Retired lawyer seeks to bring Judaism to the Bnei Menashe, who believe their ancestors were driven from Israel 2,700 years ago
Rabbis have branded a biblical tribe in northeast India heretical, even though its members chant songs from their mud-walled synagogues about returning to Zion. And Israel’s interior minister has banned them from the country. But Sam Pfeffer, a retired Chicago lawyer, is not deterred: If the tribe can’t enter Israel to get religion, he will take Judaism to them. On Sunday, Pfeffer boarded a plane with a hand-copied Torah he bought for $12,000 from a West Devon Avenue bookseller and is heading to the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram. There, members of the Bnei Menashe, who believe they are descendants of an Israelite tribe driven from the Holy Land some 2,700 years ago, will receive Pfeffer’s help in their efforts to convert officially to Judaism.
“They don’t have a Torah, which is the most important thing to have in Judaism,” said Pfeffer, 78. “That’s why I am bringing them one.” The Torah Pfeffer chose is not just any holy book; he has even reserved a separate seat for it on the plane. Believed to be crafted in the 1950s by a Jewish scribe, the Torah was recently restored, and Pfeffer was especially drawn to it because an image of the Western Wall is embroidered on the front. “Now the Torah goes on its long journey to the Bnei Menashe, and with God’s help, once they are absorbed into Israel, the Torah will go back to Israel, where I think it belongs,” said Avrom Fox, owner of Rosenblum’s World of Judaica bookshop, who sold the Torah to Pfeffer. “I hope Israel will open its doors to these people as they did to Jews from the former Soviet Union,” Fox said.
The road to converting the Bnei Menashe, however, is likely to be longer than Fox hopes. When Pfeffer arrives in the Indian states later this week, religious ceremonies will be held for the locals, who will see a Torah for the first time. Eventually, Pfeffer hopes Israel’s religious court will come to the region to perform bona fide conversions that would confer the legal right to immigrate to Israel, like all recognized Jews. Efforts to convert the Bnei Menashe began in earnest about 18 months ago, when Amishav, an Israeli organization committed to reaching out to “lost Jews” seeking to return to Israel, established a Hebrew school in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram. Over the last decade, Amishav brought about 800 members of the Bnei Menashe to Israel and helped them convert to Orthodox Judaism. They now live predominantly in the communities of Kiryat Arba, Gush Katif and Beit El. Last year, Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz decided to bar additional members of the tribe from immigrating to Israel, said Michael Freund, director of Amishav.
“Sadly, I can only conclude that Mr. Poraz’s policy is one of racism, which discriminates against the Bnei Menashe because of the color of their skin,” said Freund, referring to their dark skin and Asian features. The Bnei Menashe claim a connection to Judaism from the time of King Solomon, though these ties are disputed. At that time, the tribes of Israel split into two kingdoms. In 723 B.C. the Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel and took 10 tribes into exile, and they roamed across the world. Some say they escaped to China. The Indian tribe believes that Christian missionaries in the 19th Century forced them to abandon their Jewish identity and convert to Christianity.
In 1951, three years after the state of Israel was established, a local chief told the tribe that God had told him his people should return to their religion and original homeland. That began the movement for the Bnei Menashe to go to Israel. The tribe has tried to maintain rituals that resemble those in Judaism, including their use of the lunar calendar. They also chant songs about crossing the Red Sea and returning to Zion. But because theologians and politicians disagree on their connection to Judaism, the tribe is ineligible to immigrate to Israel under the country’s Law of Return.
Neither politics nor religious arguments discouraged Pfeffer, a member of the Beth Hillel congregation in Wilmette. Added a member of the Beth Hillel Congregation in Wilmette. While he was teaching English in Israel last year, Pfeffer met a woman from the Bnei Menashe who was among the 800 allowed into Israel. Pfeffer became determined to help the estimated 6,000 others left behind. When Pfeffer returned to the United States, he headed for the Indian consulate in Chicago to try to get a visa to visit Manipur and Mizoram. But officials told him the states were off-limits to foreigners. Pfeffer then used his connections through Jewish firms doing business in India and eventually received the permits.
His next obstacle was to find a Torah, and that’s when he found Rosenblum’s. “There are many things involved in getting a Torah,” Pfeffer said. “I had no idea that the Torahs go for so much money. Mr. Fox had just received a Torah from Israel so I told him I wanted to speak to my rabbi to make sure it met all the religious requirements.” Once his rabbi gave the green light, friends and Pfeffer pitched in the $12,000 for the Torah. Then he made plans with two members of the Beth Hillel Congregation to make the trip. “I am so excited, and the elders in the village are excited,” Pfeffer said. “They say they could have 1,000 to 2,000 people for the reading of the Torah because they never had a scroll to read from before.”
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