COCHIN, India - Amid mounting rumors of the possible sale of a centuries-old synagogue in the southern Indian city of Cochin to a developer, authorities in the local state government have taken steps to block the possibility of its future demolition.
The Thekkumbhagom synagogue, located on Jews Street in the Ernakulam area of Cochin, was built in 1580 and later renovated in 1939. Along with other local synagogues, it served Cochin's 3,000 Jews until most moved to Israel after the establishment of the state. Fewer than 35 Jews now remain in Cochin.
The synagogue is currently owned by the Association of Kerala Jews, and in recent years, the structure has fallen into disuse.
In recent weeks, according to former Cochini Jews living in Israel, the synagogue was put up for sale and negotiations were conducted with an Indian developer who wanted to buy the property and tear down the building.
Zipora Meir, an Indian Jewess who now lives in Ramle, told The Jerusalem Post, "I was born and brought up near this synagogue until the age of 19, when I migrated to Israel. I used to go there for all the festivals with my family members, and on Sundays I attended Torah lessons in the synagogue.
A local Christian who lives near the synagogue told the Post that it was known throughout the neighborhood that the site was up for sale. "May the Jews be protected and their heritage be safe, as you people are the blessed people and I hate to see something happen to the worship place of the Jews," she said.
But in an interview in his home in Cochin, Isaac Joshua, president of the Association of Kerala Jews, denied the synagogue was for sale. "That is false propaganda," he said. "We plan to turn it over to the local archeological department to ensure that it is protected and maintained."
Nonetheless, Meir put together a petition to the home minister of the government of Kerala, which includes Cochin, and obtained the signatures of dozens of other former Cochini Jews living in Israel, calling on the authorities to safeguard the remaining synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Cochin.
Dr. Venu V. Ias, the Kerala district government's secretary of tourism, said, "I have instructed the superintending archeologist to take action to ensure that the building is not demolished."
Ias added that the synagogue appeared on the government's list of "heritage buildings," which meant that it could not be torn down without the permission of local authorities.