Bnei Menashe - Our Brethren

[Col. (res.) Moshe Leshem]

Summary ... The Bnei Menashe are part of an extensive tribe whose descendants are now dispersed throughout northeastern India and neighboring Myanmar.

They stood there waiting for us at a small airfield, waving Israeli flags and "Welcome" signs. Children in large kipot, wearing tzitzit on top of their shirts, joined adults weeping with joy as they sang Am Israel Hai and Hevenu Shalom Aleikhem.

Gavriel, Shmuel, Elisheva, Vered, Yirmiyahu, Dael and Gershon all embraced us warmly, hovering over us as though we were eagerly-anticipated relatives they had heard so much about but never seen before.

You're probably already asking: "What's so special about this story?" It sounds like so many other stories about family reunions at airports all over the world. What's unique in this case, dear friends, is that the event took place at a tiny airfield in the heart of the jungles of northeastern India, in the State of Mizoram. Those who welcomed us were the Bnei Menashe. They may look somewhat different from the people we're used to, but their hearts bear a powerful love and yearning for the Land of Israel.

The Bnei Menashe are the descendants of one of the Ten Tribes exiled from the Land of Israel about 2,700 years ago. When they tired of wandering, they settled in northeastern India.

I heard about the Bnei Menashe from Rabbi Eliahu Avihail, who has spent most of his life searching for the scattered remnants of Israel. The Bnei Menashe call him "our father."

I first visited this marvelous community last April, returning home with an enthusiastic desire to help them achieve the object of their prayers. I told my wife: "Rachel, we're going to visit them again and stay longer this time." Rachel was just as excited about the idea as I was. She made plans, gathered study material and learning aids and we set out on our way.

The road to Aizawl, capital of Mizoram State, winds through hills and forests. Everything is so green! Torrential rains fall constantly during monsoon season, but nothing could deter our ardent guides, singing at the top of their lungs as we proceeded by bus and other vehicles. Our destination: the Hebrew Study Center set up by Amishav, a non-profit organization headed by R. Avihail and Michael Freund.

The Bnei Menashe are part of an extensive tribe whose descendants are now dispersed throughout northeastern India and neighboring Myanmar (Burma). They do not look like typical Indians, nor does their language resemble others spoken in India. The tribe's history and migration paths are shrouded in mystery, particularly because of the lack of written documentation. Its heritage is passed on orally from one generation to the next, manifested in the observance of clearly Jewish customs such as circumcision on the eighth day, Shabbat, Passover rituals and more.

As we climbed the Center's stairs, we saw "Welcome" signs all along the wall, written with an authentic love that was evident throughout our visit. The modest classrooms, too, were decorated with posters of Israeli landscapes, Jewish holidays and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Allenby Sela and his wife Vered run the Center and teach Hebrew. Both are members of the Bnei Menashe who came to Israel ten years ago and returned as emissaries.

Students are divided into three groups: Children, youth and adults. The first two groups study during the day, while adults attend classes in the evening, after a day's work in the city or nearby villages.

Rachel wasted no time. She planned a special curriculum, inspired by her vast experience in teaching and the keen enthusiasm she felt from the start. She taught for hours on end, her students eagerly absorbing every new word and every new line of poetry. Our son Uri, 16, was also very helpful, teaching youngsters current Israeli songs and slang and spending hours playing soccer with them on the muddy field nearby.

News of our arrival attracted many new students. The youth class, that generally numbers 25, expanded to 65 and had to be divided.

Teaching Hebrew at the end of the world is a somewhat surrealistic experience. The city itself has about 300,000 residents living in hillside houses on bamboo stilts or concrete pillars. We were nearly the only people there who looked European, but everyone heard of Israel and treated us with love and admiration.

We walked down Zion Street and shopped at stores with names like Israel Center. Our bus passed a sign reading Tamar in Hebrew, decorated with Stars of David and Israeli flags. People smiled at us everywhere.

On Sundays, we visited small, distant villages, traveling for hours along primitive roads and sometimes soaked by heavy rains. There, we met families whose sons serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Parents proudly showed us pictures of their children in uniform, their eyes tearing with longing to see and embrace them once again. Even in the most remote areas, we saw homes with mezuzot, small synagogues with Hebrew names and cemeteries with Hebrew gravestones.

We brought the Bnei Menashe new prayerbooks in Hebrew and Mizo, Star of David pendants and hats with Hebrew inscriptions. Their delight was simply indescribable!

Everyone wanted to know when they could finally come to the Land of Israel. They asked us about current Israeli events. The younger ones expressed interest in joining crack IDF units. They embraced us, photographed themselves with us and asked us to stay a little longer. Some asked us to convey regards and letters to their children. Others gave us notes to place in the Western Wall.

Longing for Zion among the Bnei Menashe is reflected in prayers and in a powerful desire to move to the Land of Israel. We are not a religious family, but I participated in all their daily and Shabbat services, including the fasts of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av. Their prayers, recited in Hebrew, are authentic and sincere. They spend much time praying and sing much of the liturgy with great fervor.

Nowhere in the world have I ever heard Shma Israel recited as it was in the small Bnei Menashe synagogue in Aizawl. The congregation's overwhelming emotions touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes. They enunciate slowly in a loud and clear voice, pleading with the Creator to redeem them and bring them to the land of their ancestors.

We gathered at the synagogue for the Fast of 9 Av, noticing that it was full to capacity, including the women's section. Worshippers sat barefoot on the ground, mourning the destruction of the Temple. The service leader read the Book of Lamentations in Mizo, so that all would understand, his expressive voice reciting the words in a wailing tone. The congregation, too, wept in authentic sadness.

For the Bnei Menashe of Aizawl, the concluding words of Lamentations have a special meaning: "Wherefore dost Thou forget us for ever, and forsake us so long time? Turn Thou us unto Thee, O G'd, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old..." [Lamentations 5: 20-21]

Time passed quickly. A month had gone by and we were on our way home. A busload of youngsters with kipot and tzitzit, of course accompanied us to the airfield, singing loud and clear together with our son Uri, hoping to spend as much time as possible with him before we left.

They lined up to say goodbye and we embraced each and every one of them. So many tears flowed at our departure.

"Don't forget us," they said.

We promised not to forget, assuring them we would exert all efforts to help our brethren, the Bnei Menashe, return to their land and we will do so.

[ Published: August 23, 2004 ]

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