In a synagogue in northeast India, a group of men pray for the chance to “return home” to a country they have never seen and which their ancestors fled nearly 3,000 years ago.
“India is not our country,” says Haniel Reuben, 72, one of the eldest members of a tiny community that claims to have descended from the Manasseh — one of the biblical “lost tribes” of Israel exiled in 720 BC by Assyrian conquerors.
“Our forefathers migrated and settled here. Our home is Israel and we will be reunited with our people one day or another,” Reuben said.
The Bnei Menashe, as the community is known, comprise around 7,200 members of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribe who live in the northeast Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur near the border with Myanmar.
Their oral history tells of a centuries-long exodus through Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet and China, all the while adhering to certain Jewish religious practices, like circumcision.
In India they were converted to Christianity by 19th century missionaries and, in reading the bible, recognised stories from their own traditions that convinced them they actually belonged to the Jewish faith.
“We are the lost tribe,” insists Reuben, who lives in a ramshackle two-storey wooden home set against a scenic background of the misty, ash-coloured Manipuri foothills.
A lunisolar Jewish calendar hangs on the wall of his living room, while a mezuzah, or parchment, with verses from the Torah is fixed to the front door frame of the house in Manipur’s state capital Imphal.
He prays three times a day with his eyes facing west “towards Jerusalem.”
Lost and found
The ancestral claims of the Bnei Menashe — rejected by other members of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo — began to draw attention in the 1980s from Jewish organisations dedicated to identifying “lost Jews.”
In the late 1990s, groups of Bnei Menashe were brought to Israel where they formally converted and settled.
But the real breakthrough came in 2005 when Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar officially recognised the entire community as “descendants of Israel” — a crucial step in securing their “right of return.”
The process was halted by new Israeli government policy in 2007, but last July the Ministerial Committee on Immigration and Absorption, agreed to the return of the remaining 7,200 Bnei Menashe.
“It is a huge project,” said Yochanan Phaltual, the Indian representative for Shavei Israel, an Israeli-based organisation that reaches out to descendants of Jews around the world.
“It is very complicated as it requires the involvement of all government departments,” Phaltual said.
The head of Shavei Israel, Michael Freund, who has lobbied hard for years on behalf of the Bnei Menashe, said he was confident the immigration would finally happen.
“This is simply a bureaucratic process, and like all bureaucratic processes, it takes time,” Freund said in an e-mail.
“I hope that we will soon hear good news, and that the Bnei Menashe will be allowed to return to the land of their ancestors.”
Living as a tiny minority poses numerous problems for people like Talya Bem, a 45-year-old widow and mother of three, particularly when it comes to observing orthodox customs and rituals.
“I was born as a Jew,” Bem says. “I live in India but my heart is in Israel.
“I want to go there as soon as possible. We can’t follow all the commandments of the Torah here,” she adds tearfully, comforted by her 18-year-old daughter, dressed smartly in a long black skirt and purple top.
According to Phaltual, Bnei Menashe families almost never go out to eat in local restaurants or buy food from street vendors.
“Nothing is kosher here. All the eateries serve pork and we fear that our food will get mixed up with that,” he said.
Manipur has a primarily agrarian economy and is one of the least developed states in India — one of only five with a per capita income of less than 30,000 rupees ($600).
But Phaltual bristles at the suggestion that the Bnei Menashe are motivated less by religious feeling and more by the prospect of a more comfortable, material life in Israel.
“Most of our community is well-settled. It is a very wrong conception that economic considerations have fuelled our dream of return,” he said.
Phaltual and Reuben both converted to Judaism in the 1990s.
“We studied the Bible the way Christians do,” Reuben said. “But slowly as we grew up, we started discussing how some of our customs matched with the tradition followed by ancient Israelites.”
Preparing for the return
At the Churachandpur synagogue, which boasts a small “mikveh” or pond used for ritual purification, Shlomo Haokip, 26, has been giving Hebrew classes for the past four years to help people prepare for life in Israel.
“Knowing Hebrew is one of the pre-requisites for formal conversion to Judaism in Israel,” said Haokip, who lives with his family in the premises of the synagogue in Churachandpur town, 60 kilometres (40 miles) from Imphal.
“I hold classes for children during the summer vacation. We also organise Hebrew learning camps every now and then. It’s a difficult language, and even I am not an expert. But once I go to Israel, I will become more fluent.”
Some Bnei Menashe are less sanguine about the issue of return, and feel impatient about the delays in the immigration process and the religious and bureaucratic hoops they feel forced to jump through.
“The British baptised us during their rule of the country and we corrected the mistake by taking up Judaism again,” said 31-year-old Moses, who gave just one name.
“We are Jews, why should we undergo conversion again? No one should question our identity. We don’t feel welcome in India and we are not welcome in Israel. We are neither here nor there.”
His angry outburst is cut short by the women of his family.
“Justice will be done,” one of them tells him calmly. “We have waited for 3,000 years. We can wait a few years more.
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