Rabbinate Recognizes B’nei Menashe as “Descendants of Israel”
In a historic decision, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has decided to formally recognize the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India as “descendants of Israel.” The Chief Rabbinate has also agreed to send a beit din (rabbinical court) on its behalf to the region to formally convert them to Judaism. The Bnei Menashe claim descent from the tribe of Menashe, one of the ten tribes exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian empire over 2,700 years ago. They reside primarily in the two Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. In recent years, over 800 members of the community have made Aliyah [immigration to Israel], thanks largely to the efforts of Shavei Israel), a Jerusalem-based group that reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.
Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, who took part in yesterday’s meeting with the Chief Rabbi, praised the decision. “This is a momentous day,” he said, “and we are very grateful to the Chief Rabbinate for the openness and sensitivity that they have demonstrated in addressing the issue of the Bnei Menashe. This is the breakthrough that we have all been waiting for, and thank G-d, the remaining 6,000 members of the community still in India will at last be able to come home to Zion.”
In June 2003, then-Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the Shinui Party decided to halt the Bnei Menashe aliyah, reportedly because he objected to the fact that they were all religiously-observant and many chose to live in Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. After Poraz’s decision was announced, Freund turned to the Chief Rabbinate, and began lobbying to receive official rabbinical recognition of the Bnei Menashe as a means of circumventing the Interior Minister’s decision. Yesterday’s meeting with the Chief Rabbi marked the culmination of those efforts.
Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, a dayan (rabbinical court judge) and spokesman for Rabbi Amar, said that the decision had come after careful consideration and study of the issue. “The Chief Rabbi sent a delegation of two dayanim (judges) to India last year,” Rabbi Birnbaum said, “to conduct a thorough investigation of the community and its origins. After a thorough review of their findings, it was decided that the Bnei Menashe are in fact descendants of Israel and should be drawn closer to the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Birnbaum added that once various conditions laid down by the Chief Rabbi are fulfilled, such as the construction of mikvaot (ritual baths) in India, and the dispatch of additional teachers, the Chief Rabbinate would send a beit din of its own to the area to convert members of the community to Judaism, thereby allowing them to make Aliyah to Israel. The first of the Bnei Menashe to arrive in Israel did so in 1979. More members of the community continued arriving slowly during the coming years, and large groups came in 1993 and 1994. Several hundred of them now reside in Israel, mainly in Kiryat Arba, Gush Katif, Beit El and Ofrah.