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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
India's 'lost Jews' wait in hope

By Geeta Pandey
BBC correspondent in Imphal, Manipur

A team of senior Israeli rabbis is due to rule soon on whether thousands of Indians who say they are members of one of the lost tribes of Israel can settle there.

Inside the Manipur synagogue
Only 5,000 of the Benei Menashes have converted to Judaism
Shlomo Amar recently led a delegation of rabbis to the north-eastern Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram where members of the Benei Menashe tribe live and practise Judaism.

At the Beith-el Synagogue in the Manipur capital, Imphal, nine men wearing knitted skull caps read silently from the Old Testament.

Four others stand on a wooden platform in the centre of the room as a young man reads from the holy book under the supervision of an elderly priest.

These people claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel.

Recent discovery

Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing is the leader of the Benei Menashes in Imphal.

Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing
We found that the stories, the customs and practices of the Israeli people were very similar to ours
Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing
"We are Benei Menashe, because we belong to the Menashe tribe," he says.

"Menashe is the son of Joseph, who was one of the 12 sons of Jacob. So we are the lost tribe of Israel."

Mr Hangshing says for thousands of years they did not know they were lost.

"We found out only 27 years ago," he says.

"When the Bible was translated into our language, in 1970s, we studied it.

"And we found that the stories, the customs and practices of the Israeli people were very similar to ours. So we thought that we must be one of the lost tribes."

Saturdays are observed by Jews the world over as the Sabbath, the day of rest, and the members of the Benei Menashe community meet for morning prayers at the synagogue in Imphal.

A lamb-skin scroll of the Torah, is unrolled and then rolled up again as each reader finishes his part.

Hope

There are more than 300,000 Benei Menashes in Manipur but most of them follow Christianity.

Only about 5,000 have converted to Judaism, most of them during the 1970s.

Mr Hangshing says although India has treated them quite well, they do not consider it their home.

Lucy Vaiphei
Lucy Vaiphei (right) is hoping to join her family in Israel
The recent visit by a delegation of rabbis from Israel has given new hope to the members of this community.

Caleb, a 24-year-old college student, wants to go to Israel because he says it is the land of his forefathers.

Amram is studying to be a lawyer. He says Israel is the promised land, for him and the others too.

"In Israel it will be easier for us to practise our religion."

In a chamber partitioned from the main prayer hall, about a dozen women join in the Sabbath prayers.

Lucy Vaiphei is the caretaker of the synagogue.

Her parents and six siblings have emigrated to Israel in the last few years and she is now looking forward to making the move herself.

Michael Freund, director of Amishav - an organisation that helps Jews move to Israel - says he firmly believes that Menashe is one of the lost tribes of Israel.

"We have brought over 800 of them to Israel," he says, "and the remaining people also want to emigrate".

Mr Freund says that last year the new Israeli interior minister, Avraham Poraz, suddenly declared his opposition to bringing the Benei Menashes into Israel.

"But I'm confident that if the chief rabbi issues a ruling saying that the Benei Menashes are indeed descendents of the Jewish people and should be allowed back home, then he will have no choice but to let them in."

So while the rabbis in Israel take a decision on whether or not to grant the right to emigrate to Israel to the Benei Menashes, this community here is waiting with bated breath - and praying.


SEE ALSO:
Mizo 'Jews' seek Israel visas
23 Dec 03  |  South Asia
Israel to expand settlement
02 Oct 03  |  Middle East
Q&A: India's violent north-east
21 Nov 03  |  South Asia


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