Shabbat with the Bnei Menashe…where do I begin? Shall I start by counting the number of times my eyes welled up with tears from overwhelming emotion? Or perhaps I should preface by explaining just what Shabbat means to every one of them from the youngest to the oldest? Or maybe by explaining how this one Shabbat, in a remote, region of India was one of the most inspiring, incredible Shabbats of my life? Now that I have started with all of that, I will attempt to put some of the incredible emotion to words.
I should mention that I am not much of a synagogue-goer. While Shabbat for me is inviolable, spending any length of time in shul is difficult for me. As I was coming to what, for me, was a relatively unknown community with what I imagined were weak religious skills and participation, I felt something of an obligation to set an example. There was no need. 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, put my own pathetic performance to shame.
I spent much time thinking about where the Bnei Menashe stand in the Jewish world. One conversation kept running through my mind; shortly before I left Israel I ran into a rabbi and leader among American Jews in Israel. He scoffed at my remarks about Bnei Menashe, indicating that they weren’t Jewish at all. It shook me… was he right? Was the whole ‘lost tribe’ thing a fantasy, accidental or otherwise? Was all of our assistance an exercise in folly? And then, during the Friday night services, they began reciting the Shema…
Even as I am writing these words, I am tearing up anew. Two-hundred Bnei Menashe, packed into their simple wooden synagogue in their Shabbat finery, simultaneously covered their eyes and recited each word of the shema slowly, out loud, in unison:
“Shema Yisrael Hashem Elo-keinu Hashem Echad!”
Hear O’ Israel the Lord Our G-d the Lord is One!
My words cannot do justice to the deep concentration, the sincere meaning behind their words, the utter dedication… were it only so in our own jaded congregations! Who am I – who is anyone – to question the sincerity of these beautiful people? A community that defied logic and sincere attempts to turn them away from Torah in recent decades. A community that maintained its strength and commitment despite utter isolation.
Another person I had spoken with recently wondered skeptically about the history of the Bnei Menashe. ‘I understand that they’re accepted by the Rabbinate but how do you really know that they’re from the lost tribe of Menashe?’ he asked pointedly.
I’ve thought about this myself. How can we possibly know? Do we just go on blind faith? Can all of the evidence be merely coincidence? However, after seeing them in real life, the real question came to mind: Does it really matter? Their love and thirst for Torah, their deep yearning for Israel, their incredible commitment to mitzvot (I can’t hold a candle to their commitment and no one questions my Judaism…) Yes, Judaism is a ‘birthright’ but it is so much more.
For generations the Bnei Menashe have accepted Judaism with all of its lifestyle challenges. All the more so for their living in a remote region where they have limited resources and support, and it would be so much easier to just embrace Christianity or one of the myriad other religions practiced there.
I wasn’t the only one to go through this type of thought process. I’ve mentioned in my other pieces the team from Channel 10 that was with us in Manipur. Israeli reporter Roy Sharon was there with a cameraman, and they had been interviewing a number of Bnei Menashe and filming the proceedings for their own piece. In a candid conversation with Roy I found out that he, in fact, was very skeptical about the Bnei Menashe before arriving. He figured at most it might be exotic and interesting; he was blown away. 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.
On Shabbat morning we were amazed seeing more than 100 kids sitting through children’s services of prayers, songs and stories for at least three hours. (We were all wondering what drugs they must use…I mean, three hours!) I was watching off to the side when one of the teachers asked me to teach the children something. After all, she explained, they are limited to what they know and like to learn something new from every guest.
With nothing prepared, I grasped in my mind for something meaningful. Knowing how every one of them desperately wishes to make Aliyah, I had to turn my usual ‘make Aliyah’ speech inside-out and speak from my heart. I told them that Torah is portable; Judaism is portable. Learning Torah is something we can do anywhere. This is one of the reasons that our Torah and the Jewish people have survived this long – thrived, in fact – no matter how divided and spread out we may have been. While they all hope to make Aliyah, and 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 have much to be proud of.
Within a few days, fifty of those Bnei Menashe were traveling with us on a multi-flight trip to their new lives in Israel. I’ve been on lots of flights escorting people making Aliyah. But this was my first time escorting a group with people who were experiencing not only their first trip to Israel, but their first time on a plane. Some were utterly lost, nervous, not really knowing what to expect.
It struck me then: when I had told people I would be making this journey to India, many thought I was brave, adventurous… But really? Big deal! It was all organized down to the last detail. And yes, I’ve been through all the challenges of making Aliyah as well. But for them? It was TRULY a challenging adventure into the unknown. And they have embraced it with all their heart and soul, come what may. THAT is truly brave.
I traveled to India to help people move to Israel. I could not imagine just how much the people would move my heart.
Click here to read more of my posts chronicling the homecoming of Bnei Menashe.
Click here to hear me speak about my trip on Voice of Israel with Judy Lash Balint.
[Addendum: Since posting this series people have asked how they can help. Shavei Israel is a private organization that works tirelessly to help the Bnai Menashe and other lost Jews to return. Donations are graciously accepted.]