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An aliya voyage across the millennia from India
By Michael Freund
EN ROUTE TO ISRAEL: For Arbi Khiangte, Monday evening's regularly scheduled El Al flight out of Bombay was far more than just an eight-hour long trek across the ocean.
Born and raised in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram, which straddles Burma and Bangladesh, the striking 21-year-old is a member of the Bnei Menashe, a group that traces its ancestry back to a lost tribe of Israel.
Since childhood, Khiangte has dreamed of moving to the land of her ancestors, the Land of Israel.
With a bright and infectious smile beaming with optimism, she told me of her strong desire to take part in building the country.
"I want to be a nurse," she said. "I want to help Israel, to heal the people there. I hope that I will succeed."
Now, after years of waiting, Khiangte will at last have a chance to do so. Together with 50 other members of her community, she made aliya this week as part of the first batch of 218 Bnei Menashe immigrants set to arrive here in the coming week.
As chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization responsible for assisting the Bnei Menashe both in India and in Israel, I was blessed to accompany Khiangte and the rest of the group on their voyage home to the Jewish state.
And while flying El Al is always an experience, this particular trip was something truly special.
The excitement in the air was palpable, despite the late hour and the obvious exhaustion that everyone clearly felt. The immigrants had left their hotel near the seashore at 4:30 p.m. in order to allow enough time for their bus to crawl its way through Bombay's daunting rush-hour traffic.
More than two hours later, they arrived at the airport, where they had to make their way through security, check-in and passport control before boarding the flight at around 11:00 p.m.
It had been a long and tiring afternoon, but that didn't stop Gavriel Joram, an energetic 14 year old, from joking around with some of his fellow Bnei Menashe, lightening the mood for all those present.
Previously, in a somewhat more serious frame of mind, Gavriel had shared with me his hopes and dreams for the future.
"I want to be a soldier, and to defend the country," he told me, the earnestness in his voice moving me deeply.
"I love Israel," he said, without a hint of the cynicism or sarcasm to which we in the West have become so accustomed.
What compelling proof for the power of the Jewish spirit, I thought to myself.
After all, the Bnei Menashe trace their ancestry back to Menashe, one of the 10 tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrians some 27 centuries ago.
Despite wandering in exile for so long, they managed to preserve a strong sense of pride and Jewish identity, keeping Shabbat, following the laws of family purity, circumcising newborn males on the eighth day and passing down across the generations a deeply held belief that they would one day go home again to Zion.
And now, here they are, doing just that.
Of the 218 Bnei Menashe that are making aliya, the youngest immigrant is an infant born just two weeks ago, while the oldest is 84-year-old Sara Haunhar, whose lifelong dream has always been "to set foot on G-d's Holy Land before I die."
Waiting for her at Ben-Gurion Airport was her grandson, who arrived here several years ago. Dressed in the green fatigues of the IDF, he proudly serves in an intelligence unit, bolstering the security of his fellow Jews.
It might sound somewhat silly, or even naive, but I truly believe that the Bnei Menashe aliya is a miracle of immense historical and even biblical significance.
Just as the prophets foretold so long ago, the lost tribes of Israel are being brought back from the Exile.
In the past decade, we succeeded in bringing nearly 1,000 Bnei Menashe to Israel under an arrangement with the Interior Ministry, whereby 100 Bnei Menashe were allowed to come here each year as tourists. They would study for conversion, and usually within a year of their arrival, they would pass the test and be accepted as Jews.
But all that came to an end in the summer of 2003, after we brought a group of 71 Bnei Menashe to Israel. The newly-appointed interior minister at the time, Avraham Poraz of the Shinui Party, decided to shut down the Bnei Menashe aliya once and for all, putting it into the equivalent of a bureaucratic deep-freeze.
As a result, thanks to the whims of one man, the 7,000 Bnei Menashe still in India suddenly found themselves with no hope of joining their loved ones in the Jewish state.
In the wake of that decision, I approached Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and asked him to consider issuing a ruling regarding the halachic status of the Bnei Menashe, just as the Rabbinate has done regarding other Diaspora communities in the past.
The chief rabbi readily agreed, and in March 2005, after studying the issue, he formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as "descendants of Israel," confirming their claim to Jewish ancestry. Then, in September 2005, he sent a rabbinical court to India, which formally converted the 218 Bnei Menashe who are now moving here this week.
This is the largest group of Bnei Menashe ever to come here at one time, and it is the first group to arrive in three and a half years. More importantly, however, it marks the first time that the Bnei Menashe are coming here as Jews, recognized as such by all concerned.
And so, the moment they stepped off the plane at Ben-Gurion airport yesterday, they became Israeli citizens in every respect, part and parcel of Israeli society.
Every once in a while, there are moments in life when you feel like you are not just witnessing history, but actually playing a part in helping to shape it. The flight out of Bombay was just such a moment.
And as I accompanied Arbi Khiangte and her fellow Bnei Menashe on their long journey home, I couldn't help but feel that we were witnesses to something far more significant than perhaps any of us might realize.
Because as much as we might think that we are helping the Bnei Menashe, it is the reverse that is true. It is they who strengthen us - with their faith, with their commitment and with their undying love for Zion.
At one point, when I asked Arbi Khiangte why she thinks it is so important to move to Israel, tears welled up in her eyes.
"The Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded us to live there," she says. "It is a mitzva, and it is one that my ancestors have been waiting for so long to fulfill. I am happy that we are now finally going to do so."
And so, I might add, are we.
Welcome home, Arbi, and may your arrival pave the way for the rest of the Bnei Menashe to follow.