Degel Menashe provides COVID-19 relief for India’s Bnei Menashe

One organization has taken it upon themselves to aid small Jewish communities in a far-off corner of India, and in the process have not only saved lives but also shown the true meaning of charity.

SORTING RICE at Beit Shalom Synagogue, Churachandpur, Manipur, India (photo credit: DEGEL MENASHE)
SORTING RICE at Beit Shalom Synagogue, Churachandpur, Manipur, India
(photo credit: DEGEL MENASHE)
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, communities all over the world have banded together – albeit with social distancing – in many different ways. From standing on balconies banging pots and pans to whole neighborhoods gathering outside to applaud health care workers, the outbreak of COVID-19 has shown that in times of crisis, people can still support each other. 
One organization has taken it upon themselves to aid small Jewish communities in a far-off corner of India, and in the process have not only saved lives but also shown the true meaning of charity.
Home to over a billion people, India has so far had 49,391 cases of coronavirus, suffering 1,694 deaths. The northeastern states of Manipur and Mizoram, home to approximately 5,000 people of the Bnei Menashe Jewish community, have been under severe lockdown since India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown at the end of March, regarded as one of the strictest in the world.
The Bnei Menashe are a group that claim descent from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel and have adopted the practice of Judaism. In 2005, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel accepted them as Jews due to their practical devotion, but members were still required to undergo the formal conversion process. Over 3,000 members of the Bnei Menashe have since made aliyah and settled in Israel.
THE STATE of Manipur has only had two recorded cases of coronavirus and last week was declared COVID-free, but the lockdown has still affected the families that live there.
With districts closed down, many people have been unable to work and savings have been fast spent on food and other basic items.
DISTRIBUTION CENTER at Beit Shalom Synagogue. Each bag is divided and dispersed by vehicle.DISTRIBUTION CENTER at Beit Shalom Synagogue. Each bag is divided and dispersed by vehicle.
Degel Menashe is a nonprofit organization launched in November 2019 that developed from an oral history project, involving hundreds of hours of interviews with elderly Bnei Menashe in Israel, which was begun in 2017 under the sponsorship of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico.
They recently initiated a relief program to help the Bnei Menashe communities in Manipur and Mizoram by organizing and delivering essential supplies to families that are either unable to get them, or unable to afford them.
The project, which began at the end of April, has so far managed to aid around 400 families in Manipur’s Imphal, Churachandpur and Kangpokpi districts, who have received supplies of rice, the staple of the Bnei Menashe’s diet, lentils, cooking oil and sugar.
Every family needing help received, as a first allocation, 22.5 kilos of rice and, so far, around 14 tons of food has been gathered for distribution to those that need it.
The project encountered many difficulties caused by the complications of transferring the funds, Indian currency regulations, and the practical difficulties of the lockdown.
Degel Menashe project director and immigrant to Israel, Isaac Thangjom explained to the Magazine, “We arrange the funds and buy the supplies from wholesalers in India. We have a relief committee and with five or six volunteers, the supplies are distributed.”
Funding has come through a combination of private donations, and Degel Menashe’s connections with the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and the NGO Scattered Among the Nations, who aim to assist geographically and politically isolated Jewish or Judaism-practicing communities.
The distribution of supplies in Manipur was organized by a makeshift Bnei Menashe Relief Committee on COVID-19, headed by Lalam Hangshing, a retired commissioner in the northeastern India Revenue Service, and Ohaliav Haokip, Degel Menashe’s representative in Manipur.
A Mound of rice being readied for distribution. A staple of the Bnei Menashe diet, families also received lentils, cooking oil and sugarA Mound of rice being readied for distribution. A staple of the Bnei Menashe diet, families also received lentils, cooking oil and sugar
HANGSHING EXPLAINED how the aid program works on the ground.
“It is done by [the] synagogue community. Each locality has a synagogue and each synagogue has their own chairman. Contact goes through the synagogue.”
The supplies were trucked to central distribution points at main synagogues in Imphal, Churachandpur and Kangpokpi, where each bag was divided and dispersed by vehicle to smaller synagogues or other places in outlying neighborhoods and villages.
“In three districts, Imphal, Churachandpur, and Kangpokpi, we managed to reach about 360 families, after that we learned that there were some groups we had missed,” Hangshing said. “Some small groups of six houses, 10 houses, we missed. Altogether in Manipur, we have reached 400 families.”
“We are fortunate in having young people to contribute their time and resources,” Hangshing pointed out in regard to the volunteers. “They are very cheerful and we are dependent on them. We are very lucky to have them. One man even gave use of his van to transport rice without asking for anything in return.”
Emergency distribution of the food to the Bnei Menashe community of Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, also managed to find success during the first week of May, after delays caused by heavy rains as well as the lockdown of the city. Over 1.5 tons of rice, 150 kg. of lentils, 100 kg. of sugar, and 60 liters of cooking oil were distributed to 60 families.
Head of the Degel Menashe food distribution committee in Mizoram, Jeremiah Hnamte, wrote on Degel Menashe’s website, “It took us an entire week. All movement within the city, which has 300,000 residents, was confined to between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and had to be coordinated in advance with a Local Level Task Force created by the state government of Mizoram. Aizawl is extremely hilly and the Bnei Menashe community is spread all over its many neighborhoods – to pass from one of them to another, a special permit was required.”
“On a typical day, I and a group of four or five volunteers could reach and distribute food in only one neighborhood. Although we used my car to carry most of the supplies, some localities could be gotten to only by two-wheeled vehicles, and there are people living in streets so narrow that not even a two-wheeler can get to them. In such cases, our volunteers had to carry sacks of rice on their backs to every house.”
So far, only B’nei Menashe families in and on the outskirts of Aizawl have been reached. Smaller communities further away from the capital remain inaccessible due to the lockdown. As soon as this is relaxed, Degel Menashe hopes to be able to extend aid to them, too.
“The Bnei Menashe community,” Hnamte wrote, “is very grateful that it has not been forgotten by its brothers and thanks Degel Menashe for reaching out to it in its time of need. The Mizo word ropui (wonderful) has been the response most frequently heard. Our Christian neighbors, too, have expressed their surprise at help arriving for us from such far-off places as Israel and America. This has resulted in a new level of respect for our community and is a source of pride to us all. Thank you, Degel Menashe!”
ONE AREA that Degel Menashe has been unable to reach so far is the town of Moreh, on the border of India and Myanmar. Moreh has also been under complete lockdown, but due to its proximity to the border, which has been completely shut to prevent cross-border movement, it has been exceptionally difficult to reach. The Bnei Menashe of Moreh have yet to receive any aid.
“Until now we haven’t been able to reach Moreh,” Hangshing said, addressing this issue. “It’s a very sensitive border – Myanmar has a lot of COVID-19 cases, and is strict with movement. We can’t get there to distribute; so far we have drawn a blank.”
Hangshing emphasized that the border is locked.
DISTRIBUTION IN process; bags will be sent to smaller synagogues or other places in outlying neighborhoods and villagesDISTRIBUTION IN process; bags will be sent to smaller synagogues or other places in outlying neighborhoods and villages
“There is no business going on, no communication from either side,” he continued. “The unique thing about Moreh is they are dependent on both sides of the border. Most of the food stock they get in Moreh they get in Myanmar.”
Thangjom stressed that the committee is “trying to find a solution” to support the people of Moreh, but until restrictions are officially eased, it will continue to be difficult.
While Degel Menashe and their team on the ground continue to find a way to reach the people of Moreh, they are continuing with all their hard work to keep ordinary people fed and their hopes alive.