An end to exile

Aliya of the Bnei Menashe Jewish community in India resumes after five-year hiatus

bnei mesashe reunion 521 (photo credit: Herbert Kelly/ICE)
bnei mesashe reunion 521
(photo credit: Herbert Kelly/ICE)
Smiling broadly beneath a bright woolen cap, Ephraim Manlun readily admitted that he was “totally lost for words.”
“There’s an unexplainable feeling in our hearts, an overwhelming excitement, emotionally and spiritually,” he said. “For over 2,000 years, we’ve been waiting for this moment.”
This “moment” was the December 24 arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport of Manlun and 52 other members of the Bnei Menashe community from northeast India. The group arrived on board the first flight of a renewed wave of aliya for this ancient Israelite tribe, bringing to an end – for these 13 families – what they call their 2,700 years of exile and wandering.
Ephraim, 20, said his fellow travelers were all aware of the historic weight they were carrying.
“We know that we represent the hopes of many generations,” he explained.
“We are the ones who have the privilege of finally stepping foot back in the Land of Israel.”
The Bnei Menashe (“Sons of Manasseh”) are a community living in northeast India who claim descent from one of the “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel. In 732 BCE, they say, their ancestors were exiled by the Assyrians into the region of today’s Iran. From there, they journeyed eastward along the Silk Road to China, where for centuries they formed part of the community of Kaifeng Jews. They later wandered southward and eventually settled in the states of Mizoram and Manipur, located in an isolated enclave of India nestled between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
From there the Bnei Menashe continued to cling to their biblical traditions and identity. They kept the Sabbath and observed kosher laws, celebrated the Jewish festivals and practiced sacrificial rites.
Rediscovered in modern times, their Israelite ancestry was officially recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate in 2005. Following that ruling, an initial wave of 1,700 Bnei Menashe made their way to Israel, but their aliya was stopped two years later.
Michael Freund, head of the organization Shavei Israel, has been working tirelessly ever since to reopen the way for them to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish mainstream. At his urging, the Israeli government recently approved a process which will enable the remaining 7,200 Bnei Menashe to relocate to Israel in groups of around 250 at a time.
The first group of 274 Bnei Menashe arrived on a handful of weekly flights from India to Israel via Tashkent by mid- January, and the next group is expected to start arriving in last spring. The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem is sponsoring their journey home by covering the costs of their airline tickets. Other Christian Zionist groups, such as Bridges for Peace, are helping to cover their absorption costs.
“This is one of those moments where you really feel the hand of God at work in history,” noted Freund. “Despite the long exile and wanderings of the Bnei Menashe, they never lost sight of who they are or where they came from, or where they one day dreamt of returning.”
“Another thing we cannot overlook is that Jews and Christians are joining together to make this happen, just as the Hebrew prophets foretold,” added Freund. “This is a miracle as well.
We deeply appreciate the assistance of our Christian friends.”
And officials from the ICEJ were also excited to take part in the project.
“Our support for the return of the Bnei Menashe is based on God’s promises to Israel to ‘bring your descendants from the east,’ as we read in Isaiah 43:5,” said Dr. Juergen Buehler, executive director of the ICEJ. “We are thrilled to partner with Shavei Israel in making this dream come true for these precious sons and daughters of Zion.”
When the first flight landed on Christmas Eve, about 100 members of the Bnei Menashe community already living in Israel gathered at the airport to greet them. Though the community is still a distinct looking people, the crowd of relatives and friends waiting anxiously in the arrivals hall already reflected the diversity of Israeli society.
Amid the eager welcoming party stood one Bnei Menashe man wearing the pressed uniform of an IDF officer, while another sported the trademark long side-curls and white garments of the Breslov Hassidic sect.
There were many tearful embraces as brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces all joined in the happy family reunions.
Yishai Houkhloet, 28, who already had a brother and sister in Israel, made this trip with his wife, Yehudit, and his three small children (Leah, Avner and Raziel), as well as his parents Joshi (in his 70s) and Esther (in her 60s), and an aunt. Yishai was a security guard in India and his mother had her own small shop.
“Ever since I was a little boy, it has been my dream to come here and serve in the Israeli army,” Yishai related. “But with the delays I started a family and probably cannot do that. Still, we have now arrived and it is my son who will one day serve in the IDF.”
He also spoke of their spiritual longings, insisting, “We want to learn the Torah and fulfill the positive mitzvot (commandments).”
Yishai’s brother and sister live in Kiryat Arba near Hebron, but his family will likely be settled in the Galilee.
“Wherever they send us to live, we will be happy,” he assured. “It is very sweet to be here!” Like all the other Bnei Menashe families arriving in Israel, Yishai said the first thing his family wanted to do is to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“We just want to go to the Kotel to cry and pray,” he said. “Then our journey will truly be over.”
The 20-year-old Manlun and his parents and two sisters said they were the first members of their extended family to make it to Israel, but that more will come soon. He worked in an international call center in Delhi for the past two years, where he earned some money as a young single man, honed his skills in English and learned much about the wider world. He is now anxious to improve his Hebrew and serve in the IDF.
“I’ve already interviewed with the recruiters and I think the army discipline will do me good,” said Ephraim. Asked if he was worried about having to go into combat, he affirmed: “God is with me, so why should I be afraid.”
His father, Tzafania, was a soldier in the Indian army and spent seven years fighting against radical Muslim militias in the Kashmir region along the disputed frontier with Pakistan. His son will now guard Israel against radical Muslim militias like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Ephraim’s sisters, Yishka, 15, and Naomi, 12, had a hard time saying goodbye to their friends back in India, but they are excited to make new ones in Israel and become part of the youth culture here.
“All our hopes and dreams are here now!” added Ephraim.
Tzvi Khante, one of the earliest Bnei Menashe pioneers to arrive in Israel close to 13 years ago, explained that the veteran community can now help the newcomers adjust to life in Israel a lot easier than they did. He noted that the early arrivals had already proven to the Israeli public that the Bnei Menashe are close-knit families instilled with a good work ethic, and are patriotic citizens.
“This is about returning to our land, our people and our Torah,” insisted Tzvi, who coordinates the Bnei Menashe aliya efforts for Shavei Israel. “It also means we are moving that much closer to the redemption of Israel.”