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The Bnei Menashe want to come home to Israel. Their community of about 7,000 Indians residing primarily in the states of Mizoram and Manipur, believe they are descendents of one of the lost tribes of Israel.
A total of 218 community members completed the conversion process, sold their belongings and began to wait. That was more than nine months ago.
The Immigration and Absorption Ministry is still denying them citizenship. Awaiting a formal decision by the government on whether to permit the whole community to make aliya, the converts are forced to stay in India. Close to 1,000 Bnei Menashe currently reside as citizens in Israel.
Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, an organization designed to help reunite "lost Jews" with Israel - and a Jerusalem Post contributor - said the process of recognition began in August 2004 when a team of rabbinic judges was sent to India to "study and learn about the community and their customs," adding that in March 2005 Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar issued a "formal recognition" of the Bnei Menashe as "descendants of the Jewish people."
Members of the Rabbinic Court flew to India in September of the same year and completed the conversion process for the 218 Indians.
"They are honest, decent and kind people. They want to fulfill their dream to return to the Jewish people and the state of Israel. There is no justification for the ministry's stand on this issue," said Freund.
A spokeswoman for the ministry said the decision must be made in conjunction with the Prime Minister's Office since "it is a very delicate subject. We don't want to make the decision without informing the prime minister of the consequences." She declined to comment on the specifics of the "consequences" of allowing the Indians to make aliyah. She told the Post that there is no time frame for bringing the issue to the prime minister.
Rivka Rei, 45, mother of a 10-year-old daughter, moved to Jerusalem from India in 1995 after waiting three years. She continues to wait for the arrival of many members of her extended family.
"I was working as a teacher in an art school [in India]," she recalled. "I resigned because I was told that my visa and ticket were ready. Suddenly, I was told that I don't have a visa. And nobody explained why."
Her story is reflective of the case of the many Bnei Menashe who are currently waiting for the chance to make aliyah. Some have sold their belongings and moved from their homes with the hope that the chance to come to Israel will present itself soon.
Until the ministry rules on the issue, the group of converts will have to remain in India.
"For every group [of Bnei Menashe] the waiting is so painful. Hashem (God) is testing you up to the end. Many people break down," said Rei. "We never stopped dreaming of Eretz Yisrael."