Rabbi Amar and the Bnei Menashe
Rabbi Amar and the Bnei MenasheGabi Newman
Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, along with members of his staff, paid a special visit to Shavei Israel’s Absorption Center in Givat Haviva to congratulate the 274 Bnei Menashe immigrants from India who arrived in the Jewish state in recent months as part of a renewed wave of aliyah (immigration).

According to participants, the meeting between the Bnei Menashe and the Chief Rabbi was by all accounts remarkable. As the Chief Rabbi’s car approached the absorption center, the Bnei Menashe literally ran out to meet it, singing and dancing along the way until the car could drive no further. The Bnei Menashe then escorted Rabbi Amar into the center where their enthusiasm continued.

Video: Gabi Newman

A group of four recent immigrants, led by Shavei Israel “Fellow” Avraham Haokip, entertained the rabbis with guitar and song – including a performance of the Bnei Menashe composition “Aliyah” and another using words from the Passover Seder – “V’hi sh’amda,” the latter telling the story of how G-d has saved the Jewish people in generation after generation from those who have tried to destroy them.

The organizers say that it was a fitting message for the arrival of a community that traces its roots back 2,700 years to the expulsion of the Ten Lost Tribes by the Assyrians, and that has nevertheless managed to survive – and flourish – in some very distant lands. For Haokip, it was particularly emotional: he has only now been reunited with his parents, who made aliyah from India with Shavei Israel’s help in 2007.

But it was a group of Bnei Menashe children who stole the show, reciting not only the Shema Israel prayer, but the entire text of the 10 Commandments before their visibly moved guests. In addition, new immigrant Amos Touthang went so far as to address the rabbis in Hebrew, which he learned entirely through the classes Shavei Israel provided to the Bnei Menashe in India.

There were also more formal presentations during the meeting with the Chief Rabbi, which lasted an hour and a half. Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund surveyed the various activities Shavei is running to enable both the physical and spiritual absorption of the Bnei Menashe, including classes in Hebrew and Judaism, assistance with Israeli bureaucracy, housing, meals, prayer services and more. He also described the successful pace of the conversion progress. Indeed, just a few days after Rabbi Amar’s visit, the final group of Bnei Menashe completed their formal return to Judaism.

Shavei Israel’s Director of Bnei Menashe Aliyah, Rabbi Hanoch Avitzedek, who was in Givat Haviva last week for the meeting, says that the speed in which the conversions have taken place is nothing short of a “miracle. We finished everything in under two months,” he says. “Normally this can take at least two years.” Rabbi Avitzedek attributes the quick movement to several factors, chief among them that “the Bnei Menashe were already living a religious Jewish life in India and came here very well-prepared..”

Rabbi Amar commented during the meeting that the entire process, which Shavei Israel has spearheaded, should serve as a “model” for immigration and conversion for other Jewish communities, and not just the Bnei Menashe.

The next phase of that process – placing the Bnei Menashe in permanent homes in the cities of Acre and Migdal HaEmek – will be even more crucial.

“Each place where they are going,” explains Rabbi Avitzedek, “decided quite some time ago to ‘adopt’ the Bnei Menashe community, to help them in all aspects, social and religious. We are not just ‘dropping them’ somewhere and that’s it. There will be a big community waiting for them. And after this, we will continue to be involved, to help them to find jobs and for their children to join the mainstream education system in Israel.