How did a few thousand exiled Jews from ancient Judea and Samaria traverse the entire Middle East, Europe and Asia to end up 2,700 years later in isolated border regions and backwater villages dotted from northeast India to Nigeria? How long did it take them to make the arduous journey, and what were their disparate routes? Did they stick together or did they split up? How many of them dropped off along the way, perished or settled down and assimilated with the local tribes? How many of these wandering Jews kept their faith and traditions? Is it true that there are many cultures in the world that have some Jewish blood in them, and that the DNA of our ancient forefathers can now be found in tribes that have absolutely no connection to Jews and Israel? What happened to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel after their exile, and once we find their descendants, can we bring them all back so that the Jewish nation can be reunited again? Should we even try? This ancient story is one of humankind's most fascinating anthropological phenomena, one of the few mysteries that have throughout the centuries caught the imagination of adventurers, philosophers, scholars, holy men - and now tourists. There are many who think the whole story is a fable, and that lost Jews should remain just that. Among them is Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, who famously told a Jewish Agency meeting last year: "Don't go finding me any more lost Jews." While there are always discoveries being made of "new lost Jews," what is new in this complex and controversial nexus of religion, politics and mythology is that for the first time an idea has formed to launch tourism expeditions to seek out the lost tribes wherever they are, to tell them they are not alone and, by extension, to affirm to the tourists that they too are not alone in this world of billions of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. The Ten Lost Tribes Challenge was conceived in a collaborative effort by travel and adventure companies Shai Bar Ilan Tours and Eretz Ahavati. The first such expedition set off for northeast India in mid-November to meet the descendents of the tribe of Manasseh, a group of some 7,000 Kuki-Mizo Indians living in the remote states of Manipur, Mizoram, Assam and Nagaland along the Burmese border. The group was made up of 18 Israelis, an American doctor from Santa Fe, New Mexico, two Israeli guides and me. Of the group, only the chief guide and myself were secular. There were six couples, mostly modern Orthodox people in their early 60s and 70s. There was one man in his early 80s. Without exception, each one of the members of the expedition was at some point moved to tears of joy by the opportunity to participate in a unique adventure - discovering a Jewish community in a faraway land. The 12 days of the journey took the group across four Indian states, waking before dawn for morning prayers (the group averaged about five hours' sleep a night), traveling in rickety buses on treacherous roads for hours on end, passing through countless military checkpoints in a region racked with sectarian violence and staying at modest hotels with varying degrees of services. As the group was religious, it was carrying most of its food with it. There was very little luxury; sandwiches for lunch were made during breakfasts; food was prepared by specially-trained Bnei Menashe. In short, it was not a vacation, but an expedition. The members of the group took the hardships in their stride (those departing from Israel had paid some $3,000 to be a part of this, after all). There was always song, prayer, stories from the Bible and Israeli history and much cheer. Between visits to Bnei Menashe communities, there was a lot of sightseeing. While very underdeveloped, northeast India is a breathtaking mix of mountains, majestic streams, dense jungles, miles upon miles of terraced rice fields, tea plantations and even a lake of "floating islands." In the cities, the usual panoply of India: extreme poverty; sacred cows, intense marketplaces, sweet smells of spice and the putrid, overpowering stench of garbage burned in the streets. It is through this landscape that the expedition trekked, each destination bringing with it a new encounter with the Bnei Menashe. Nestled among the lush green jungles and hard-knock villages and towns of the largely Christian states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, there are some 7,000 ethnic Kuki and Mizo people who are counted as Judaism-practicing Bnei Menashe, many of whom are organized into tight communities with their own neighborhoods, synagogues and ritual baths. Every encounter with the Bnei Menashe is accompanied by song, much rejoicing, praying together, many talks and getting to know each other. Some nights are spent in modest homes singing Jewish and Kuki songs, as well as "Hatikva," all by candlelight. They all want to make aliya as soon as possible and are awaiting approval by the government to do so. In Jerusalem, the Interior Ministry is dead-set against the mass aliya of the Bnei Menashe, preferring a quiet policy of allowing small groups of them to come on tourist visas, after which they undergo conversion. In the past, rabbis were sent to convert the Bnei Menashe in India, a practice which came to an abrupt halt when the Christians in the area cried foul, leaving the government with no choice but to kick the rabbis out and ban conversion on Indian soil. The expedition was an intense experience for both the visitors and the visited. The group of tourists, led by Mosh Savir and Eyal Be'eri from Shai Bar Ilan Tours, traveled from state to state visiting Bnei Menashe community centers, praying, talking and learning with them, spending Shabbat with them, and generally bringing them warmth and empathy for their cause. For Rabbi Yehoshua Porush from Jerusalem, the trip was a life-long affirmation, a dream come true. "I want to cry tears of joy that God gave me the opportunity to celebrate with you," he told a gathering. While there are very few people who can connect oral and written traditions to ancient Israelite tribes, there are regions where scholars point to local architecture and religious and cultural artifacts which share a mysterious link to a Jewish past. But is this enough for an expedition? So far, the tour companies believe there is, and are conducting extensive research into various other locations. Other remnants that the creators of the Ten Lost Tribes Challenge are looking into, and that could one day form expedition routes, include the Jaja and Gadi (from Gad) tribes in Afghanistan, who are now Muslim; the Muslims of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, who some believe are descendants of Naphtali, as well as several tribes in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan province. There are purported lost Jewish tribes in Japan, China, South America, Spain, Portugal and various parts of Africa. In Africa, research is being conducted in Uganda, Nigeria (the Ibo), Ethiopia and South Africa (the Lemba). The next confirmed expedition will be to Japan. It will center on places holy to the Shinto religion and will attempt to explore how the local population links these holy sites to the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. WHAT EFFECTS did our expedition leave on the Bnei Menashe: Did it strengthen their new chosen identity as the descendants of Manasseh and give them hope of aliya? Did it anger their impoverished and fervently Christian neighbors, who now see the Bnei Menashe enclaves among them as a growing threat? By raising their profile with a visit by a foreign expedition bearing blue-and-white flags and balloons, gifts and promises, has the expedition created an animosity for the "Jewish" communities? In Kohima, the capital of Nagaland state, for example, the Bnei Menashe have been persecuted by their fellow Kuki tribespeople, many of whom are Christians who were converted more than a century ago by missionaries. You won't see a Judaism-practicing Bnei Menashe man wearing a skullcap in the open in Kohima or other cities in northeast India. They'll wear them at home or at special gatherings, and they wore them to greet the expedition when our bus arrived, but they would not wear them out in the open after we left. Some families have even been ripped apart, with some members deciding to adopt Judaism, while others remain Christian. A teacher at the Logos English School (a Baptist school) in Churachandapur in Manipur state has a brother who practiced Judaism and moved to Israel. Another woman left her family near the Burmese border because it wouldn't accept her rejection of Christ. Without fail, each Bnei Menashe community center is surrounded by churches, some even right next door. In Nagaland, for instance, where 95 percent of the inhabitants are Christians, be they Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals and, increasingly, Evangelicals (and some Muslims here and there), the tiny Judaism-practicing Bnei Menashe communities are surrounded by a very active Christian life. There is a church on almost every street; many clinics, schools and other institutions bear the name St. Mary or St. John or any other saint. Religion here, as in many other places, is used as a counterbalance to the hardships of life. Most people here live incredibly poor lives by Western standards, with life expectancy in the mid-40s; running water and electricity are not widespread; sanitation is a relative concept, and you can buy dog meat from hawkers sitting on the dirt near main roads in most towns. Electricity is erratic at best in the big cities, almost nonexistent in the villages, where most people are subsistence farmers. In the cities, finding a job is not always easy, and you have to jump through hoops if you don't have the right connections. University graduates drive taxis, and opportunities for a better life rarely present themselves here. So when the chance to move somewhere better arises, can you really blame someone for trying to take it? And can you really blame someone for asking for help from visitors he thinks can help him get out of a bad place and to a better one? Most of the Bnei Menashe we met, from Kohima in Nagaland to Churachandapur in Manipur, said it quite plainly: "Help us fulfill our wish to move back to our homeland, to Israel. Don't let us die here." An adviser to the Kuki welfare committee in Kohima was even more forthright in addressing our group: "Now that you have discovered your lost brethren, what are you going to do about it? When you get back to Israel, what are you going to do about your lost brothers and sisters now that you've found them? When you go back to Israel, find out what you need to do. Everyone here wants to know. And take with you our love and best wishes." FOR SHAI BAR Ilan Tours/Eretz Ahavati the motivation behind the expeditions is humanistic, curiosity and a pure unique tourism business opportunity. There is no hidden agenda or messianic mission, representatives of the companies say. They want to take curious people into this wonderful story of the lost tribes, to walk in the footsteps of ancient brethren and to meet their possible descendants. "We're not going with the intention of bringing people to Israel, nor are we going there to tamper with the relations between people of different faiths," says Mosh Savir from Shai Bar Ilan Tours and the chief guide on the trip. "I take responsibility for shedding light in the most serious and respectful way on my main mission, which is the discovery of the phenomenon of the Ten Lost Tribes. I approach it with the utmost respect and responsibility, on the organizational and intellectual levels, with as little judgment as possible, and to allow people the very human opportunity to experience something special surrounding a very unique phenomenon." During a Shabbat in Churachandapur, the expedition sat down and discussed the main issue created by its presence in India: What is their role in this story? Some wanted to help in the absorption of Bnei Menashe in Israel; others wanted to spread their story in Israel and help lobby the government to approve their aliya; others wanted to bring more Jewish learning to this part of India, as well as support the Bnei Menashe financially (some money was donated by the group, and religious material was distributed by a few of the expedition members). Others thought that this was not the purpose of their visit here - that they had come merely as tourists. "We are here just to learn and encourage, and go home," one of them said. Regardless of their level of participation and involvement, everyone on the expedition came back with a much deeper understanding of the Bnei Menashe issue, as well as questions as to his or her part in the story to follow. Several tourists are already planning to help raise awareness of the problems facing the Bnei Menashe community in Israel. Should the expedition be repeated? The organizers, the Bnei Menashe and the tourists all say yes. In any case, what's to say that if Shai Bar Ilan Tours and Eretz Ahavati decide not to repeat their first expedition that others won't do it of their own volition? There is a danger here that dozens of expeditions will take off for northeast India and other places without proper preparation (and without close consultation with the communities themselves). This expedition to the Bnei Menashe had two preparatory meetings before it set out to India, with lectures by experts on the Bnei Menashe and the lost tribes. The group was given in-depth briefings about the nature of the region they were going to travel through. And once in India, the group used trusted, professional guides who were sensitive to the nature of the expedition. While Shai Bar Ilan Tours and Eretz Ahavati recognize that initially their core customers will be those who have a religious and faith-based attraction to the expeditions, their ultimate aim is to reach out to as wide an audience as possible - to people who find the story fascinating and want to see it up close for themselves. They would much rather focus on the ethnographic and historical ingredients that make up the story of the Ten Lost Tribes: What was the route of the exiled? How did they get from Samaria to India and Japan? Where did they end up, and what was their impact on the cultures they met along the way? How much of the current cultural and ethnic makeup of many peoples in Central and East Asia were influenced by ancient Israelite nomads? Is it not entirely absurd to think that due to intermarriage and assimilation, there are countless tribes and nations that have some Jewish blood in them? And what if one day this buried Jewish past resurfaces and these myriad nations start exploring their ancient links to Israel? Will they want to come visit us here, in the tiny little land they left almost 3,000 years ago? The writer was a guest of Shai Bar Ilan Tours and Eretz Ahavati. Read more at: http://cgis.jpost.com/Blogs/india/

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