It was after 3:00 a.m. on Thursday of last week, in the small airport outside
Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, and the group of 38 travelers was
Young and old, these members of the Bnei Menashe community,
which traces its descent to a lost tribe of Israel, had just arrived on a
late-night flight from India. They had left behind family, friends and
all that was familiar, to fulfill an age-old dream and return to the land of
their ancestors, the Land of Israel.
Patiently, they waited in a line
that seemed to stretch all the way to the Russian border, keenly aware that in
just a few hours they would set foot on the soil of Zion.
And then it
began, slowly and softly, almost imperceptible in the cavernous hallway. Despite
the fatigue and apprehension enveloping them, the Bnei Menashe started to sing,
their voices rising ever louder as they recited the Hebrew words of the ancient
piyut (Jewish liturgical poem) “Shomer Yisrael.” “Guardian of Israel,” it
cries out, “guard the remnant of Israel!” Many onlookers were stunned,
particularly the Israelis waiting on the same line for the flight to Tel Aviv.
After all, it isn’t very often that the boarding process turns into a sacred
After overcoming the shock of seeing this batch of kippa-
wearing northeastern Indian Jews bursting forth into melody, several of the
Israelis joined in with them, producing a chorus that could have penetrated even
the stoniest of hearts.
This episode is but the latest saga in the
millennia-old story of the Bnei Menashe, who are returning to Israel in
increasing numbers. Theirs is a remarkable tale, one that underlines the
profound power of Jewish history and the unbreakable pull of Jewish
The Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, 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 remained
dedicated to their heritage, stubbornly clinging to the faith of their
forefathers. They observed the Sabbath 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.
Menashe never forgot who they are or where they came from, or where they would
one day return.
The resilience they demonstrated in preserving their
identity is now being recompensed, as they make their way back to their
The 38 Bnei Menashe who arrived in Israel last week
comprise the latest group that Shavei Israel, the organization I founded and
chair, has brought on aliya, in what we are dubbing “Operation
Over the past year, with the permission of the Israeli
government, we have brought more than 300 Bnei Menashe from India, with another
860 slated to come here in the next 15 months.
Once Operation Menashe is
complete in early 2015, there will be a total of 3,000 Bnei Menashe living in
the Jewish state, with another 6,000 still in India awaiting permission to
Sadly, the Jewish establishment in the United States, such as UJA
-Federation and others, have thus far failed to participate in this historic
mission, rebuffing pleas to help us transport the Bnei Menashe and settle them
As a result, we have had to rely on various Jewish
philanthropists in Europe, the United States and elsewhere, as well as some of
Israel’s Christian friends, with the ICEJ covering the most of the costs of the
immigrants’ flights, while Bridges for Peace, Operation Exodus, Christians for
Israel and others have provided funding to support their absorption.
Thursday, after the flight carrying the Bnei Menashe landed at Ben-Gurion
Airport, the 38 immigrants were taken to the old terminal, Terminal 1, where
they were processed by officials of the Interior Ministry and the Absorption
Ministry, before being taken back to Terminal 3.
As they emerged into the
arrivals hall, the Bnei Menashe were greeted by a flood of tears, as friends and
relatives embraced them, congratulating them on finally making it to
For 76-year old Yaffa Hlondo, a widow, it was a particularly
moving scene. Her beloved husband, who had dreamt of making aliya, passed away
last year in India, his life-long ambition left unfulfilled. In his last moments
on earth, she told me, he had assured Yaffa that she would make it to the
Promised Land, and that his spirit would be with her throughout the
When Yaffa emerged into the arrivals hall, she was welcomed by
her son, whom she had not seen since he had made aliya back in 2006. Standing
next to him was his son – Yaffa’s grandson – in his olive-drab uniform. He
serves in an elite IDF infantry combat unit, defending the Land of Israel and
the people of Israel. As I watched them embrace, I had no doubt that a fourth
person, the spirit of Yaffa’s late husband, was also there to partake in that
The return of the Bnei Menashe is a telling reminder of
the power of Jewish fortitude, of our people’s ability to defy history and
overcome the odds. And it is a tangible sign that God has not forsaken His
people, nor His promises to restore them to their Land.
As we press
forward in the coming months with Operation Menashe, I hope and pray that Jewish
organizations will at last open their eyes and lend a hand to this historic
reunion of Manasseh’s children with the rest of the people of Israel. The Bnei
Menashe’s journey home has been long and arduous. It is time for the Jewish
people to welcome them back with joy and open arms.The writer is founder
and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost
tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people.