Sri Lanka is a tropical island east of India, with a rich Jewish history and a poor Jewish present. It offers stunning views of lagoons, forests and jungles, wildlife, rivers, mountains and waterfalls. All these and more have made Sri Lanka one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Sri Lanka has been dubbed as The Wonder of Asia

About two million tourists visited Sri Lanka every year before the Corona crisis. Among them were about 15,000 Israelis that visited Sri Lanka in 2019, most of them on post-army trips.  They chose Sri Lanka thanks to the amazing beaches that offer year-round surfing and other water sport. The high but gentle waves of the Indian Ocean attract surfing enthusiasts from all over the world and from Israel

When we -Jewish travelers- are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, we're interested also in Judaism aspects and heritage. Here's info which you will not find in tourist brochures and which most tour guides are not familiar with

Well, the locals believe that when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, they settled in Sri Lanka. It is written in the Torah that Noah's ark landed on Mount Ararat. According to local folk legend, Mount Adam's Peak, in the center of the island, is the biblical Mount Ararat

The Bible tells us about King Salomon "For the king had ships that went to Tarshish once every three years, bringing gold and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks" (2 Chronicles 9/21). The port city of Galle in Sri Lanka is said to be the biblical "Tarshish", to which King Solomon sent merchant ships. Monkeys and elephants were also on board King Solomon's ships

The first written record of Jewish settlement in Sri Lanka can be traced back as early as the ninth century. The Persian geographer Abu Said El-Hassan also visited Sri Lanka, and in his travelogue he writes that he found "a huge number of Jews" on the island

The famous Jewish traveler Rabbi Binyamin of Tudela visited Sri Lanka in the 12 century, and in his book "Sefer Hamasot" he reports about 3,000 members in the Jewish community. One of the biggest Jewish communities he met on his travels in the East. He wrote that many Jewish merchant vessels  sailed regularly from the Middle East and India to Sri Lanka, which onboard one of them he landed in the island

In 1154 Sinhalese Kings formed a government of 16 ministers, four of them were Jews. A quarter of the members of the government indicating the status of the Jews

The colonial period

In the 15th century the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka, and changed the name of the island to Ceylon. Along with the Portuguese also came many Jews, who worked in the shipping industry as ship managers and accountants, in trade, and in the construction of ports along the north and west coasts of the island

 After the "Edict of Expulsion" of Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, a large wave of the deported Jews arrived in Ceylon. But they did not get rest there. In the era of the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese government dismissed Judaism and harassed Jews. Many of them took the walking stick again and settled in Cochin in southern India. The remaining Jews were persecuted by the authorities and were required to convert to Christianity. Some of the Jews continued secretly to serve the Jewish rituals and the Torah commandments, and these martyrs were called "Marranos".      i

Children of the mixed marriage of Sri Lankans and Europeans were called "Burgers". To this day, there are burgers in Sri Lanka which are distinguished by their brighter skin and higher socioeconomic status. There are Christian burgers with Jewish surnames like David, Salomon, etc. But they no longer have a connection to Judaism

In 1615 the Dutch conquered Ceylon, and expelled the Portuguese. Jewish merchants from Amsterdam and Malabar (India) arrived on the island as merchants or employees of the V.O.C [Dutch East Indies Company]. Among the most prominent were the Van Dorts

A Dutch-born Jewish professor, Leopard van Dort, served as head of the Christian Theological Seminary in Colombo. There he composed the first translation of the Quran into Hebrew

The British occupation

We'd be noted that both the Dutch and the Portuguese conquered only the coastal areas of Ceylon, but failed to conquer the mountainous areas in the center of the island. In 1790 the British conquered Ceylon and made it a British colony. At first, they took over only the areas controlled by the Dutch, but the British continued to fight the natives until they completed the conquest of the entire island in 1815

During British rule, the Jews of Ceylon enjoyed prosperity. Two of Ceylon’s Chief Justices, Sir Sidney Abrahams and Sir Alan Rose, were Jews. Sir Alan Rose served as Ceylon’s Acting Governor-General

The Chief Justice and Advocate Fiscal of Ceylon, Sir Alexander Johnston, prepared in 1809 a plan for a big Jewish settlement in Ceylon. Actually he preceded the Founders of Zionism, Theodor Herzl and Baron Hirsch. But the bureaucratic officials of the Colonies Ministry in London messed up the plan

Ceylon's largest industry is the famous finest tea, which is marketed all over the world from the 19th century to the present day. Locals proudly declare that Ceylon tea is "The Sri Lankan gift to the world". But, in fact, those who gave this gift to Ceylonians themselves were Jewish brothers, Morris, Gabriel and Salomon of the De Worms family. They were family relatives ​​of the Rothschilds. The Worms brothers spotted good agricultural land with an optimal climate for coffee crops in the mountains of Kandy in the hill country. They planted many coffee plantations, and named it "Rothschild Estate". About a decade later a pandemic disrupted the crops. Therefore, the orchards were uprooted and were replaced by tea plants brought from China. Their tea crops were very successful. Ceylon's high-quality tea began to be marketed throughout Europe, and to this day Ceylon tea is one of the Sri Lanka's main export industries. The citizens of Sri Lanka appreciate the contribution of the Jews to the economy of their country

Gabriel de Worms contested the elections to the Legislative Council in 1847, and won a seat

Many Jews also held high positions within the civil service. Most notable was Leonard Woolf (husband of author Virginia Wolf) who served as Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota. Woolf’s Village in the Jungle’ is undeniably the best English novel ever written about Ceylon

 Heidi Salomon Keuneman was responsible for distributing food to the population during the war. She made a reform that is praised to this day, for its success in saving masses from starvation. Heidi Salomon was born to a religious Jewish family in Austria, and studied at the University of Cambridge, where she joined the communist movement. There she also met a student from Ceylon with whom she came to the island. Mrs. Keuneman's husband, Peter Keuneman, was a Cabinet Minister

  A Jewish banker named W. Cohen established a branch of Mercantile Bank in Ceylon. Professor Vally Reich, an Austrian Jewish refugee, was the first Professor of modern European Languages at the University College of Ceylon

Poet and psychologist Edith Ludovic Giomroy, born in Hungary, founded the Drama Society (DramSoc) of the University College of Ceylon and she also founded a women’s movement in Menikdiwela

The most important architect in Ceylon was Daniel Ulrik Plesner, a Jew born in Denmark. His projects stand in many places in Ceylon. He immigrated to Israel, and died in 2016 on a homeland visit to Denmark

American Rhoda Miller traveled to Europe after World War II, where she met her future husband Joe de Silva, who later became a member of the government. Along with him, she returned to his homeland in Ceylon, and worked as a senior journalist for the popular Ceylon Daily News. Because of being a communist, she was deported to America. Her good friend Claudine Liebovitsz, a Jew born in England, was also deported because she was suspected of being a KGB agent. Their friends in the Communist Party of Ceylon waged a struggle for their return, which received great media coverage worldwide

Another important Jew was Mrs. Marie Museeos Higgins, the widow of the American Civil War hero, who settled in Ceylon. She ran a Buddhist school for girls, and turned it into a large and important college. After her death, the school she founded was renamed Musaeus College in her honor

One of Sri Lanka's national poetess was Anne Ranasinghe, a Jewish Holocaust survivor. She was born as Anneliese Katz in Dresden, Germany. When the Nazis came to power, her parents sent her to London, before they were murdered in the Holocaust. In London she learned to be a nurse, and at the hospital she met a young doctor who had come from Ceylon for an internship. They fell in love and got married, and at the end of his internship they returned to Ceylon. Her poets are currently taught in schools in Sri Lanka. She passed away at age 91 in Sri Lanka in 2016. She made it clear that she wanted a Jewish burial

The list of names can be longer. Behind the details is a general picture of Jewish people involved at the top of all spheres during British rule. This is what makes Sri Lanka an interesting destination for Jewish travelers. We can feel "at home" there

Ceylon gained independence from the British in 1948, the same year of Israel's independence. In 1949, almost all the Jews left Sri Lanka. Most of them immigrated to Israel

The Sri Lanka's ambassador to Israel, Waruna Wilpatha, is looking for them and their descendants. "I invite them to contact our embassy in Tel Aviv. We will help them get organized, and help them visit their homeland Sri Lanka. Maybe with the help of your article they'll know where to look for information", says the ambassador

In 1972, Ceylon became a republic, and then the name of the country was changed to Sri Lanka

Very little Jewish evidence from the British period remains. The Great Synagogue was located in Steuart Place in the capital Colombo. This is what it looked like in a photograph of Zeev Rafael from 1966:       i

The synagogue and nearby buildings were demolished, and The Rotunda Gardens were planted on their site. In front of the synagogue is the Cinnamon Red Hotel. Its lobby was once decorated with a marble sign "The Synagogue", but this historic sign disappeared a few years ago during renovations made in the hotel

The Jewish community dwindled due to intermarriage until it almost completely evaporated. In the last century, most Jews hid their religion. An American Jewish journalist who visited Ceylon about a century ago, asked the Jews of Ceylon why they were hiding their religion? The answers she received were: "People don’t want their houses burned down because of religious intolerance”. Other Jews said: "We don’t want our graves dug up because of religious intolerance".           i

The Israeli researcher of Judaism, Rabbi Yitzchak Carmeli, also researched the history of Judaism in Sri Lanka. During his visit to the island in 2015, he located gravestones with Hebrew engravings in a Christian cemetery in the city of Colombo


On the right is a gravestone of a girl named Leha, the daughter of late Rabbi Leib, who died in 1908 at the age of 7. Next to it is a gravestone from 1989, on which is engraved the late Asher son of Rabbi Gershom

Ambassador Wilpatha adds that more gravestones of Jews can be seen also in a  in the commonwealth cemetery Kandy and other places there. Like this tombstone of a British soldier named Rosenfeld

Rabbi Yitzchak Carmeli surprisingly discovered about a senior Buddhist scholar monk, who was actually a Jewish Holocaust survivor. His name was Sigmund Feniger. The monk Feniger changed his name to Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera, but never denied his Judaism

He was a descendant of a family of rabbis in Berlin, who fled Germany when the Nazis came to power. He hid in the Island Hermitage in Ceylon because the local British government arrested German citizens. There he became a Buddhist monk, considered one of the first influencing philosophers to reveal Buddhism to the western world. He's worldwide known for translating Buddhism books to German. He established a Buddhist monastery and made sure that no AVODA ZARA was done there. The great philosophers in the East followed him, and among his students were also few Jews who survived the Holocaust

When Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, visited Burma in 1961, Feniger traveled there to meet him. Since then, Feniger and Ben-Gurion have corresponded for many years. Feniger died, but his monastery and his humbled home still exist today. One of Feniger's students showed Yitzhak Carmeli an old box that Feniger kept under his bed, containing documents and photos of him with his family in Germany. They all look Orthodox Haredim with beards and Kippahs. Amazing story!       i

In fact, it seems that in 1949 Judaism in Sri Lanka passed away. In the allegory to Carmeli's revelations it can be said that the Judaism in Sri Lanka was buried in Christian cemeteries

The current era

At the beginning of the current millennium, it seems that the Jewish Phoenix is coming back to life

In 2005 a Chabad House was opened in the center of the capital Colombo. The emissary Shaliach, Rabbi Mandy Crombie, arrived to re-ignite the Jewish spark. He tried to locate local Jews to bring them closer to Torah and Mitzvot. But so far he didn't find anyone. "After years of searching, I found only 3 Sri Lankans who converted to Judaism abroad", says Rabbi Crombie. The current Shliach is Rabbi Mandy Meidanchik, who replaced Rabbi Crombie. The Chabad house in Sri Lanka serves mainly Israeli travelers and Jewish businessmen who come to the capital. In the Chabad's synagogue in Colombo is hard to find a minyan quorum even on Shabbaths. "Depends on how many Jewish travelers come each Saturday."          i

In recent years, two more Chabad houses have been opened by Rabbi Roni Arad in tourist centers at the most popular surfing beaches. One in Hikkaduwa Beach, and another Chabad house is in Arugam Bay, on the east cost of Sri Lanka. During the surfing seasons there are Kabbalat Shabbat prayers in minyan and Shabbat meals

Due to the absence of Jewish community institutions as is customary in Europe, Mr. Saar Shapira, an Israeli businessman living in Colombo for about a decade, took personal responsibility. Four years ago he founded "The Jewish Federation of Sri Lanka" which has about fifty resident's members, and hundreds of Jewish merchants who frequently come to Sri Lanka on a regular basis. Rabbi Doron Halevi serves as the rabbi of the federation

The Federation takes care, among other things, as visit the sick (BIKUR CHOLIM), as well as locating and rehabilitating Jewish graves

The Jewish Federation is recognized by the Government of Sri Lanka as representing the Jewish minority. In recent years they're focusing on locating and rehabilitating Jewish graves in the General Cemetery located in the Colombo 8  (Borella). So far 9 old Jewish graves have already been discovered. The federation is renovating their gravestones, and bringing a minyan quorum for reciting Kaddish near the graves

The Jewish Federation of Sri Lanka is also a member of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), and is an active participant in the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. Members of the federation also participate in prayers and parties on Israeli holidays. "But we do not compete with Chabad," emphasizes Saar Shapira, "But work collaboratively in organizing religious ceremonies such as the lighting of a Hanukah menorah and the Pesach's Seder, in which many of our members also participate."            i

 In front of our eyes a phenomenon occurs, as we saw the Soviet states at the end of the last century. The Jewish spark shows signs of lightning. Although it has not yet captured the original native Jews of Sri Lanka, but there is no doubt that this too will come

What has been happening in Sri Lanka in recent decades from a Jewish point of view is reminiscent of Zechariah's prophecy: "There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem, And the broad places of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the broad places thereof" (Zechariah 8/4). We should replace "Jerusalem" with "Colombo" in this verse. It is still too early to judge this historic process

During the research for this article, I also interviewed the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Israel, Waruna Wilpatha, who provided most of the above information about Jewish history in Sri Lanka. He introduced me to the essay of Dr Fiona Kumari Campbell about Sri Lanka Jewry. Although the topic of our conversation was Judaism, the ambassador was swept up in talking enthusiastically about the beauty of his country, the national parks and wildlife, the year-round festivals, beaches and water sports. Thus, he arose in me a strong desire to visit "The Wonder of Asia". When the corona crisis will be over I plan to fly there, and I will report in a separate article on the island's best locations fit Jewish traveler

Photos courtesy of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Israel and Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau

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