Welcoming the newcomers

Four planeloads of new immigrants from Manipur and Mizoram arrived in Israel last fall, including many relatives of those who live or work in Jerusalem. The 200 new immigrants were the first Bnei Menashe to make aliya as Jews under the Law of Return, according to Michael Freund. Before sunrise on November 23, as the third planeload of Bnei Menashe to land in a week was about to arrive, Bina, a 25-year-old nurse's assistant who works in an old-age home, waited to greet her parents, whom she had not seen in seven years. She was at the airport with her boyfriend and two brothers, aged 27 and 20. A young mother brought her one-month-old baby to meet his grandparents. A little girl held a big sign reading, "Bnei Menashe return home." As the new immigrants entered the arrivals hall, there were squeals of excitement, big smiles and hugs. An older woman with a flower in her hand looked at her new grandchild and wiped the tears from her eyes. Bina's dad, 66-year-old Uriel Sharon, said he felt excellent. Her mother, walking between her two sons with their arms around her, was "overjoyed, and excited." One Jerusalemite had been to meet each planeload of new Bnei Menashe immigrants. She seemed to share in their excitement as much as the young men and women who were reunited with parents and siblings after years of separation. After teaching Hebrew in Mizoram for three summers, Rachel Leshem had become attached to the people. "They have a longing for Zion that's hard to grasp," she said. "I told them, 'You have it so good here in the villages. You reach out your hand and pick pineapples and bananas.'" She knew Bina's parents there and had seen a picture of their three children in army uniforms. She said Bina's parents would travel one and a half hours by bus each way, two to three times a week, to learn Hebrew with her. "They would come to the Shavei Israel center in the capital to learn one or two words in Hebrew, to be with someone who came from Israel," she said. "They are fulfilling a life's dream today." Another young woman among the greeters, Rachel Yaheli, who had traveled in the mountain ranges that border Nepal, China and Tibet near the Bnei Menashe's Indian home, said the sacrifice the new immigrants had made in order to live in the Jewish homeland pains her. "You can't believe the overwhelming beauty of nature there," she said. "What quality of life! Clear water. Clean air. There are such deep differences in mentality. The pace of life is the opposite of here. There, community life is very meaningful. Here, they look like foreign workers. It will take them generations to adjust. I would be happy if they would be embraced here, but seeing the experience of the Ethiopians, it simply doesn't happen. I hope this time the government will learn from its mistakes and take advantage of what the Bnei Menashe do know rather than emphasizing what they don't know."