Fundamentally Freund: We need more Jews

A tiny and shrinking Jewish people will hardly be able to meet challenges and threats to our survival.

By
May 14, 2009 12:06
Fundamentally Freund: We need more Jews

michael freund 88. (photo credit: )

A little over a week ago, I attended the consecration of a new synagogue dedicated to the memory of a European Jew who was murdered by the Germans in the Holocaust. Hundreds of people took part in the moving and tearful ceremony, which recalled the suffering that was so brutally inflicted on us less than seven decades ago. The Nahalat Yitzhak (legacy of Isaac) synagogue was named for Isaac Kottler, a relative of mine who was taken from his home in Paris, never to return. The Nazis confiscated his vast library, which included a family tree that was said to have dated back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and sent him to Auschwitz. My relative left behind no survivors, so I asked the congregants to devote the prayers they would say, and the Torah they would learn, to his memory. That would be Isaac Kottler's eternal legacy, I told them, and no evil in the world could ever take that away. Afterward, the traditional affixing of the mezuza at the synagogue's entrance took place, and it was followed by the festive accompaniment of the Torah scroll to the Holy Ark and the recitation of the evening prayers. It was a typically Jewish event, I thought to myself - one that combines a solemn commemoration of the pain of our past together with a bright and even brimming optimism regarding the future. But what made this experience so special was that it did not occur in New York, London or even Tel Aviv, but rather in the village of Keithalmanbi in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, not far from the Burmese border. Those in attendance were members of the Bnei Menashe, a group descended from a lost tribe of Israel. Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for more than 27 centuries, they clung to their heritage and traditions, and are now seeking to come home to Zion. Over the past decade, more than 1,500 Bnei Menashe have made aliya. Four young men from the community have already received rabbinical ordination, and dozens of others have served in frontline IDF combat units. But another 7,232 members of the community are still stuck in India, waiting for the Israeli government to grant them permission to return. Unfortunately, there are those here who prefer to slam the door in their faces, and turn away our lost brethren, rather than embrace them and welcome them back into the fold. MOST OF THOSE opposed to their aliya have never studied the issue in depth, examined its merits, learned about the community's history or traditions, or even bothered to meet a single Bnei Menashe. But that doesn't seem to stop them from summarily issuing a verdict regarding the fate of thousands of people. My usually thoughtful colleague Jonathan Rosenblum did just that in his "Size is not the issue" (May 8). Harnessing an unbefitting tone of scorn, he decries what he describes as the practice of "tracking down every obscure tribe in the world that has an oral tradition that it is one of the Ten Lost Tribes, which is Freund's own pet hobbyhorse." He further goes on to downplay the importance of the size of the Jewish people, asserting that quality, not quantity, is all that really matters. Rosenblum couldn't possibly have gotten it more wrong. To begin with, the Bnei Menashe are not an "obscure tribe," however exotic and colorful that phrase may sound, nor did anyone "track them down." Quite the opposite is true. It is they who have reached out to us. Ever since the days of Golda Meir, the Bnei Menashe have been writing letters and sending missives to prime ministers and decision-makers, pleading to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish people. They have built dozens of synagogues over the past few decades - "Nahalat Yitzhak" in Keithalmanbi is the 26th to be erected in Manipur - and they live a fully Jewish life, which includes observing Shabbat, keeping kosher and following the laws of family purity. Indeed, five years ago, I approached Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and asked him to issue a halachic ruling regarding the status of the Bnei Menashe. In March 2005, after carefully studying the issue, he declared them to be "descendants of Israel" and agreed to facilitate their return through conversion and aliya. I have no doubt that soon enough, all the remaining members of the community will be able to come here, and that is as it should be. The aliya of the Bnei Menashe strengthens Israel and the Jewish people, both numerically and spiritually. It will boost our numbers and inject us with a healthy new dose of passionate and committed Zionists and observant Jews. What could possibly be wrong with that? ROSENBLUM, HOWEVER, insists that numbers are unimportant. In his article, he cites just one source to back his claim, noting that the Torah says, "Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did God desire you and choose you, for you are the least numerous of all the peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7). But what he failed to mention is how the commentators elucidate this verse. From the explanation offered by Nachmanides, the great medieval scholar, it is clear that this passage is descriptive rather than prescriptive in nature Moreover, it should be obvious that numbers do have meaning in Judaism. After all, God did not choose a family or a small tribe to serve His purposes in this world. He chose an entire nation, the people of Israel. Obviously, then, a critical mass is essential to carry out our sacred mission, for if it were not, then God could easily have placed the responsibility on just a handful of shoulders. To be sure, Rosenblum is correct in asserting that quantity without quality is of little value in ensuring the Jewish future. But what he and others like him fail to realize is that the opposite is equally true. A tiny and shrinking Jewish people, consisting only of a small core of committed members, will hardly be able to meet the challenges and threats to our survival, be they physical or spiritual. Perhaps that is why God promised the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that the Jewish people would one day be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand by the sea. Only then can we possibly fulfill our role. Yes, we must redouble our efforts to keep Jews Jewish, but we must also open the doors and pave the way for groups such as the Bnei Menashe to return. The fact is that we need more Jews in the world, not less. Our vitality, and our future, depend on it. The writer serves as chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that assists "lost Jews" seeking to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish people.


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