Passage from India

A group of Bnei Menashe women now calls Jerusalem home.

bnei menashe arrive 298 (photo credit: AP)
bnei menashe arrive 298
(photo credit: AP)
On a recent weekday morning, six young Bnei Menashe women are giving and receiving facials as part of a cosmeticians' course in a large, airy room at the Noya Spa near the entrance to the city. Liron Manloun, 28, pink plastic barrettes holding back her gold-streaked brown hair, gently wipes a white mask off another student's face, as the latter lies on a bed, hair covered by a shower cap, receiving her facial. "The water is a little cold," she warns. "It's OK," says Olga Yosef, 32, who immigrated from Ukraine at 16. "She's excellent," Yosef says of Manloun's care. The Bnei Menashe, who originate in eastern India, have come to live here in increasing numbers over the past decade, with most of the community living in Kiryat Arba. But a handful of those who claim descent from the lost tribe of Menashe now live in Jerusalem. Herzog Hospital and Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies have cosponsored five six-month skilled nurses' assistants' courses, and Noya, a private spa, is in the midst of its first course for cosmeticians that includes six young Bnei Menashe women. Both courses are recognized by the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. Manloun is a graduate of the nursing assistants' course and works full time at Herzog Hospital. She takes the cosmeticians' course on her day off and shares an apartment in Jerusalem with three other Bnei Menashe women. "IT'S INTERESTING and it's a profession and it's fun," says Shlomit Berebi, 28, who made aliya in 1997. "I love this course." The organizers of both courses said they found the cultural values and personal characteristics of the Bnei Menashe to be especially suited to work that involves caregiving. "They're born for this type of work," says Miriam Lemel, art therapist and owner, with her husband, of Noya, which they dub a mission as much as a business. "It's as though we've given them a key to a talent they already had." Among the participants are Arab, Bnei Menashe and haredi women. Suheir Alyan, of Beit Safafa, who teaches the cosmetics course, says the Bnei Menashe women have "special hands and a special touch." Herzog Hospital currently employs 14 Bnei Menashe women graduates of its nurses' assistants' courses. "The course gives them an opportunity to work and earn a salary and also to be part of an organization. They participate in our fun days, in trips abroad, in study days. They are part of things," says Tzvia Levi, head nurse at Herzog Hospital. MANLOUN'S PARENTS and eight brothers and sisters are still in Manipur in northern India, waiting to emigrate. She finds life here "hard but also fun. It's hard because my parents aren't here. I went to India to visit them in 2004 and boy, did I miss Israel." While she came to Israel for "religious reasons," Manloun says she did not grow up religious. "My grandmother, my father's mother, was religious," she said. "She slowly taught me. By 17, I had become religious." Manloun chose to live in Jerusalem because she works and studies here and because she loves the city. She likes to go to the Western Wall, although she has little free time. "Sometimes I work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and when I get home I cook and that's it. There's no time for anything else." Rabbi Eliahu Avichail, founder and director of Amishav, a Jerusalem-based organization that works to find descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes and reconnect them with the Jewish people, explains that about 100 Bnei Menashe families - the majority in Israel - live in Kiryat Arba because that town both fits their needs religiously and was one of the few places that was enthusiastic about receiving them. Avichail worked for years to educate the Bnei Menashe, traveling to India and bringing dozens here to study in yeshivot. He said he first contacted religious kibbutzim about settling the Bnei Menashe, but did not receive a positive response. Currently there are 1,200 Bnei Menashe in the country and 7,000 more who live Jewish lives, want to immigrate but are "stuck in India" according to Tzvi Khaute, Bnei Menashe coordinator for Shavei Yisrael, an organization that advocates for their immigration. He came here six years ago. His first child was born in India but his second two, he says, are sabras. "We were exiled and lost for 2,700 years," says Khaute, sitting in the organization's office in Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem. "Jews all over the world, when they want to make aliya, they just make aliya. Easily. But for us, it is not the case. It does not depend on us. It depends on the mercy of the Israeli government." Khaute speaks of a Jewish reawakening among the Bnei Menashe around 50 years ago. They sent representatives to the Indian Jewish community in Bombay and eventually were contacted by Rabbi Avichail. "He is like my father," says Khaute. Khaute says he has a BA with honors in economics from Delhi University and worked as a high school teacher in Manipur. He says that 40 percent of the immigrants left good jobs in India. "Some politicians claim the Bnei Menashe are coming for economic reasons. It is not true. I am coming home. I am only coming home," he says. Khaute's parents and siblings are still in India. "This is the most difficult part of my life," he says. "My second son was born one and a half months after we made aliya. I was happy but my happiness was not complete because I miss my family." "Here, some people accept us as a real Jews," Khaute says. "Others make fun of us - 'Ah, you disguise yourself as a Jew?' It hurts the heart, sometimes. But I have to accept life. Can you change the color of your skin? This is the uniqueness of the Jews. Different colors. "Once I entered a supermarket and the manager calls me, 'Hey Thailandi.' I approached him, 'You should not judge a person from physical appearance.' The Jews, we don't have a specific physical appearance. Our Judaism comes from our heart, our soul. "Fortunately, I selected a very good and appropriate place to live. Most people there [in Kiryat Arba] being religious, they accept us as full-fledged Jews. In religious schools, there is no discrimination on the basis of appearance. "I don't blame my Jewish brother who calls me Thai or Chinese. The first Bnei Menashe came in 1981, after the Chinese and Thai workers. So because we look similar to them, Israelis think we are the same." Khaute explains why there are very few Bnei Menashe living in the capital. "If we live here in Jerusalem, our kids will imitate secular kids. Kiryat Arba is 90% religious. That's why we love it." He admits, though, that living in West Bank settlements may be a factor in the lack of support of certain politicians for Bnei Menashe aliya. Perhaps when Manloun marries and has children, she will move back to Kiryat Arba, where she lived for two years. But for now, she loves living in the capital. Her happiness at being here is marred only by the distance between her and her family. "I hope very much they will come," she says. "Why don't they come?" her fellow student Olga Yosef wants to know. "Israel didn't give permission," says Manloun, looking sad. "I don't know why."