In 2001, Elana Benyamin and her mother were among the roughly 1,000 Indian Jews who made Aliyah, the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel. The decision to move from their native India to Israel was not easy but it was the fulfillment of a dream. “We always dreamed of coming home to Israel,” Benyamin said.

Benyamin, a member of the Bnei Menashe community, was born and raised in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram.

Bnei Menashe Jews have gotten increased attention in recent years since Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called them “a living bridge” between the people of India and the people of Israel in October 2014. Netanyahu has made a considerable effort to develop a good relationship with the leaders of India. From India’s side, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is putting in similar efforts to bridge the relations between the two nations.

“We reviewed the progress in our relations. Our discussions were wide-ranging and intensive. Marked by desire to do more,” said Modi, who visited Israel in July last year.

Like other immigrants to Israel, Benyamin has gone through several layers of cultural changes. She has become Israeli but she still clings to her Indian identity. For example, even though she wears the Western dress typical of Israelis, she also still wears a traditional Indian necklace around her neck. She adheres to Jewish dietary laws, but still enjoys Indian curries at times. Her day-to-day dilemmas, because of her ethnic duality, are nothing when compared to others who are coping up with bigger issues like finding jobs or searching for better ones.

When Benyamin’s family came to Israel, they had to go through a formal conversion process, since the members of the Bnei Menashe community are not considered Jews, according to the Halakha, the Jewish law, and jurisprudence. In 1948, 2,000 Indian Jews from different states such as Cochin, Kerala, and Maharashtra came on Aliyah. The Jewish state was newly-formed and immigrant Jews were welcomed as citizens and as Jews.

Today, the situation is different. The Bnei Menashe have to go through a conversion in Beit Din, a rabbinical court that imposes other traditional requirements. The conversion requires immersion in a ritual bath and the study of basic Judaism for both men and women, as well as ritual circumcision for men.

“Before going to the rabbinic court we had to learn Judaism till six months. Then we could go to Beit Din,” Benyamin said. Her English and Hebrew are fluent, but she is worried about other immigrants who are having problems learning Hebrew.

Communities of Bnei Menashe speak in Tibeto-Burman languages depending on the region, they belong to tribes such as Mizo, Kuki and Chin. After years of speaking their mother tongue, learning Hebrew becomes difficult for many people, but it is an important skill if they want to apply for better jobs. According to the Hindustan Times, there are around 33,000 Indian Jews who have migrated to Israel since 1948.

 

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They come with the hope of blending into Israeli society but, since learning a new language can bes a challenge, many of them have settled for unsatisfactory jobs. Men in the community often find jobs as security guards while women work as school cleaners. This is what happens in towns like Kyriat Arba, located in the West Bank, where around 800 people from the Bnei Menashe have settled since migrating to Israel.

KANISHK KARAN/GODLAND

“Bnei Menashe are facing economic and social problems, when they immigrate mostly empty handed in Israel. They have to take any job which is available until they find a suitable job according to their experiences,” said Manlun, a social worker at the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, who identified herself only by her first name.

Manlun works in Kyriat Arba, a town in the outskirts of Hebron, where Jewish settlements are increasing. In the 1970s, settlers were residing in Kiryat Arba for ideological purposes but now they are residing for cheaper living. In 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu approved a tender to build 3,736 housing units in the region. As reported by the Washington Post, the units will be built in numerous settlements, including in Hebron and other disputed areas. Although this might not act as a direct relief, an increase in housing units might provide reduced rents and land in the area.

Social Support System

Surprisingly, the Israeli government has decreased the budget for social maintenance of Bnei Menashe. In 2017, the Ministry of Absorption and Immigration allocated $355,000 to the Bnei Menashe, down from $500,000 in 2016. These tenders are usually picked up by organizations that are working towards bringing to Israel Jews like the Bnei Menashe who live in remote areas and have been separated from the rest of world Jewry.

One organization close to the Bnei Menashe community is Shavei Israel, which is run by Michael Freund, former deputy communications director of Netanyahu’s administration. Freund is an American immigrant who is supporting this movement by soliciting donations and governmental support. His support of getting the lost Jews back from India has been criticized by many, especially by the Orthodox community.

“According to Jewish law, Judaism has no interest in influencing someone to convert. There’s no such thing,” Rabbi Dor Liov told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. The comment refers to the mass immigration of the lost Jews from around the world. “In any case,” Lior said, “we should invest efforts first of all in bringing the Jews we know. We aren’t missionaries.”

Contrary to what the Orthodox rabbi said, the Israeli Ministry is still maintaining its social support budget for the Bnei Menashe. In an aim to reverse the diaspora, a committee appointed by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs minister affirmed the committee’s recommendation for reaching out to diasporic communities and introducing them to audio and video content related to Israel and Judaism.

In Mizoram, India, Shavei is putting proactive effort to educate local Indian Jews.

“We do have centers back in India. A big chunk of our budget goes to their development,” said Laura Ben-David, Shavei Israel director of marketing.

Grassroots education has been going on in different parts of North Eastern India. “We do big seminars in a couple of weeks … at one central location where people can bring their people. We create books and pass them around in a regular community normal access,” said Ben-David.

Although learning Hebrew remains a problem for many, a systematic community effort along with support from nonprofits would help overcome people who are about to make Aliyah in coming years. The key is to learn language as soon as they can and dissolve themselves as Israeli Jews.

Life in Israel can be hard for immigrants, but Benyamin is not sorry that she made the journey. “I comforted myself that I’m finally in a place where we always dreamt of,” she said of Israel. She harkened back to a Biblical character when she considered how lucky she is that she was able to come on Aliyah. “Even Moses didn’t get a chance to come in Israel,” she said.