Fundamentally Freund: When will American Jews stop ignoring the Bnei Menashe Jews?

By
September 21, 2016 21:56

It is time for American Jewry to stop ignoring the Bnei Menashe and to facilitate their return to the Jewish people and to Israel.




 Bnei Menashe

THREE GENERATIONS of Bnei Menashe women look on as immigrants prepare to leave for Israel.. (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)

Having recently celebrated his 90th birthday, Mendel Kingbol has a great deal for which to be thankful.

Residing in Afula, he fulfilled a life-long dream when he made aliya from the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram a decade ago.

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With an abiding faith in God, 43 beautiful grandchildren living throughout the Jewish state, and several great-grandchildren too, Kingbol would appear to have every conceivable reason to bask in a sense of contentment as he enjoys his golden years.

But along with nearly all the other 3,000 Bnei Menashe immigrants now living in Israel, Kingbol bears a heavy and painful emotional burden, one that cannot help but gnaw at a person’s soul on a daily basis. Simply put, his family remains divided, with a number of his children, and 15 more grandchildren, still stuck in India, awaiting the day when they too will be able to return to Zion to be reunited with our people and their loved ones.

It doesn’t have to be this way, nor should it. If the American Jewish community, and particularly its philanthropic arms, would step up to the plate and rally to the cause of the Bnei Menashe, then Mendel and countless others like him would not have to wait 10 years or more to embrace the grandchildren they have never seen, the siblings they have missed or the parents they were forced to leave behind.

The Bnei Menashe trace their ancestry back to the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes that were exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian empire more than 2,700 years ago.

Despite centuries of wandering, the Bnei Menashe clung to their Jewish heritage and preserved their customs and way of life. They never forgot who they were or where their ancestors came from, and they nurtured the dream that one day, somehow, they would manage to return.

According to their tradition, after their forefathers were expelled from the Land of Israel, the Bnei Menashe wandered eastward toward China before settling in what is now northeastern India, where they continued to practice a biblical form of Judaism. This included observing the Sabbath and the laws of family purity, circumcision on the eighth day after birth, levirate marriage and sacrificial rites tantalizingly close to those of ancient Israel.

Now scattered in dozens of communities throughout the towns and villages of the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, they follow Jewish law, observe the festivals and even pray in Hebrew, turning their faces, and aspirations, toward Jerusalem.

Over the past three years, Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, has brought more than 1,100 Bnei Menashe on aliya with the approval of the Israeli government. All have undergone formal conversion by the Chief Rabbinate to remove any doubts regarding their personal status and have been granted Israeli citizenship.

But another 7,000 Bnei Menashe, including Mendel’s grandkids, remain in India, anxiously awaiting their chance to realize the dream of their ancestors and make aliya. The time has come to put an end to their waiting.

The Bnei Menashe are loyal citizens and good Jews. They are kind, polite and soft-spoken people, with strong family values and a drive to succeed. Nearly all are religiously observant, with a profound and passionate commitment to Zionism.

Only four percent of Bnei Menashe immigrants are reliant on social welfare benefits, which is less than half the percentage of veteran Israelis. They are hard-working and earnest people, and the arrival of thousands of them will be a true blessing for the Jewish state.

Several members of the community in Israel have received rabbinical ordination, while others have earned degrees in fields such as social work and education.

Dozens of others have served in elite IDF combat units, risking their lives in defense of the country.

Simply put, they strengthen us both quantitatively and qualitatively, demographically and spiritually.

My friend Tzvi Khaute, a leader of the Bnei Menashe community, has been living in Israel since 2000, when he made aliya with his wife and two-year-old son. Since then, Tzvi and his wife have had four more children, and his oldest is poised to be drafted into the IDF in November.

But Tzvi’s parents remain in Manipur, and have never seen his four youngest children.

“I am so happy to be living in Israel, raising my kids in a Jewish environment,” he told me, “but at the same time, I have no peace of mind, knowing that my father and mother have not been able to join us.”

With God’s help, I hope to change that. Shavei Israel has permission to bring Tzvi’s parents, along with hundreds of other Bnei Menashe, on aliya in the coming months. But an undertaking of this magnitude and historical import requires the help and support of American Jewry in order to proceed.

Yet inexplicably, much of the organized Jewish community in North America remains oblivious to the plight of the Bnei Menashe. This needs to change. The Bnei Menashe are part of the extended Jewish family, and we owe it to them and their ancestors, as well as to ourselves, to bring them home. Every day that passes is another day of needless separation and heart-breaking yearning for thousands of our Bnei Menashe brethren in India and Israel.

It is time for American Jewry to stop ignoring the Bnei Menashe and to facilitate their return to the Jewish people and to Israel. Let us welcome them back with joy and open arms, so that Mendel Kingbol can at last share a grandfatherly hug and kiss with the grandchildren he so desperately longs to see.

The writer served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1996 to 1999. He is the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists the Bnei Menashe to return to the Jewish people.


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