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In a few weeks' time, Sara Haunhar will at last fulfill a lifelong dream, one that she has been nurturing for over the past eight decades.
Together with her daughter Miriam, and some 216 other members of the Bnei Menashe of northeastern India, the 84-year old widow will board a charter flight next month, and finally begin the long journey home to Zion.
It is a voyage that began many centuries ago - 27, to be exact - when the Assyrian empire invaded the Land of Israel and cast most of our people into the darkest recesses of the exile.
It was the ancient equivalent of a Holocaust, a devastating blow in which the overwhelming majority of the world's Israelites - ten out of twelve tribes! - suddenly and mysteriously vanished.
Many thought they were gone forever, as they marched off into the mists of history, with little or no apparent hope of return.
But now, after so many years of wandering and dispersion, the descendants of these "lost Jews" are finally, triumphantly, coming back.
The significance of this should be readily apparent, even to the most hardened of cynics. After all, whoever heard of an ancient lost tribe returning to its ancestral homeland 2,700 years after their deportation? Without exaggerating, it seems fair to say that this is a miracle of Biblical proportions.
Sara Haunhar certainly thinks so. Last year, in September 2005, she sat patiently before a rabbinical court, which had been dispatched to India by Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to restore the Bnei Menashe to the Jewish people.
Previously, in March 2005, the Chief Rabbi had ruled that the Bnei Menashe are "descendants of the Jewish people," and he agreed to do what he could to help them to return.
The rabbinical judges peppered Sara with questions about Jewish life and lore, gently probing her knowledge of Judaism and her commitment to formally rejoining the people of Israel.
ONE OF the rabbis who was there later described the ensuing scene with great emotion. Impressed by Sara's sincerity and dedication, the judges informed her that they were pleased to welcome her back into the fold of Israel.
Naturally, Sara began to cry, with the flow of tears rolling down her furrowed cheeks moving all those present.
When one of the judges leaned over and asked her if she was alright, Sara composed herself and told them, "All of my life, I was afraid that I would die before I would merit to see God's Holy Land. But now that you have accepted me as a Jew, I know that I will soon be able to set foot on the land of my ancestors, the Land of Israel."
Growing up, Sara had always lived an intensely Jewish life, along with the rest of the 7,000-strong Bnei Menashe community, which resides primarily in the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur. The Bnei Menashe observe the Sabbath, practice circumcision on the eighth day, keep the laws of Kashrut and scrupulously uphold the rules of family purity.
Thanks to the tolerance which epitomizes Indian society, the Bnei Menashe have been able to build dozens of synagogues across the country's northeast, where they turn three times a day in prayer towards Jerusalem, longing to be reunited with their friends and family already living in the Jewish state.
In just the past decade, nearly 1,000 members of the community have made aliya. They are valuable and productive members of Israeli society, serving in the army, working hard and supporting their families, and raising adorable Jewish children.
Indeed, this past summer, at the height of the war, a dozen young Bnei Menashe men were fighting on the frontlines in combat units in Lebanon and Gaza, defending the land of Israel and the Jewish people. One of them, St.-Sgt. Avi Hanshing, a 22-year old paratrooper, was injured during a clash with Hizbullah terrorists in southern Lebanon.
"I had to fight to come to Israel," Hanshing said, recalling the inexplicable obstacles that Israel's government routinely puts in the way of Bnei Menashe aliya. "Now," he added, "I have to fight for the country."
THE ARRIVAL next month of the immigrants from India will mark a welcome turning point for the community. For the first time, a large group of Bnei Menashe immigrants will arrive here together, proudly, as Jews, with their heads held high and their hopes bright for the future.
As chairman of Shavei Israel, an organization that assists the Bnei Menashe, it is a day that I am looking forward to with a lot of very special anticipation. For years, we have lobbied, struggled and pressed the Bnei Menashe's case, in an effort to persuade the Israeli government to open the door for these wonderful people.
In June, we nearly had to petition Israel's Supreme Court to force certain government ministers to allow the aliya to take place, and it was only after we met with aides to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the final approval was actually forthcoming.
And so, I can not help but pray that this first batch of 218 immigrants next month will herald the arrival of many, many more in the years to come.
This special event will take place thanks in no small measure to the friendship, backing and support of Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who are teaming together with Shavei Israel to make this aliya a reality.
Pooling their resources, the Agency and the Fellowship will fly the immigrants here and enable them to be housed in Israel's north, in the towns of Karmiel and Upper Nazareth, where they will receive added absorption benefits thanks to the generosity of Christians and Jews alike.
There is something extremely fitting about this, too, for as the prophet Isaiah foretold some 2,500 years ago, the nations of the world would play an active role in the return of the Jewish people to their land.
In Isaiah 49:22, the Bible says: "Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the nations, and set up my standard to the peoples, and they shall bring your sons in their arms, and your daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders."
I have no doubt that the love, concern and practical help being provided by Israel's Jewish and Christian supporters worldwide is part and parcel of the fulfillment of this verse.
And it sends goosebumps down my arms when I think about how the vision of Isaiah is literally coming to pass before our eyes.
The aliya of the Bnei Menashe is a historic event. It is a timely and welcome example of just what Israel, and its wondrous rebirth, is truly all about: the ingathering of our exiles, not only from the four corners of the earth, but from our people's dark and often painful history, too.
And it should serve as a potent reminder that despite all the problems and difficulties this country may face, we should not hesitate to join Sara Haunhar and her fellow Bnei Menashe in declaring, "Thank God for the State of Israel.
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