“The redemption of Bnei Menashe is just a part of the larger process of the redemption of the entire Jewish people,” Rabbi Yehuda Gin of Kiryat Arba said Tuesday. Gin, probably the first Bnei Menashe to become a rabbi, was reacting to Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s decision on Friday to allow the mass conversion, according to Orthodox Jewish criteria, of a group of 6,000 to 7,000 Indians who are thought to be the descendants of the lost tribe of Menashe. Gin provides spiritual leadership to the 90-family Bnei Menashe community in Kiryat Arba, the largest in Israel. The second largest is 50 families in Gush Katif. In all, there are about 800 Bnei Menashe here; the vast majority live beyond the Green Line.
“We came to Kiryat Arba, near the Machpela Cave where the patriarchs are buried, to return to our roots,” said Gin, who is a student of Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba. “We did not come to Israel in search of material well-being. “In places like Gush Katif, Ofra and Beit El, where the Bnei Menashe have settled, we feel we are strengthening the Jewish people in Israel. We are not here to make trouble, we’re here to contribute.” But Bnei Menashe’s decidedly right-wing affiliation and pro-settlement leanings have stoked opposition on the Left. “Over the years, one of the problems with convincing the Israeli government to bring Bnei Menashe to Israel has been the conception among left-leaning politicians that Bnei Menashe are simply fodder for the territories,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), a coalition of evangelical Christians that provides millions of dollars in financial support to Israel.
For more than two years, the immigration of Bnei Menashe was frozen by former interior minister Avraham Poraz, who opposed their settling in the territories. Before Poraz’s decision, there was a monthly flow of 80 Bnei Menashe, who were then converted here. Even if Interior Minister Ophir Paz-Pines continues Poraz’s policy, it will be impossible to do since Amar’s decision means that arriving Bnei Menashe will already have been converted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. However, Michael Freund, president of Shavei Israel, an organization that has been instrumental in bringing Bnei Menashe to Israel, said there was never an intention to direct members of the community specifically to the territories. “We tried to get them settled in Mitzpe Ramon and Dimona,” he said. “We turned to the religious kibbutzim in the Galilee. But every single place inside the Green Line refused for economic reasons.”
Freund explained that before Amar’s decision to begin converting Bnei Menashe before they came, individuals would arrive as visitors, devoid of rights to state aid. Only after they had completed a one-year conversion course did they become eligible for aid as new immigrants. Eckstein said that the IFCJ would help finance some of the tens of millions of dollars needed to educate and convert the Bnei Menashe, bring them to Israel and find them housing and employment. Eckstein admitted that the IFCJ’s evangelical donors saw the bringing of Bnei Menashe as another step toward the Christian view of final redemption, which sees the ingathering of Jewish exiles as a precursor to the second coming of Jesus. “But the ingathering of the exiles is not just a Christian concept, it is a Jewish one, and if evangelical groups can help us realize it, I see nothing wrong,” he said.
Eliahu Avihayil, who heads Ami Shav, has been hunting the 10 lost tribes for the last 45 years. He said he broke with Freund’s Shavei Israel in part over the issue of receiving funds from Christians. He admitted that bringing Bnei Menashe to Israel was a fulfillment of prophesies in Isaiah 11 and Ezekiel 37, among other places in the Bible. Avihayil also quoted rabbinic sources that state that the first of the tribes to be ingathered would be Menashe. “But all the great rabbis agree that the final redemption is not in our hands to bring about,” he said. Some of the ancient Jewish traditions preserved by Bnei Menashe for more than 2,000 years include circumcision by flint knife, purification of lepers with spring water and a bird sacrifice, the use of a kind of tallit with azure-colored [tehelet] fringes, and traditional songs that mention holy places in Israel. Bnei Menashe also have their own version of a Pessah sacrifice and bread without yeast.
However, Bnei Menashe only started actively practicing Judaism in recent decades. An aide to Amar said that a special rabbinic court would be established in the next few months that would travel to India periodically to convert Bnei Menashe, who are concentrated in two Indian regions – Mizoram and Manipur. A mikve is being built and educators who will prepare the Bnei Menashe for conversion will travel to India to set up courses. “The chief rabbi’s actions down here in the material world awaken the celestial world to push forward with redemption,” said Gin. Tzvi Khaute, 31, a community coordinator at Shavei Israel and a Bnei Menashe, called Amar’s decision an incredible breakthrough.
“It is a fulfillment of a dream after so many years of suffering in the Diaspora,” he said. “Physically, we have been in exile for so long, but our hearts were always in Zion.” He said that many could not control their emotions upon hearing of the decision. “People cried not just from the eyes. It came from the heart, from the innermost part of the being,” he said.
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