Indian soul yearning for Zion
Special: Bnei Menashe members in India observe Shabbat, dream of moving to Israel
INDIA - “From a very young age I knew that our family was from the ‘Bnei Menashe’
and that we were different from our neighbors, but I didn’t know exactly how,” Harel Kingbol says. “When I was nine years old, my father took me to the hospital and I underwent circumcision. Somehow my friends found out about it. They wanted to see what they did to me and then made fun of me. I came home crying. My mother and father told me ‘don’t cry, we are different, we are Jews and we must cope with this type of problem’. This was the first time I became aware of my Jewishness,” he tells me.
Kingbol, now 25, appears much younger than his age. His tzitzit (ritual fringes) hang conspicuously from his pants and he wears a knitted kipa on his head. He is married to Hodaya and has a 2-year-old daughter named Rachel. They live in an apartment at the Shavei Israel organization’s Hebrew Center in the city of Aizawl, capital of the Indian state of Mizoram, which straddles Bangladesh and Myanmar (formerly Burma.)
As members of the Bnei Menashe, Harel and Hodaya belong to a community comprising approximately 7,200 people who identify deeply with Judaism and the State of Israel,
observe the commandments of the Torah and long to move to the Jewish state. They all introduce themselves with Jewish names. They view their residence at the “Shavei Israel” center in Aizawl as temporary, until they move to Israel; a move that has been delayed for years but has now seen renewed hope.
The Kingbol family belongs to the Mizo tribe which lives in Mizoram, the land of the Mizos. Out of its 1 million people, only 1,000-1,500 residents of Mizoram count themselves as Bnei Menashe. The rest are Christian. The majority of the Bnei Menashe – about 5,000 people – belong to the Kuki tribe that lives in the adjacent Indian state of Manipur. About 250 Bnei Menashe live in Nagaland and a similar number in Myanmar. The Bnei Menashe insist, based on ancient traditions that have been passed from generation to generation, that they are the direct descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, one of the 10 Tribes which comprised the Kingdom of Israel. In the year 722 BCE, the Assyrian empire captured part of the land of Israel and cast the 10 Tribes into exile.
Harel Kingbol’s father taught his four children the Hebrew alphabet, their home had a Bible in the Mizo language, and the parents and children read it at every opportunity. Yet Kingbol studied in a Christian school along with the majority of students in Mizoram.
“On Sunday all my friends went to a Christian school to study religion. I didn’t go, and when the teacher asked why, I replied that I am Jewish and do not want to learn a different religion,” he says.
“I believe that the majority of the Mizo people are descendants of Menashe but they want to remain Christian,” Kingbol says. “Only our small Jewish group wants to return to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the entire Mizo people have a strong connection to Israel. Whenever Israel was at war, with Lebanon
the Mizo people supported her,“ he says. Walking through the Aizawl, I notice there is a street called "Zion" and the stores carry names such as "Shalom" or "Israel."
Bnei Menashe olim arrive in Israel (Archive photo: Yaron Brener)Kingbol has dreamt about moving to Israel for as far back as he can remember. “As kids, we would sit on a bench, in one long row, and the first one would make a roar like the sound of an engine on a plane and we would shout- ‘goodbye- see you in Israel’”, he recalls.
Kingbol excelled at soccer and played on a professional team from Calcutta, part of the second Indian league. But he left the team because as a professional soccer player he could not observe the Sabbath. Since 2007 he has been studying Hebrew and Judaism at the Shavei Israel center in Aizawl, where he is responsible for the computer system. Most of his family is already in Israel. His older sister, Hila, moved to Israel in 2000 and she is married to an immigrant from Russia. His brother, Aviv, enlisted in the Givati combat unit in the Israeli army, completed basic training and was killed in an army accident two years ago.
Edmond Kingbol, (52) Harel’s father, said that his attraction to Judaism began in 1988 and since then he has been observing the commandments and praying every day. “When my son was killed we went to his funeral in Israel and last year we went again, for the first year memorial service. As parents of an army casualty we have the right to remain in Israel but we want to come as new immigrants, based on the Law of Return. But the Government requires us to undergo conversion. We understand this. After all, 2700 years passed from the time our forefathers were exiled, we were cut off the Jewish nation and in order for us to return and be Jews in every aspect we must undergo conversion."
"However, the conversion process in Israel is very difficult. Therefore we have returned to India. We want to return to Israel after all of the issues are taken care of," he said.
Edmond’s eyes then fill up with tears and his voice breaks as he tells me, “Sometimes I want to cry out of longing for the land of Israel. When I read the Psalms, I cry when I reach chapter 136.” He then quotes it in the original Hebrew, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
“I want to send a message through you to the entire people of Israel”, his son Harel tells me. “I know that there are people in Israel that think that we want to move there in order to improve our economic situation. Yes, in relation to Israelis we are poor but trust me, that is not what is guiding us. We want to live as Jews together with our people in our homeland, Eretz Yisrael. We are industrious and know how to work. When we arrive in Israel we will work hard, progress and we will not be different from the rest of the Israelis.
All of the Bnei Menashe in India hope that it will not be long before they can move to the Jewish state. Azriel Hamar (44), married to Maayan and father of two, served in a senior position in the educational system of Mizoram and later opened a successful human resources company. He sold it four years ago because he thought that he was soon moving to Israel. His living room is almost empty – he even sold his furniture. “I know that great efforts are being made to renew our Aliyah,” he said. “There are strong rumors that there has been a recent breakthrough and I deeply hope that this time we will not be disappointed."
Historians and anthropologists who have researched the Bnei Menashe are divided in their opinions. There are those who claim that the story of them being descendants from the tribe of Manasseh has no basis. According to their version, Christian missionaries began to arrive in northeast India and Burma in the second half of the 19th century and succeeded in converting the entire population. They say the local religion was Animism (which attributes a soul and spirit to every living being and also to inanimate objects like streams, hills and rocks.)
According to this theory, it was from the Christian education and mainly the reading of the Bible that there arose the yearning and the desire to belong to the Jewish people. Ostensibly, they took ancient myths where the name Menasia appeared and convinced themselves that they are the descendents of Manasseh, the son of the Biblical Joseph.
In contrast to their opinion, other researchers relate seriously to the claims of the Bnei Menashe. The destruction of the kingdom of Israel and the exile of the 10 tribes are historical facts that are not disputed, and are supported not only in the Bible stories but in ancient Aramaic and Assyrian documents. The Second Book of Kings relates that the 10 tribes, including the tribe of Manasseh, were exiled to Halach, Gozen, Habor and Medi; areas that tend to be identified as being located in eastern Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan of today.
From there, according to the tradition of the Bnei Menashe, their ancestors continued to wander eastward, until they came to China and then later continued on to India. They called themselves “Bnei Menasia.”
Then there are the traditions and customs that were passed down from generation to generation, including the song that the Bnei Menashe sing during a springtime festival where they mention motifs from the Exodus from Egypt – the splitting of the sea, the pillar of fire and the clouds of glory and the manna that fell from Heaven. All this when we are speaking of people who live hundreds of miles away from the sea.
After the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the movement to return to Judaism gained momentum and its followers slowly began to intensify their level of observance of Judaism. Some of them wrote letters to Israeli officials to request recognition as descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes and to be brought to Israel. Until 1997 they did not receive any reply, perhaps because the letters seemed odd, or the government of Israel did not want to have any complications with the government of India.
In 1989, the first few individual Bnei Menashe began arriving in Israel. Subsequently they started to arrive in groups. From 1989 to 2007, about 1,700 Bnei Menashe moved to the Jewish state. All of them underwent formal conversion and were recognized as new immigrants. Their absorption was considered very successful. The largest concentrations of the Bnei Menashe are in Kiryat Arba, Jerusalem, Maalot and Sderot. In 2007, their Aliyah was halted because of a variety of political reasons.
Many of the Bnei Menashe are young and educated. The level of education in northeast India is very high; amongst other reasons, because of the school system established by the missionaries. English is a required field in the Indian educational system and many of the Bnei Menashe have an excellent command of the language.
If anyone in Israel doubts the dedication of the Bnei Menashe to Judaism and to the state of Israel, they should have been present at the recent celebration of Israel’s Independence Day that took place at the Shavei Israel center in Churachandpur, in the state of Manipur.
More than 2,000 people came, mainly from Manipur, along with a number from Nagaland, and even some from the distant state of Assam. They came by bus (some sat on the roofs,) in trucks, in private cars, on scooters, motorcycles and bikes. More than 200 who live far from the center made sure to arrive on the previous Friday in order not to desecrate the Sabbath.
On Friday night, they held a moving service to welcome the Sabbath, singing traditional songs and pounding on the table with delight, just like Hasidim. On Sabbath morning they prayed and read the weekly portion from the Torah scroll, which they took out of the Holy Ark with great joy. Naturally, the Ark was placed on the left side of the synagogue facing Jerusalem.
At the Independence Day ceremony, about 500 of those in attendance managed to pack themselves into the only hall in Churachandpur. The rest sat outside, watching the ceremony and listening to the speeches via TV cameras and loudspeakers.
Tzvi Khaute, one of the Bnei Menashe who made Aliyah and now works as a teacher and coordinator for Shavei Israel, served as translator. Hundreds came in the colorful national dress of the Kuki nation. Most of the children and youth dressed in blue and white shirts embroidered with the Star of David, and many passionately waved small Israeli flags.
The ceremony opened with the raising of the Israeli flag and the recitation of Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva,” which they sang in perfect Hebrew. Two female choirs sang chapters from Psalms. The Herzliya troupe from Manipur performed a rhythmic and rousing dance to lyrics such as “the children of Israel are passing through the Red Sea.” Another troupe performed an enrapturing performance of the Hebrew song, “Our Father still lives.”
The main speaker was Michael Freund, the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. Freund has made bringing the Bnei Menashe to Israel his life’s work. Freund (43), who was greeted with hugs and kisses by community members, is a native of New York who moved to Israel in 1995. He established Shavei Israel in 2001 and serves as the chairman of the organization in a volunteer capacity, foregoing a salary.
In his speech, Freund informed those present that all the obstacles that have been delaying their Aliyah have been removed. His words were greeted with great excitement and roaring applause. Many of those in the audience hugged and kissed each other with tears in their eyes. “I have a very good feeling,” Freund said, “that with G-d’s help, soon enough we will blessed to see the first plane carrying a group of Bnei Menashe immigrants landing at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport.”
The romance between him and the Bnei Menashe began when he worked in the Communications Department of the Prime Minister’s Office. One day a letter landed on his desk addressed to “His Excellency Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of our beloved state of Israel.” Inside was written: “We, the Bnei Menashe have wandered for hundreds and thousands of years in the Diaspora, far away from the land of our forefathers. Our ancestors taught us that we are natives of Zion and the day will come when we will return to her. They cultivated this dream and passed it on from father to son. This is our holy heritage. We turn to you, as a leader of the nation of Israel, to answer our request and allow us to make the long journey home to Jerusalem.”
The letter ended with a moving appeal: “You are our older brother, the son of the tribe of Judah. The time has come to return and be united. Despite the separation forced upon us, we have not forgotten you. Please do not forget us.”
“When I first read the letter I thought it was strange," says Freund. “After all, whoever heard of a lost tribe of Israel in India? But there was something in the letter that intrigued me. Something genuine that touched my heart.” After a few moments of indecision, Freund took a piece paper bearing the official logo of the Prime Minister’s Office and wrote a quick response in the name of the premier, thanking the community for their letter, requesting additional information about their history and customs and wishing them a happy and Kosher Passover holiday.
What Freund did not know then was that the leaders of the community had been writing to Israeli prime ministers since at least Golda Meir, and probably going back even to the days of Ben-Gurion. But for decades, no one had ever responded to their pleas until Freund. Therefore, Freund’s letter was received by the Bnei Menashe with great joy and surprise. Finally, after so many years, someone in the government of Israel had responded. “They just didn’t know”, said Freund with a smile, “how little authority I actually possessed."
The letter gave Freund the push to establish Shavei Israel. Until today, the Bnei Menashe continue to be a main focus of the organization’s activities but over the course of time, it has expanded to work with Jewish descendants from all over the world – from Poland to China – who want to strengthen their connection to Judaism.
“Let me make something absolutely clear: we are not a missionary organization trying to put a kipa on the head of every person with Jewish ancestry,” says Freund. “We simply want to help people who have rediscovered their Jewish roots to create a cultural or national or spiritual connection to the Jewish people. If they choose to formally rejoin the Jewish people, then of course we will help them to do so. But the agenda is far broader than just conversion and Aliyah. Some descendants of Jews will choose to become Jewish, but others will be happy to simply develop some sort of connection to Israel and to Jews.”
Freund is aware of the concerns in Israel, and that by giving a green light to the Aliyah of the Bnei Menashe there will be a wave of requests to move to Israel from all over India. “There is no cause for concern. In 2010 we took a census of the Bnei Menashe communities in northeast India and we prepared an official list of 7,232 people,” he says. “This is a closed list that only changes when there are deaths and births. When the last individual on the current list will board a flight to Israel, Shavei Israel will close its operations in India.”
Freund’s passionate commitment to the Bnei Menashe is clear. “I believe that the Bnei Menashe are a blessing for Israel and the Jewish people,” he says. “They are talented and wonderful people – infused with faith and committed Zionists who somehow succeeded in maintaining their identity in Exile. Their longing and yearning for Zion never ceased, and now they are reaching out to us in an effort to return and be reunited with our people. We must reach back out to them with outstretched arms and bring them to Jerusalem. This we will do,” he says.
After pausing for a moment, Freund looks me straight in the eye and says, “I have dedicated my life to helping the Bnei Menashe because I see them as being part of the extended Jewish family. They deserve to fulfill their dream of return and I will not rest until that occurs.”
At the Independence Day celebration in Churachandpur, the Bnei Menashe spoke about their deep sense of identification with the Jewish people and with Judaism, their great love for Israel and their hope to move there as soon as possible.
“It is common for Jews to say ‘next year in Jerusalem’,” said one of the speakers. “But we, the Bnei Menashe say, ‘this year in Jerusalem.’”
Story originally published by Yedioth Ahronoth