Ingathering the exiles
As Purim approaches, I thought I would share with you a heartwarming story of a unique Shabbaton held by our congregation in Ra'anana, Israel.
Michael Freund, a leading member of our Synagogue, is also the chairman of Shavei Israel – an organization which looks after the descendants of lost Jewish communities around the world. One of these communities is the Bnei Menashe. The Bnei Menashe live in the mountains of East India, and their tradition tells that they are the descendants of the tribes of Menashe and Efraim – the sons of Joseph. Their folklore and songs tell of being taken out of Egyptian slavery, miraculously crossing the Red Sea and being led by the clouds of glory through the desert to the land of Israel. Exiled with the destruction of the first temple, they traveled from Babylon through Afghanistan and China. In China they were once again enslaved. These people are builders; first the pyramids, then the Great Wall. They escaped persecution into India, settling in the states of Manipur and Mizoram.
Although their last Torah scrolls were destroyed by the Chinese, and most of their Jewish traditions have been lost over time, until eighty or so years ago, there were still hereditary priests amongst them who performed sacrifices – including one known in their own language as "Passover", where the sacrifice was consumed without breaking the bones and blood was smeared on the doorposts. Sound familiar? So do many of the Bnei Menashe stories.
With the British, Christian Missionaries came to India. Their bible stories rang a chord with the Bnei Menashe, who assumed that this was the religion they had "lost", converting en-masse to Christianity. Some years ago, one of their leaders had a dream, in which he was told that it was time to return to their true "lost" religion, Judaism, and be reunited with their brethren in the holy land of Zion. A small minority joined this vision, and sought contact with Israel and their fellow Jews. The path was not easy, but today, thanks to the work of Shavei Israel, there are operating Synagogues, Jewish schools, and other facilities. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has recognized them as "Descendants of Israel", and facilitates their formal conversion to normative Judaism. The Bnei Menashe number around 7,000 today – and about 1,000 have made Aliya and realizing their new-old dream of integrating into Israeli society.
Michael enlisted our congregation, and 35 families hosted around one hundred of the Bnei Menashe in Israel, and for us, the Shabbat was inspiring. A relaxing Shabbat "away" for these new Olim, with an opportunity to meet and relax with friends living in different places around the country also offered our community an amazing experience; learning their songs, listening to their words of Torah and joining their serious approach to prayer. They are an unbelievably warm and happy people, whose simple belief in the divine hand which has brought them to Israel can teach us all. After 2,700 years of wandering, they have come home. As if the miracle of what the State of Israel has become in such a short time after the Holocaust was not enough, the Bnei Menashe are further living proof of our stake in the land of Israel and that the Guardian of Israel has not forgotten his promise to us.
More information about the Bnei Menashe and the work of Shavei Israel in communities of lost Jews around the world can be found at www.shavei.org.