City Landmark – Chabad House, Paharganj

A home for travelling Jews.

[Photos and text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Jewish skullcaps. Hebrew graffiti. Rabbi’s hat tucked on the wall. Welcome to Jerusalem.

Now come back to Delhi. We never left. It’s just Paharganj and we are in Chabad House, a sort of a Jewish community club.

With headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, Chabad Houses are established all over the world. Look for it in touristy places visited by Israelis. There is a Chabad House in Dharmshala, in Pushkar and one such was at Bombay’s Nariman House. On November 26, 2008, it was attacked by terrorists and its caretaker couple were killed.

With the tragedy still resonating in newspapers, I walked into Paharganj bylanes in search of Delhi’s only Chabad House. It used to be in a room at Hare Rama Guest House but now… it’s not there!

“It shifted,” the receptionist said. He guided me to a street lined with internet cafes and a few steps later I spotted a signboard — Chabad House.

Perhaps what McDonald’s is for travelling Americans, Chabad House is for Israelis — something familiar in a foreign land. A home away from home.

Israeli backpackers on their way to Dharmshala or Goa usually make a stopover in Paharganj hostelries and it is in this Chabad House that they drop by to celebrate Jewish festivals like Hanukkah and Passover. If there’s no special occasion, they simply gather together to share the weekend Sabbath meals.

Where are they today?

With its bookshelves, low tables and wooden chests, the hall appears to be a meditative retreat but it’s empty. I climb another set of stairs. Here is a large cooking range and beside it is standing a large hairy man. Emmanuel, a tourist from a town near Haifa, has just returned from Himanchal and has barged in the Chabad House to spend a quiet afternoon. He knows the couple who takes care of this place. “They have gone to Mumbai after the murder of the Rabbi there,” he says.

“Can it happen here, too?” I ask.

“My friend, many people are worried,” Emmanuel says, looking straight into me. “The most we can do is pray.” He leads me to the prayer hall. “See, this is just a room but it is so lovely, so calm because of what you feel each time you are here.”

Emmanuel opens a cupboard and shows me holy scrolls that I’m not allowed to touch. “It’s read only during the festivals,” he says with some pride.

Emmanuel is obviously a man in love with his religion but I’m told that non-observant Jews, too, come to Chabad House to be among their own in this alien land. “Here we pray, eat and rest together,” says Emmanuel. “This is a precious getaway.”

Considering that there are only 10 Jewish families and one synagogue in Delhi, this Chabad House is indeed precious. After Mumbai attacks, it appears endangered, too. Delhi must never lose it.