle class Bene Israel girls in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.

Click to view photo in full size
High school class (c1913)

WHAT'S NEXT?

In September, he's planning to visit India to work on a photography project of synagogues in Bene Israel villages.

Meanwhile, the Bene Israel tree keeps growing!

Readers who are interested in creating a similar community project on MyHeritage.com are invited to leave a comment below. I'm looking forward to reading your comments.

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Comments (9) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Thanks Schelly.You have written a very nice article.

    Nissim Moses
  2. Hi
    I am trying to trace my family back to India but I am not sure where to start.
    I amtrying to find Rachael Wrights (born 1859) Bombay and her parents Thomas Wright and Mary Ann Hynes ( They married in India in 1854.
    Can you point me in the right direction?
    Thanks
    Kirsty
  3. Thank you, Nissim. Your work with the Bene Israel community is fascinating and I look forward to the continued growth of the project.
    Schelly
  4. I am working to protect and keep in better position of Bene Israel Graveyard in Karachi. Also contacting the remaining Bene Israel is Karachi which are according to my research numbering around 200. After Rachel Joseph died, it is left with the Baloch Family's mercy. Requesting more information about Bene Israel families that lived in Karachi about it to promote the historical significance of this graveyard, in order to obtain a status of Heritage for it.
  5. Hi Nissim,
    Great to read your web site, and how U have helped people in your community to build up family tree, with all other things which make it very unique.
    I am also semi retired now, and have taken up similar project few days ago, TALWAR FAMILY 1915 TO 2010, as year of my father birth is 1915 to current.
    How do I go about, as I find lot of my family surnames "TALWAR" which belong to Khatri clan are settled all over the world. How to get in touch, how to shoot emails/most easy way in this electronic world etc, so that we could update our family to last so many generations etc.
    pls ack me.
    Regards,
    A Talwar email:talwar1948@gmail.com
  6. Dear Nissim,

    This is Nissim Rohekar. I am excited to start charting my heritage. How do I begin. You mentioned that you have already done some work on my family tree. How can I access it?
    Best regards,
    Nissim
  7. Nissim,

    I remember you from IAI. I now work as a volunteer at Beit HaTfutzot where visitors can see their family trees and can get advise about building them. May I suggest that you write to this institution so as to give (and receive) more data about the Bnei Yisrael trees recorded here?

    Where can I see your claim about the Bnei Yisrael family names being hebrew and not based on their past villages (as I once thought)?


    Shalom and all the Best
  8. Dear Nissim,

    I am reaching out to you to help me re-connect with my Jewish heritage.

    The little I know is that my great, great,great grandfather, along a brother, settled in India-probably in Thana, Mumbai. I would guesstimate (from my grandfathers dob 3/3/1885) probable date of migration around 1820 or so.

    For reasons that only he knew, he converted to Islam and married into the family of the personal physician to the last Moghul Emperor. His brother, as I understand, did not change his faith.

    Their family name was Reuben (if I spelled it right). He took up the name Ismael Shaikh (Ishmael?).

    I was born a Muslim in 1946 in Karachi. I hope you can help me meet my relatives in person after 125 year!

    Best,

    Usman
  9. I am married to a Bene Israel " Cheulkar Family". I can find out from the many Reubens who are related to my husband about Usman's Great Grandfather. Also I know of one pakistani Bene Israel and will surely forward this site to her if she can help Haroon.
    What a great idea for connecting people in the BeneIsrael Community.

    Ziva

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