It is shortly before 6 a.m. The exhaustion on Benji Tungnung’s face is palpable as he makes his way through the quiet streets of the northern Galilee town of Ma’alot. With Rosh Hashana rapidly approaching, the 21-year-old yeshiva student wants to be sure to arrive on time for Slihot, the penitential supplications recited prior to the Shaharit morning prayer service.
Quickening his pace, Benji reaches his destination. His previous bout of fatigue quickly dissolves into a contented smile when he pries open the door of the yeshiva with a few minutes to spare before the poetic entreaties to the Creator commence.
In the days leading up to the start of the Jewish New Year, scenes similar to the one above play out in cities throughout the country. But for Tungnung, it is especially poignant. He and his family will soon be celebrating their first Rosh Hashana since making aliya from India.
Tungnung hails from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, which straddles the border with Burma, and he is a member of the Bnei Menashe community.
Theirs is a remarkable tale, one that underlines the profound power of Jewish history and the unbreakable pull of Jewish destiny.
The Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE, toward the end of the First Temple era.
Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for so many centuries, the Bnei Menashe stubbornly clung to the ways of their ancestors. They observed Shabbat and kept kosher, celebrated the festivals, practiced the sacrificial rites and even argued a lot among themselves, just as Jews have done since time immemorial.
The Bnei Menashe never forgot who they are or where they came from – or to where they would one day return.
Over the past 15 years, some 3,000 members of the community have made aliya, assisted by Shavei Israel, the organization I chair. In just the past 18 months, we have merited to bring 900 Bnei Menashe, including Tungnung and his family, on the long journey home.
“I used to feel so unlucky that I wasn’t born here in Israel,” Tungnung says.
“Here, in yeshiva, the students relate to me as a true brother. We may differ in our mother tongues or the colors of our skin, but underneath it all, we are all the same. We have something in common, and as Jews, our motto must be ‘United we stand.’” God, he tells me, “brought me here to Israel for a purpose. Making aliya is similar to Rosh Hashana, because it signifies a fresh start, a new chapter in life that is waiting to be written.”
Continuing the analogy, he describes the festival as “an opportunity to do better, to see things in a better way, to love better. Rosh Hashana, like moving to Israel, is a time of stepping forward, finding the purpose in one’s life and trying to live it by following in God’s ways.”
Tungnung’s older brother Yosef, who has a master’s degree in social anthropology, tries to describe what it was like growing up, nourishing the hope and dream of aliya in a far-off land.
“Oh, how my family and I longed for Zion,” he tells me without a trace of cynicism. “The thought of making aliya one day touched us deeply in our hearts.
I would often ask myself, ‘Will I merit to experience what heaven on earth looks like?’” Last November, I visited with the Tungnung family in their home in the Churachandpur district of Manipur, as they were busy making the final preparations for their move. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and their modest living room was filled with suitcases overflowing with personal items as well as lots of memories.
Benji and Yosef, along with their elder brother Ziv, 31, and sister Miriam, 27, a registered nurse, stood silently and watched as Amalia, the matriarch of the family, kindled the Shabbat lights.
She closed her eyes, and tears streamed down her face as she uttered a hushed prayer: “Great and holy God, this is the last time I will be lighting Shabbat candles here in this village. Thank you for blessing me that next week I will light them in the Land of Israel together with my family.”
Each of the children then received an impassioned blessing from Daniel, their father, who implored God to protect them all during the upcoming trip.
Just a few days later, as their plane touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport, I watched as Benji let out a whoop of joy, burst into a smile and beamed, “We did it! We made it!” The Tungnungs now reside in Safed, in an apartment with three bedrooms, a living room and kitchen, which Benji describes as “the best apartment in the world,” although the long hours he spends studying in the Ma’alot yeshiva don’t leave him with much free time to be there with his family.
The family members have completed ulpan (Hebrew language studies) and are busy adjusting to life in the Jewish state, which continues to fill them with wonder.
Visiting Jerusalem for the first time left them awestruck.
“I cannot describe my feelings when we went to the Holy City,” Yosef says. “It was as if we were standing at the gates to heaven. How beautiful the city looks! It simply fills my heart with songs of joy.”
After Rosh Hashana, they hope to find work, utilizing the skills and education that they acquired back in India.
“I hope and pray that Hashem [God] will continue to guide us through out another year,” Benji declares. “I have high hopes that I can be useful to the State of Israel and contribute to it, as well as help my fellow Bnei Menashe.”
The family’s only regret is that the eldest son, Shem, 33, who is married with four children, was unable to move to Israel. Some 7,000 Bnei Menashe are still in India, awaiting permission from the Israeli government to make aliya.
“When I went to the Kotel, I put in a letter to God, thanking Him for bringing us to His Holy Land after thousands of years of longing, but I also put in a request,” says Benji. “I said that our happiness is not complete, it cannot be whole, until my elder brother and his family are able to find their way back home.”
He adds that on Rosh Hashana, “I will continue to pray for Shem and for all the Bnei Menashe, that they will soon join hands with us here as one complete family, reunited in Zion. Perhaps, just perhaps, this New Year will bring with it great new tidings.”