Seventy-eight members of India's Bnei Menashe community entered Israel by bus from Jordan on Thursday and 40 more were scheduled to arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport early Friday morning on an El Al flight from Mumbai (Bombay), according to Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, whose organization organized the operation.

Freund said that the "Aliyah" (Jewish immigration to Israel) operation had been coordinated with all relevant government authorities. The Bnei Menashe entered Israel on tourist visas and will undergo conversion to Judaism in Israel. Then they will receive permanent status as citizens. These details were worked out in an agreement with the former Interior Minister, Meir Sheetrit, who is now Minister of Construction and Housing.

Bnei Menashe Children in Kiryat Arba

Yigal Henshin, the Bnei Menashe community's president, said Friday: "This is a historical day for us. We have come home."

The Bnei Menashe claim descent from the tribe of Menashe, one of the ten tribes exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian empire over 2,700 years ago. They reside primarily in the two Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. In recent years alone, over 800 members of the community have made Aliyah, thanks largely to the efforts of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people. They reside mainly in Kiryat Arba, south of Jerusalem, and Beit El and Ofrah, north of Jerusalem.

Shavei Israel locates and identifies long-lost Jewish communities. A total of more than 1,700 Bnei Menas

'This is a historical day for us. We have come home.'

he have immigrated to Israel and about 5,000 are still in India, waiting to come.

Until six years ago, the Interior Ministry allowed 100 Bnei Menashe to come to Israel as tourists annually. They then converted here and became Israelis, a policy that was ended by then-Interior Minister Avraham Poraz (Shinui), who reportedly preferred to have no olim (immigrants) from the group rather than increase the number of G-d fearing Jews in Israel who support Israel's right to sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.

To overcome the Poraz's ban on immigration of this lost Jewish community, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate agreed to send a Beit Din (rabbinical court) on its behalf to India to formally convert the Bnei Menashe to Judaism there. More than 200 Bnei Menashe were converted by the Beit Din and arrived in Israel at the end of 2006 as new immigrants. But then the Indian authorities forced Shavei Israel to stop the program because conversion is against the law in India. Hence the need for the new system of entry on tourist visas and conversion in Israel.

The existence of the Bnei Menashe, known in India as the Manmassi tribe, was publicized in the Jewish world about 30 years ago by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil. When it was observed that the tribe's members maintained certain ancient traditions unlike any observed in the Indian subcontinent, investigation revealed that the

Bnei Menashe claim descent from the tribe of Menashe, one of the ten tribes exiled by the Assyrians over 2,700 years ago

rituals were of Jewish origin.

The Bnei Menashe who arrived on Thursday were put up in Midrashiyat Noam in Pardess Chana (near Hadera) – an institution with deep roots in the religious-Zionist movement – where they will study Judaism over the coming months and eventually undergo conversion to Judaism.

The Mayor of Pardess Chana, Chaim Ga'ash, has been less than enthusiastic about the new arrivals, however. Ga'ash said that the arrival of the Bnei Menashe had not been coordinated with him or with the Ministry of Absorption of Aliya. Ga'ash has even gone so far as to raise the possibility that the Bnei Menashe are in fact "foreign workers in disguise," because as he put it, "it makes no sense that a group of immigrants would arrive in Israel secretly.

Rabbi Eliyahu Birnboim of Shavei Israel said that the Bnei Menashe have been keeping the Jewish mitzvot, or rules and commandments, for at least the last four decades. He also stressed that the immigrants were well off materially in India and came to Israel because of Zionism.

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar sent a delegation of two rabbinic judges to India about three years ago, to conduct a thorough investigation of the community and its origins. After a review of their findings, it was decided that the Bnei Menashe are in fact descendants of Israel and should be drawn closer to the Jewish people.