The Long Journey Home
Nestled in the picturesque, rolling green hilltops of Samaria, the small settlement of Shavei Shomron rests quietly, despite its proximity to the flaming Arab cities of Tulkarem and Shechem. But some fascinating new neighbors have created a murmur across the yishuv. In August of 2002, the Amita Absorption Center, along with Amishav-an organization dedicated to bringing lost Jews from around the world to Israel-opened the settlement’s doors to the Bnei Menashe, a group of people from northeast India who claim to be Jews.
Currently 150 religious families reside in Shavei Shomron, most of whom live in one of the many single-family home that line the settlement. But upon following the winding road down the hilltop, out of sight of the main thoroughfare, one finds a colony of meager caravans resting near the fence border, each housing one of the eleven Bnei Menashe families. “We are so excited that the Bnei Menashe have come to Shavei Shomron,” says Rivka Bonde, Amita’s educational director and a resident of the settlement. “The atmosphere here is similar to how it was when the Russians were first allowed to come.”
But the excitement of the community members is nothing compared to that felt by many of the new residents. For sixty-four-year old Emuna Miso and her thirty-something daughter, Ruby, who live in Shavei Shomron with Ruby’s two young children, there is a sense of relief; their family has finally been released from the oppressive Christian environment that provided no rest on Shabbat or holidays and minimal opportunities for Jewish learning. “When we had to go to work on Yom Kippur, it hurt here,” says Ruby as she points to her heart. “The best part of being in Israel is being able to keep Shabbat and the festivals.” Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, the founder and chairman of Amishav, hopes that the excitement felt by the Bnei Menashe will help them through the rocky stages of Israeli integration. Within six months to a year, they are expected to not only gain the Jewish knowledge required for the Israeli Rabbinate conversion exam but also to grasp a language completely new to most of them.
According to Amishav, the two million members of the Shinlung tribe from the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram are descendants of the tribe of Menashe, which was expelled from Israel by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE. Members of the tribe reached Assyria, and from there, according to Bnei Menashe tradition, they went to Afghanistan, to Mongolia and then to southern China. Some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, the Bnei Menashe began to wander toward their current home, located on the border between India and Burma. Before Christian missionaries started forcibly converting members of the tribe in the late 1800s, the entire group practiced traditions that so closely resemble Judaism, they are difficult to disregard. Some decades ago, some 5,000 members of the Shinlung tribe chose to live observant Jewish lives. These people anxiously wish to immigrate to Israel.
Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, a judge on the Israeli Chief Rabbinical Court, has been involved in converting the Bnei Menashe. He has researched the group and has taken numerous trips to India. His conclusions, as well as those of the rest of his conversion court, are that the Bnei Menashe’s claim is valid. “It’s clear to me that the Bnei Menashe are descendants of Jews,” says Rabbi Birnbaum. Some of the pre-rabbinic Jewish traditions of the Bnei Menashe include circumcising male children on the eighth day after birth; celebrating three major holidays that mirror Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot; observing Pesach laws and rituals including a prohibition against having yeast in the bread; wearing garments such as tzitzit with techelet; taking tithes from crops that are given to the Kohanim and not pronouncing the name of God.
On Rabbi Avichail’s initial visit to India, he was particularly moved by one of the ancient songs of the Bnei Menashe that is very similar to a passage from Selichot: “Answer me, answer me from Moriah; Answer me, answer me from Sinai; answer me, answer me from Yam Suf; answer me, answer me from Zion.”
Soon after the creation of the State of Israel, the Bnei Menashe expressed their longing to return to their beloved Promised Land. However, the Israeli government not only denied their aliyah but dismissed their claim of Jewish ancestry altogether. In 1979, Rabbi Avichail learned of the lost tribe’s desire to return to Zion. “I was the rabbi at Hebrew University at the time, and I had an Indian friend who worked with me,” Rabbi Avichail says. “He showed me a letter that they [the Bnei Menashe] had written [about their desire to come to Israel].”
Reaching out to lost Jews has been Rabbi Avichail’s business since 1961, when he first became interested in locating the lost tribes. In 1975, with the support of his rav, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, he founded Amishav (My Nation Returns). Over the past decade, Amishav has invested resources into Bnei Menashe communities, both in India and in Israel. The organization established learning centers in India to teach Judaism. But Amishav’s most consuming effort has been assisting close to 800 Bnei Menashe members fulfill their dreams of immigrating to Israel.
“We pay for their airfare [$800 per person] and for their education once they’re here,” says Michael Freund, the director of Amishav. “We believe that these people are a blessing to this country, and that is why we are doing this.” Since the State of Israel does not recognize the Bnei Menashe as Jews (under the Law of Return), Amishav has made special arrangements with the Interior Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate to allow them to remain in the country and study towards their conversion. Rabbi Birnbaum explains that the need for conversion is due to their long exile and forced Christian conversion. The Amita Absorption Center, which is located in Shavei Shomron, prepares the Bnei Menashe for conversion by offering classes on halachah, holidays and general Jewish topics.
One of the greatest challenges facing the Bnei Menashe is securing financial independence. Only after their conversion, which takes place between three to nine months after their arrival in Israel, are they considered new immigrants. Several months later they begin to receive government benefits, including healthcare and a benefits basket that ranges from $7,000 to $10,000. But until then, many are dependent on Amishav’s support, which amounts to a monthly budget of $150, from which rent, food and other expenses must be paid.
“It’s very difficult for newcomers to survive for six months or even a year without [government] help,” explains Shlomo Gangte, a Bnei Menashe member who lives in Shavei Shomron with his wife and two young children. “I wish the government would treat us like other new immigrants.”
“When people hear India, they automatically assume that the Bnei Menashe are coming for economic reasons, but that?s just not the case,” explained Freund. “Many of the Bnei Menashe live very well [in India] by local standards.” Indeed, many families had land and livestock they were forced to sell or abandon in order to come to Israel.
“In India I had a printing press and my own publishing business,” says Gangte. “I worked as much as I liked. Now I have to work ten hours a day. We did not come to have a better life materially. If that was the case, I don?t think we made a very good choice.” Finances also determine the placement of the immigrants. Though Shavei Shomron has not experienced any terror attacks, nearby communities like Emanuel, as well as the surrounding roads, have been plagued by terrorist activity.
Furthermore, the largest groupings of the Bnei Menashe happen to live in two of the most hostile areas in Israel: Kiryat Arba, outside Hebron, and Neve Dekalim, in the Gaza Strip. Other concentrations of the Bnei Menashe are in Beit El and Ofra, both of which are located next to Ramallah. “I don’t object to the fact that the Bnei Menashe are living in Yehuda, Shomron or Gaza,” says Freund. “But the bottom line is this: they don’t come under the Law of Return. We need to find communities that are willing to take these people in while knowing that they’re not going to be receiving budgets from the government so quickly. Thus far the only places willing to do so are located in Yehuda, Shomron and Gaza. “Last summer we were in touch with Mitzpe Ramon, which is in pre-’67 Israel, and Sderot about the possibility of accepting some members of the Bnei enashe,” says Freund. “They were willing in principle, but they just didn’t have the resources.”
New beginnings in Israel involve much sacrifice, and no one understands this better than sixty-five-year-old Zayir Lotjem, a formerly wealthy land-and-cattle owner from India. Lotjem traded in his life of comfort for a meager caravan. He no longer has to wake up at three o’clock in the morning to take a two-hour walk to shul, but the real reason Lotjem took on such a challenge is indicative of the simple desire felt by many of the Bnei enashe. “I wanted to die here in Israel,” he says.
The journey that the Bnei Menashe have taken over the past two-thousand-plus years through Persia, Afghanistan, China and, most recently, India, has brought them back, ironically, to the Biblical boundaries of the tribe of Menashe. But the long exile has not only stripped them of their religion but also of their physical identity as Jews. “Because we have been in the Diaspora for so long, no one believes us [about our Jewish identity]. They think that we look like the Thai workers,” says Gangte. “The body may have changed,” says Rabbi Avichail. “But you can tell that the soul was at Sinai.”
The Gangtes’ caravan on Friday night looks like a typical Jewish home. The candlesticks are displayed on the counter. The pots are arranged on the hotplate in anticipation of the next morning. Instead of a European cholent, a mixture of mustard leaf, chicken and other spices is simmering in a pot. As evening comes, nearly the whole Bnei Menashe community in Shavei Shomron crowds together in the Gangtes? house; they huddle around the book The Midrash Says, digging for answers while munching on vegetable-filled pitas. As the stars appear, they sing the Birkat Hamazon aloud in the familiar tune sung by Jews the world over. For the last ten years, the Interior Ministry has allowed one hundred Bnei Menashe members per year to enter Israel, which is a far cry from mishav’s goal of welcoming 1,000 to 2,000 members a year. With the latest election, the new inister of the interior, Avraham Poraz of the Shinui Party, has frozen Bnei Menashe aliyah in order to gather more information about the situation. In several statements he made to the Israeli media, he declared that he does not want immigrants from third-world countries to come to Israel.
Despite the fact that the Israeli Chief Rabbinical Court maintains that the Bnei Menashe’s claim is authentic, according to Rabbi Birnbaum, the Interior Ministry has not contacted his office or the office of the chief rabbi concerning the situation. Additionally, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rabbi Shlomo Amar has not yet discussed the Bnei Menashe situation with his conversion court. Rabbi Birnbaum explains that “since [Rabbi Amar] is new, there are a lot of different issues that he?s working on now.” Rabbi Birnbaum hopes that his court
and the chief rabbi will soon unite in calling for reinstating the Bnei Menashe aliyah.
While remaining hopeful that the aliyah will continue soon, Amishav is not waiting idly for a decision. The organization coordinated a meeting between Minister Poraz and Bnei Menashe members and is pushing for a sub-committee under the chief rabbi to investigate the Bnei Menashe’s claim. If the government ends the Bnei Menashe aliyah, Amishav is prepared to do whatever is necessary to reverse the decision. “If that means going to the prime minister or the courts, that is what we’ll do,” says Freund. “I don’t think it’s fair that after ten years of allowing the Bnei Menashe to come, one man can halt the process, particularly since the Bnei Menashe have proven to be productive members of Israeli society. They work; they support themselves; they live religious Jewish lives, and they make a contribution to Israeli society. There is simply no reason to halt the process.”
“We will find the best way to bring them back to Am Yisrael,” says Rabbi Birnbaum. “These people have a Jewish identity, and we have a moral, historical and religious commitment
to help them come home.”