For the first time, some 200 Bnei Menashe living in northeastern India formally converted back to Judaism this past week by a team of Israeli rabbis organized by the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel. The Bnei Menashe claim descent from the tribe of Manasseh, one of the ten tribes exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian empire over 2,700 years ago. Some 7,000 of them reside primarily in the two Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. Shavei Israel arranged for a team of six dayanim (rabbinical court judges) to travel to India in order to carry out the conversions with the approval of Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. On March 30, Rabbi Amar issued an historic ruling in which he formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as “descendants of Israel” and agreed to restore them to the Jewish people.

“It was an incredibly emotional and spiritual experience,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, who accompanied the rabbis to India. “There were men and women, young and old, many of whom had been longing to return to the Jewish people for decades, and finally their dream has come true.” Each of the candidates for conversion was interviewed by a Beit Din (rabbinical court) consisting of three of the visiting rabbis, who sought to assess their level of Jewish knowledge and commitment. “The rabbis showed great sensitivity and understanding, and they were deeply impressed by the Bnei Menashe and their grasp of Jewish law and lore” said Freund. A particularly poignant moment, he said, came when 83-year old Sara Haunhar was informed by the Beit Din that she had been accepted into the Jewish people.

“She began to cry,” Freund recalled, “and when one of the rabbis asked her if she was OK, Mrs. Haunhar composed herself and told them: ‘All of my life, I have feared that I would die before meriting to see G-d’s Holy Land. But now that you have accepted me as a Jew, I am confident that I will soon be able to set foot on the land of my ancestors, the Land of Israel.” In recent years, over 800 Bnei Menashe have made aliyah thanks largely to Shavei Israel, which reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people. But that came to a halt in 2003, when then-Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the Shinui party decided to freeze their immigration.

After Poraz’ decision was announced, Freund turned to the Chief Rabbinate, and began lobbying to receive official rabbinical recognition of the Bnei Menashe as a means of circumventing the Interior Minister’s decision. The 200 Bnei Menashe converted last week all plan to move to Israel in the near future, and Freund believes that the remaining members of the community will eventually follow as well.

Freund added, “This is the breakthrough we have been waiting for, and we will do everything we can to bring this lost tribe home to Zion. G-d is gathering in His people, just as the Prophets foretold, and I am grateful to be playing my small part in this process.” Shavei Israel’s work is in accordance with Jewish Law and under the ongoing supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.

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