Hadassah Hospital's synagogue is decorated with Chagall's colorful stained glass windows depicting the 12 tribes of Israel. (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)
Hadassah hospital Chagall windows

Are they really Jewish? I’ll leave it for the Messiah to decide!

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

The Ten Lost Tribes are 10 of the original 12 (13 actually!) tribes of Israel. They are the tribes of Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun—all sons or grandsons of Jacob.

In 930 BC these 10 tribes formed an independent “Kingdom of Israel” in the north of Israel and the two other tribes, Judah and Benjamin, set up the “Kingdom of Judah” in the south. Following the conquest of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 BC, the 10 tribes were exiled and gradually assimilated into the nations among them, and they essentially disappeared from history for all practical purpose.

In recent years, however, there has been renewed interested in discovering these lost tribes with a number of different groups claiming to be among them. Let’s take a look and some of these modern-day lost tribes.

The Igbo people have been in the media in recent times. These people, claiming to be Jews, live in Nigeria and practice a form of Judaism. They practice circumcision, some dietary lows, marital laws, and they use ritual garments and objects.

There are some problems with the Igbo claim, however. For one, most Igbo people reject any connection to the Jewish people, and this Jewish group is but a minority from within the Igbo people. So too, there is no evidence of Igbo practice of Judaism in precolonial times. There is a total lack of historical evidence to prove their descent from the Jewish people.

The Igbo are not recognized as a Jewish community for the purpose of immigration to Israel, though a number of them have made their way into Israel in a number of different ways. Some Igbo are adopting a more religious lifestyle so as to gain acceptance as Jews. Some have gone through formal conversion to Judaism, and it is only with this that they can be accepted as Jews.

Another group in the news lately is the “Bnei Menashe” (“Children of Manasseh”). This is a group that lives on India’s northeastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram. These people, known as the Chin, Kuki, and Mizo, claim descent from the tribe of Menashe and have adopted orthodox Judaism.

One problem with their claim is that most of the residents of these states, more than three million other Chin, Kuki, and Mizo people, deny any such connection to Judaism. So too, among those who claim to be Jewish, there are some Christian features to their way of life, making their claim even more difficult to accept at face value. The State of Israel is willing to readily accept the Bnei Menashe as long as they undergo a formal conversion to Judaism.

The Bene Israel (“Sons of Israel”) is a community of Jews in India, not to be confused with native Indian Jews who are also known as the “Jews of Cochin.” According to the community, they arrived in India sometime in the first or second century after their ancestors got shipwrecked in western India while on a trading trip to the far east (Gilligan’s Island, anyone?). After migrating to India, the Bene Israel gradually assimilated into the people around them, while keeping some Jewish customs. Many have immigrated to Israe,l though there is still a Bene Israel community in Mumbai today.

Most other native Indian Jews reject their claims. Many rabbis require the Bene Israel people to undergo a formal conversion before being fully accepted as Jews. In 1962, however, the Chief Rabbinate decided to accept them as Jews, though only after great pressure. The city of Beersheba in southern Israel has the largest community of Bene Israel, along with a sizable one in the central city of Ramla.

The Most Intriging of Them All

Let’s look at one more such group, possibly the most intriguing of them all, which is the Jews of San Nicandro, Italy. They are  reportedly the only case of collective conversion to Judaism in Europe in modern times. The founder of this group, Donato Manduzio (1885-1948), was a crippled World War I veteran who was inspired by his own reading of the Bible. Donato was the son of poor Roman Catholic peasants from San Nicandro. After the war, he began to study religion in depth and became a folk healer. He claims to have had a vision to abandon Christianity and start to live a Jewish lifestyle. He eventually collected a following, which makes up the entirety of this very unique Jewish community.

The Chief Rabbinate of Rome was impressed witht his group and arranged their conversion to orthodox Judaism. Most of the San Nicandro Jews emigrated to Israel, and the majority settled in Safed. There are still practicing Jews left in San Nicandro today.

There are dozens more of such groups around the world today. Are they really Jewish? I’ll leave it for the Messiah to decide!

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