Saturday, August 4, 2012

Philanthropist Fred Worms And The Cochini Connection

By Bala Menon

Israeli philanthropist Fred Worms, who died in Jerusalem on Monday (July 30) at the age of 91, had a wonderful connection with Cochin.  Fred and his wife Della Worms were instrumental in the transportation to Israel and restoration of a synagogue interior from Cochin in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Fred Worms and Della were ardent supporters of the Museum since its establishment in 1965 - although they were at the time  British citizens. The story goes that, in 1990, they were visiting Jerusalem and joined in the 75th birthday celebrations of legendary Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolleck.  Kolleck expressed a wish that he 'wanted to pray in the Cochin synagogue."

The Kadavumbagam  interior. Pic: Israel Museum
Worms said he would pay for Kolleck's trip to Kerala - but Kolleck explained he wanted to pray in the  Cochin Synagogue in Jerusalem. Worms, who was very attached to Koleck  (who founded both the Israel Museum and the Jerusalem Foundation), did not hesitate. He immediately arranged for the dismantling and transport of the interior of the famed Kadavumbagam synagogue in Mattancherry from Kerala (India).

Located at the south end of Synagogue Lane, the synagogue, which was built in the mid-16th century was abandoned after the entire congregation made aliyah in the 1950s.   (Kadavumbagam means "By the Side of the River" in Malayalam, the language of the Cochin Jews).

(The synagogue is only a shell today in Mattancherry; it was once used as a factory for making rope and later as a general warehouse. Today, it is dilapidated, with its roof tiles broken and windows boarded up, its grounds overgrown with brush and weeds.

The interior arrived in Israel in 1991. The beautiful ark from the synagogue  had already reached Israel in the 1950s, but the congregation couldn't get it released from the Israeli customs in time. It was taken away by a community of German Jews who had a synagogue in Moshav Nehalim - and they refused to return it to the Cochinis.

The Kadavumbagam Synagogue  in Mattancherry: Picture: Bala Menon

The rich teak interior structure has intricate decorative work believed to have been done sometime in the 17th century - and includes lotuses in many stages of bloom, which was part of the structure. The ceiling itself weighed around seven tonnes, with the beams weighing some 700 kg. each.

The interior was preserved in a climate-controlled storage area for five years, so that it could adapt to the dry Jerusalem temperature after enduring the tropical  humidity of the Kerala atmosphere for centuries. Kolleck had to redo the concrete museum  roof to enable the erection of the structure's  beams. The old paint was removed, revealing the majesty of the carvings.
  Picture taken at the Israel Museum during a big exhibition on the Jews of India
in 1995 and the public display of the Kadavumbagam Interior.  
Along with Abe David (on left), are Mr. & Mrs. Fred and Della Worms and the late
Ruby Daniel ( a close relative of Abe's), who was a speaker at the celebrations. 
Her book "Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers" was released that year.
Picture courtesy: Abe David
The reassembled synagogue interior was opened to the public in 1995 as part of the Synagogue Route wing of the museum in the presence of Jews from Cochin and Bene Israelis from Bombay and Indian diplomats. The ark in the Israel Museum exhibit was the one used by the congregation of Paravur, an ancient Jewish settlement north of Cochin. The Worms also endowed the museum's Delta and Fred Worms Gallery's European Art wing.

Worms was decorated with the Teddy Kolleck award by the Israeli parliament in June 2011 for his services to the Israel Museum.


Fred Worms was born in Frankfurt on November 21, 1920 (the name Worms comes from a town on the Rhine River where his ancestors lived). At the age of 16, his mother sent him to London, where he later settled. Becoming an industrialist involved with automobile engineering, Worms made a fortune which he used generously to fund several educational, cultural and arts projects in Great Britain and Israel through two trusts.
Fred Worms in Jerusalem: Courtesy: Jerusalem Post

As chairman of the B'nai B'rith Housing Association of Great Britain, he pioneered housing for the elderly and in 1958, he was conferred with the title of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for this effort.  He also held several positions in the Maccabi Sports Club and the British Maccabi and Maccabi World Union. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, of which he was a member of the Board of Governors for 35 years.

While he maintained close ties and travelled to Israel often, Fred and Della Worms only made aliyah in 2009. He had earlier purchased a ruin in Yemin Moshe and built a house. After settling in Jerusalem, they moved into a two-floor apartment in  King David's court - from where he could see the city walls -  "one of the most famous views in the world."  His three children - Nadia, Hillary and Caroline - however, had all left their London home years earlier as each attained the age of 18 to settle in Israel. One of his grandsons served in the Golani Brigade and a granddaughter worked in an IDF intelligence unit.
The Delta and Fred Worms Gallery's European Art wing,  Israel Museum

“I had a remarkably lucky and wealthy business career, and I knew I had to pay something back to ‘Medinat Yisrael’ [the State of Israel] and to Hashem [God], so I’ve been busy for many years doing just that,” Worms once said.

Books written by Worms include  "A Life in Three Cities: Frankfurt, London and Jerusalem",  "Meir Gertner, An Anthology" and the recent "A Worms' Eye View".