Bnei Menashe arrive in Israel
Bnei Menashe arrive in IsraelShavei Israel

Shavei Israel has been around for over a decade. Its mission is a unique one: to reach out to communities of people who claim to be long lost Jews. They became known early on for highlighting the plight of Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity. Today, their primary stage is in India, but they have expanded operations around the world.

"It's no surprise that we're finding traces in all kinds of locations," Shavei Israel Founder and Director Rabbi Michael Freund told Arutz Sheva. "It is intriguing that over the last 10 or 20 years, there's been a real awakening of Jewish descendants across the planet, throughout the 1st, 2nd and 3rd worlds. From Portugal to Peru, Brazil to Barcelona, people are looking to explore or reclaim Jewish roots or heritage."

Rabbi Freund describes a "broad agenda" where they are not solely focused on a total package for returning Jews that would include formal conversion and Aliyah to Israel. There are people who simply want to convert but stay where they are. There are others who may choose more later but simply want to be acquainted with their heritage at this point. For some, organized religion is not even an option.

But conversion is a critical component of Shavei Israel's work. Because there can be no certainty after dozens of generations of someone's matrilineal ancestry, it is a foregone conclusion anyone from these communities would have to undergo a conversion to assure his or her status among the Jewish people. 

Rabbi Freund emphasized that it was the Israeli Rabbinate, not Shavei Israel, that oversaw that process.

"We don't convert anyone," he said. "We assist people and prepare them for it. We guide them spiritually and are there before during after the conversion. But we leave this to the Beit Din."

When asked about Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum's role in the organization - who also sits on the official Rabbinical Court for Conversion of Minors, Rabbi Freund clarified that he was "a volunteer with the organization. His role there is only with minors, so he doesn't engage in conversions for people involved in the process also attached to Shavei Israel in any case."

Bnei Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram

The Bnei Menashe are unique for their geographic distance from Israel and their claims to be primarily descended from the Tribe of Menashe, one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel when Sanheriv swept through the Northern Kingdom 200 years before Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. If that argument is true, the time gap between now and their ancestors' break from the Jewish people would still be the longest of all the communities Shavei Israel works with.

Since starting work with that community, 3,000 people have been assisted by the organization to make the journey to Jerusalem, but 7,000 are still waiting.

"Aliyah had been shut down by the Olmert government in 2007," he noted. "We brought 230 people that year and then Olmert shut it down for political reasons."

"I waged an intensive lobbying campaign to resume the Aliyah," he continued. "Thank God, that happened and then in October 2012 the Netanyahu government passed a resolution allowing 275 Bnei Menashe to come to Israel as part of a sort of pilot program. In October 2013, a new resolution permitted 900."

Aliyah, though, would not necessarily be the best term for the process Bnei Menashe go through. They come to Israel on special visas in order to convert to Judaism, then receive something known as a teudat hamarah upon conversion that allows them to apply for citizenship as Jews. Freund takes pains to point out though that Bnei Menashe are not going through "mass conversions."

"There is no such thing as mass conversion in Judaism," he said. "It's a personal transformative process."

"Every family in the community goes through that process," he continued. "They come together to Israel and study as a group, but when the time comes the families will go before the Beit Din and each member is individually interviewed by the Beit Din. There have been some cases where part of the family was converted yet other members were asked to continue studying before finishing."

There is an interest to allow families to experience this together and not feel they are somehow torn apart. There are other considerations that come into play also for husbands and wives, but the ability of the conversion court to reject or delay a candidate maintains the process' integrity.

"All Bnei Menashe who come to Israel go through the conversion process set up by former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and which current Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef adopted and has continued," he stated. "At the end of the day, we want the Bnei Menashe to be accepted here in Israel and don't want people casting doubt or aspersions on their Jewish status. It is important for us, the Rabbinate and for the converts themselves that the conversions be comprehensive and complete."

Nobody Expects to Reverse the Spanish Inquisition

The most famous project Shavei Israel has had though is by far and away work with Jews who descend from countries once under the thumb of the Spanish monarchy and its infamous Inquisition. Beyond Spain and Portugal, that has led to a growing amount of work for the group’s emissaries in Latin America and even southern Italy.

“It cuts across all socioeconomic boundaries," he said. "I've met professors in northern Portugal who have formally returned to Judaism and met poor people in northern Brazil who’ve undergone a similar process. They’re looking for an anchor in their family histories.”

Freund says that there are number of reasons they are seeing such explosive demand now to return to Judaism. One reason he cites is a confluence of democracy in Spain and Portugal, plus the experiment with the European Union (EU).

“Only in the past 30-40 years have they undergone transformations into western democracies," he said. "The power of the church has also declined significantly.”

“People in those two countries feel freer to express their Bnei Anousim identity and to explore it more openly than was once possible in the past," he said. "Add to that as a lot of academics talk about living in a post-modern world and the European Union project to knock down borders and efforts to forge common European identity hasn’t worked well.”

What Rabbi Freund is describing is a fissure through which his organization has been able to step in at the right time. When asked to quantify the work with Latin Americans or Iberians, he describes that in some countries like Colombia, there are easily 3,000 people who have formed their own federations of Bnei Anousim Jews.

“There are some 20 independent communities of Bnei Anousim," he said. "They formed their own communities with their own mikvah, spiritual leader, and more. Close to 3,000 people are actively living Jewish lives even though they haven't undergone any formal return or conversion."

"We are active there - we initiated a nationwide federation networking those Bnei Anousim community," he continued. "They are serious people. “

He does not dare guess if they will follow the organized return of the Bnei Menashe, but in his attempts to quantify the phenomenon to return to Judaism has described a significant difference maker in some countries’ Jewish population.

“In the EU project we see an effort to dilute national identities and replace them with continent-wide European identity, but now people are already asking themselves questions about who they really are, more than they did in the past.”

Rabbi Freund closed by taking to task anyone who thinks his work is unnecessary or a diversion of resources away from members of the established Jewish community.

“I believe we the Jewish people have a historical, moral and religious responsibility to reach out to descendants of Jews and bring them home," he stated. "They are our lost brethren."

"Many of them only via their ancestors at no fault of their own were kidnapped from us," he added. "If we have an opportunity to bring their descendants back, then how could we possibly not do so and slam the door on them?

“People by nature are tribal and have innate need to id with something larger than ourselves," he concluded. "[There's a] sports team analogy: 'We won. WE won the championship' - as if they were on the field - [which] points to a psychological reality to feel connected to something beyond themselves."

"We see that in the EU project, one hand to dilute national identities and replace with continent-wide european identity, but now people are already asking themselves questions about identity. People asking a lot more questions about who they are or what they are than in the past."