Rivka Hilsia may have grown up in Manipur, India, but as a member of the Bnei Menashe, her heart has always been with Israel.
Rivka is just one of the 4,500 Bnei Menashe members who were granted permission to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel), due to their belief that they are direct descendants of Menashe (Manasseh), one of the ten tribes of Israel which split from the southern kingdom of Judea.
Her ancestors wandered through Central Asia and the Far East and finally settled across two Indian villages, Manipur and Mizoram. Despite being isolated from the rest of the Jewish world, the Bnei Menashe have continued to devoutly follow their faith, but it was only until the late 1990s that they were allowed to fulfill their aliyah dreams.
Yet for Hilsia and many others like her, the aliyah process was not always a dream. Today, she is a student at the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), but her road to success was a long one.
Now, Hilsia explains the challenges inherent in her aliyah, what drew her to the College, her plans for the future, and what makes living in Israel so special.
What was your aliyah experience like?
“I made Aliyah seven years ago with my mother and sister,” Hilsia recalled. “We arrived here as a community from the Bnei Menashe. The aliyah experience from India to Israel and being absorbed into the country was both an exhilarating and challenging experience. It’s like your entire life changes in one day.”
“We expected challenges, of course. My parents didn’t speak any English and were too old to learn Hebrew, but we made aliyah knowing it was going to be difficult because this is our land. Usually, parents are the ones who look after the children, but in this new country where they can’t communicate and fear people may think they’re stupid, they felt helpless and couldn’t look after us in the ways they hoped to.
“So, we had to look after them. We took them to offices, clinics and general errands. My mother worked long 12-hour days in a factory. It was grueling, but it was enough to provide for us. However, when she got back from work, there was little energy left for us, but there was no choice.
“My sister and I had our own challenges, too. Adapting to the country socially and mentally was difficult and, at times, it felt like we needed to channel a confidence we didn’t really have to get by. Caring for our parents was also time-consuming, so we couldn’t have the childhood that most of our peers had. Many of us didn’t even have the option of higher education, because we were expected to earn a salary immediately after school. I’m so privileged that my life diverged from this path.
“Yet, despite the challenges, we strove to be happy because these obstacles — however great — did make life interesting and made us stronger. I’m proud of the woman I’ve become and my family for sticking together during that difficult period. Most of all, I’m grateful to Hashem, who gave me the strength to be in Israel and grapple with whatever life throws at me.”
Why did you want to come to Israel?
“We are Jews, and this is our land. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life on land that belongs to someone else. This is, simply, where I need to be,” she emphasized.
What brought you to JCT?
“This is a place where you are able to study both technology and holy Scripture. I think it’s important to have faith, so we feel led to a righteous way of life. It’s important for me to feel close to God, and this framework makes it possible for me to do that and pursue a robust academic degree at the same time.”
What are you studying there?
“I’m currently enrolled in a master's program in Bioinformatics,” Hilsia responded. “I saw myself interested in many different scientific subjects — physics, chemistry, etc. I discovered this discipline that combines all of these subject matters and I was drawn to the variety and interdisciplinary nature of this area of study.”
“I’m really enjoying my time at the College so far. To be religious and to be an educated woman is how I want to build my life here. This was my vision prior to coming to Israel, so why not do it in the best way possible?
“So, in many ways, JCT is ideal for people like me who want a balanced life with regard to the holy and secular. I’m so happy I found Machon Lev and that it exists.”
What are the plans for the future?
“I’m not entirely sure yet,” she admitted. “I love what I’m studying, and I know I want to delve more in technological development as a potential career path. This is a lucrative discipline with many different avenues for advancement.”
“On a personal level, of course, I’m looking forward to getting married and having a family.”