Moving together

According to their tradition, the Bnei Menashe were exiled from Israel 2,700 years ago and wandered east, eventually reaching China and, several hundred years ago, India. They kept up a biblical Jewish practice until Christian missionaries converted them about 100 years ago. Because they were cut off from the Jewish people, they believed the missionaries' claims that they were, in effect, the modern continuation of their ancient religion. But they never gave up their Jewish feelings and when Israel was established, many simply started walking west. The vast majority live in Mizoram and Manipur, two of seven sister states that were independent kingdoms before the British ruled India. Hundreds more Bnei Menashe live in two other of these states, Assam and Nagaland, as well as in neighboring Myanmar. Michael Freund, a veteran of Binyamin Netanyahu's administration, worked in Rabbi Eliahu Avichail's organization Amishav before breaking off to found Shavei Yisrael in 2004. Between the late '90s and 2003, according to an agreement Amishav reached with the Interior Ministry, 100 Bnei Menashe came to Israel each year on a special visa for the purposes of conversion. After a year of learning Judaism they converted and made aliya. In 2003, a few months after 71 Bnei Menashe had come to Israel, the new interior minister, Avraham Poraz, announced he was going to freeze further aliya of the Bnei Menashe until he studied the issue further. "It became apparent that this was a bureaucratic smoke screen for shutting down the aliya," says Freund. Freund worked with Israel's rabbinate and in November of 2005, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized the Bnei Menashe as descendents of the Jewish people, a status that gives them the right to convert. In September 2005, the rabbinate sent a rabbinical court to Mizoram to convert 216 Bnei Menashe, to enable them to make aliya as converts. The rabbinical court had intended to continue to Manipur to convert more Bnei Menashe there, but the Indian government raised some concerns to the Israeli Foreign Ministry over converting the Bnei Menashe on Indian soil. After several bureaucratic hurdles on the Israeli side - which were only resolved after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's intervention - 218 Bnei Menashe (the 216 converts and two children) finally made aliya in November 2006. Today, the Bnei Menashe find themselves "between a rock and a hard place," according to Freund. "The Indian government doesn't mind them coming to Israel, but it doesn't want us to convert them in India. And Israel won't accept them until they've converted." Freund, now working through Shavei Israel, "is looking for a solution that will allow the aliya to resume." Freund sees the return of the Bnei Menashe to Israel as "a miracle of biblical proportions and a testament to the power of Jewish identity and destiny. "The Jewish soul, no matter how long it has been cut off from the people of Israel, ultimately will return home."