Report from India: the inspiring aliyah of the Bnei Menashe

Report from India: the inspiring aliyah of the Bnei Menashe

Street scene in Manipur (photo: Laura Ben-David)

Street scene in Manipur (photo: Laura Ben-David)

When Shavei Israel’s new director of marketing Laura Ben-David visited India for the first time last month to accompany a group of 50 Bnei Menashe on their journey from Manipur to Tel Aviv, she was expecting to meet people living in primitive conditions, lacking most of the comforts the Western world takes for granted.

At first, her expectations were confirmed. The hour and a half drive from the airport at Imphal in Manipur to the Shavei Israel center in Kangpokpi was a hair-raising adventure, weaving across lanes with potholes outnumbering paved sections, as she hurtled deeper into rural northeastern India. Finally settled into her guesthouse, her shower involved a bucket of hot water where she was instructed to adjust the water temperature by “mixing in cold water.”

“Have I succeeded in gaining your sympathies for the Bnei Menashe?” Ben-David writes in the second of a fascinating four-part blog series on The Times of Israel website. “Then I have done wrong. Because the Bnei Menashe don’t see their lives in that way at all.”

What Ben-David is addressing is the impression many in the West have that the Bnei Menashe are an impoverished people are seeking an economic upgrade through aliyah. The reality, if anything, was the opposite, she found.

“The Bnei Menashe, with their ways that hearken back to simpler times, are a proud people with a quiet dignity whose dedication to Torah and Judaism is not easily matched,” Ben-David writes. “I’ve heard people talk about the Bnei Menashe as if they were living in slums and aliyah was their ticket out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their desire to go to Israel is not out of seeking a better life; in fact, moving to Israel is fairly guaranteed to be quite challenging for them. Rather their desire is to fulfill the dream of the Jewish people, despite the challenges.”

The challenges facing the Bnei Menashe once they get to Israel burst another erroneous misconception many have about the community. The families she met in India “ranged from simple farm workers to highly educated professionals. For which of these people was aliyah going to be their ticket to a better life? The farm workers who would, at best, get farming jobs or other blue collar work? Or the highly educated professionals [who face] the huge learning curve of the Hebrew language, plus whatever different cultural nuances exist in their professions.”

Here’s an example of the kind of deep sacrifice the Bnei Menashe are making in their pursuit of living a fully Jewish life in the Land of Israel: one of the young men Ben-David met “had just completed his Masters degree and was about to go for his doctorate in social anthropology but gave it up to make aliyah.” The Bnei Menashe, she adds “have no problem making a sacrifice for something that they believe in.”

Laura Ben-David joined Shavei Israel in August of this year after spending six years as the social media coordinator for the aliyah group, Nefesh b’Nefesh. Originally from Monsey, New York, she wrote about her own immigration to Israel in the book MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal. She is an avid photographer; all of the pictures accompanying this article are her originals.

Ben-David’s first day in Kangpokpi was another eye opener. “Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw,” she writes. “Entering the courtyard of the Shavei Israel center – a Jewish center complete with synagogue and mikveh [ritual bath] – I saw many, many hundreds of Bnei Menashe of all ages from all over the region participating in a beautiful ceremony in honor of Shavei Israel’s founder Michael Freund. Choirs and dance troupes from all over had each prepared special programs. There were decorations, including hundreds of Israeli flags, and everyone was dressed in his or her finest or in costumes native to the region for their performances. One of the first songs they sang was Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. It was also one of the first (of many) times I cried on this trip. Here we were in this most remote region…and yet their hearts – and their dreams – are in Israel.”

In India with Ben-David was a team from Israel’s Channel 10 television. One of the TV crewmembers, reporter Roy Sharon, shared with Ben-David that he had been skeptical about the Bnei Menashe before arriving. “He figured at most it might be exotic and interesting, but he was blown away,” Ben-David writes. “During Shabbat services, he was sincerely amazed that being thousands of kilometers from Israel, in this remote place, was the first time he could remember being so incredibly moved by Jewish prayers.”

Ben-David describes her Shabbat in India: As 200 Bnei Menashe packed into a “simple wooden synagogue in their Shabbat finery and simultaneously covered their eyes to recite each word of the Shema Israel prayer slowly, out loud and in unison,” Ben David writes that she marveled over “the observance, the dedication, the LOVE of the Bnei Menashe in every song sung, in every blessing recited, in every performance of the most minute Jewish rite and ritual. My words cannot do justice to the deep concentration [and] the sincere meaning behind the words.”

Ben-David came away from India with a deeper understanding of the Bnei Menashe and their place in Jewish history. “For generations, the Bnei Menashe have accepted Judaism with all its lifestyle challenges. All the more so for their living in a remote region where they have limited resources and support. While they all hope to make aliyah and they wait patiently for the day that they may all join their brethren in Israel, right now they are practicing Judaism in a most beautiful, inspiring way and they have much to be proud of!”

We all have much to be proud of as we do everything we can to help this people from one of the most distant corners of the world come home to Israel. Your donations make it all possible. If you found Ben-David’s first hand stories moving, there are nearly 7,000 unique stories still waiting in India to inspire and amaze you. Please visit our Support page and become part of the magic.

Here are some pictures from the trip. Enjoy!