Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, met with a group of 274 Bnei Menashe Olim Chadashim (new immigrants) who recently arrived in Israel, in order to congratulate them. The Bnei Menashe, who used to live in India along the border with Bangladesh and Burma, were ecstatic to be living in Israel. The Bnei Menashe literally greeted the Chief Rabbi with singing and dancing. Organizers from Shavei Israel, an organization dedicated to assisting members of Lost Tribes who decide to return to Israel and Judaism, claimed that it was a proper welcome from a group of people who traces their ancestry back to when the Ten Northern Tribes were expelled from Israel by the Assyrians 2,700 years ago.
According to the oral traditions of the Bnei Menashe tribe, their ancestors managed to escape from Assyrian slavery by fleeing to Persia. From there, they traveled through Afghanistan towards India, Tibet, and then finally, Kaifeng, China. The Bnei Menashe claimed that their ancestors were enslaved again in China, causing many Jews to flee and reside in caves. In 100 CE, their holy scrolls were burned and the Bnei Menashe Jews were forced out of China. In India today, members of the Kuki tribe, of whom many Bnei Menashe are part, are treated like outsiders and are constantly fighting with the Nagas, who seek to rid them from the region.
The Bnei Menashe have managed to preserve many Jewish traditions over the centuries, such as circumcision, offering sacrifices, wearing prayer shawls that resemble talits, observing Shabbat, keeping the Jewish holidays, following the laws of family purity, etc. One Bnei Menashe song reads, “We must keep the Passover festival; Because we crossed the Red Sea on the dry land; At night we crossed with a fire; And by day with a cloud; Enemies pursued us with chariots; And the sea swallowed them up; And used them as food for the fish; And when we were thirsty; We received water from the rock.”
Presently, there are around 2,000 members of the Bnei Menashe community living in Israel, yet Shavei Israel claims that there are still 7,200 members of the Bnei Menashe tribe in India who are practicing Judaism and seek to make Aliyah to Israel. In addition, there are 1.5 million members of the Kuki and Mizo tribes in India, who are also believed to be members of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Yet, many of them were converted to Christianity by missionaries who arrived in India starting in the late 1800’s. Regardless, the Israeli government has decided to facilitate the Aliyah of all Bnei Menashe who seek to return home to the Land of Israel and to return to the faith of their ancestors.
Shavei Israel’s Director of Bnei Menashe Aliyah, Rabbi Hanoch Avitzedek, was very impressed at the speed at which the Bnei Menashe were absorbing successfully into Judaism and Israel, claiming that it was “nothing short of a miracle.” Rabbi Amar claimed that the Bnei Menashe should serve as an inspiring example for the immigration and absorption of other Jewish communities. Yet the next phase, of moving the Bnei Menashe from absorption centers to regular homes, is very crucial.
According to Rabbi Avitzedek, “Each place where they are going decided quite some time ago to ‘adopt’ the Bnei Menashe community, to help them in all aspects, social and religious. We are not just ‘dropping them’ somewhere and that’s it. There will be a big community waiting for them. And after this, we will continue to be involved, to help them to find jobs and for their children to join the mainstream education system in Israel.” Indeed, Israel remains committed to helping all olim be successful in their absorption into Israeli society.
To view a video of the Bnei Menashe in Israel, see below!
By Rachel Avraham