Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport was the setting for an emotional homecoming Tuesday morning, when the first planeload of 51 Bnei Menashe immigrants arrived here on an El Al flight from Bombay.

The Jewish Agency, headed by Ze'ev Bielski, will oversee the community's arrival in the Jewish state, as well as various aspects of its absorption in the country. The newcomers are moving into absorption centers in the northern Israeli towns of Karmiel and Upper Nazareth. The youngest of the Bnei Menashe immigrants who arrived Tuesday was a two-week-old infant, while the oldest was an 84-year-old grandmother.

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A sub-group of the Shinlung tribe, who reside in the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, near the border with Burma and Bangladesh, the Bnei Menashe claim descent from the tribe of Menashe (Manasseh), one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrians over 2,700 years ago. A legendary ancestor of theirs, known variously as Manmasi, Manasseh or Menasia, is identified among the Bnei Menashe as the Biblical Manasseh son of Joseph. In addition, the community has several traditions strongly indicative of Israelite origins.

Last year, at the initiative of the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as "descendants of Israel," and later sent a rabbinical court to India to oversee their process of return to the Jewish people. The court formally converted 218 Bnei Menashe back to Judaism, including those who arrived in Israel this week. The remainder will be making Aliyah (immigrating) in the coming days, making it the largest group of Bnei Menashe ever to come to Israel at once. While ensuring the right of any Indian citizen to emigrate freely, and while recognizing the Bnei Menashe as Jews, Indian authorities expressed opposition to the mass conversion carried out in their territory.

Over the past decade, nearly 1,000 members of the community have moved to Israel, thanks largely to the efforts of Shavei Israel. Up until three years ago, a total of 100 Bnei Menashe were allowed to come to Israel each year as tourists, where they would study towards conversion before obtaining Israeli citizenship. But in June 2003, then-Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, of the now-defunct radically secularist Shinui party, decided to freeze the Bnei Menashe Aliyah. Minister Poraz's move prompted Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund to turn to Israel's Chief Rabbinate, thereby paving the way for the group's return.

Press "Play" below to listen to an IsraelNationalRadio interview with Michael Freund.

Another 7,000 Bnei Menashe remain in India, awaiting permission from the Israeli government to move here, but Freund is optimistic that they too will eventually be allowed to come.

"It was an incredibly moving experience," Freund said, having spent the Sabbath with the group in Bombay and accompanied the immigrants on the flight to Israel this morning. "After so many years of obstacles and impediments," he said, "we are at last witnessing the resumption of the Bnei Menashe's return to their ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel. The Aliyah of the Bnei Menashe is nothing less than a miracle. No human being can stand in the way of the Divine plan for Israel, and however bleak things might appear to be, we can take comfort in the fact that the return of the Jewish people from the four corners of the Earth continues to unfold."

Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund
A young immigrant sheds tears of joy as she is interviewed by Russian media
For some, it was a long flight
The first meal in the Land of Israel

Among the new immigrants on this morning's flight was 14-year old Gavriel Joram, who could barely contain his excitement at finally being able to set foot in the Jewish state. "My dream is to join the IDF and to defend this country. I love Israel," he said. "After the army, I want to study Torah and become a rabbi."

Through its team of emissaries, Shavei Israel operates three Jewish educational centers in India for the Bnei Menashe, where they study Hebrew and Jewish tradition. All of the organization's work is in accordance with Jewish law and is under the guidance and supervision of Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

Aliyah clerks complete the initial processing of the new immigrants

One of the littlest immigrants waits with Mommy for an Israeli ID card

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