by Michael Freund It was after 3:00 a.m. on Thursday of last week, in the small airport outside Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, and the group of 38 travelers was exhausted.
Young and old, these members of the Bnei Menashe community, which traces its descent to a lost tribe of Israel, had just arrived on a late-night flight from India. They had left behind family, friends and all that was familiar, to fulfill an age-old dream and return to the land of their ancestors, the Land of Israel.
Patiently, they waited in a line that seemed to stretch all the way to the Russian border, keenly aware that in just a few hours they would set foot on the soil of Zion.
And then it began, slowly and softly, almost imperceptible in the cavernous hallway. Despite the fatigue and apprehension enveloping them, the Bnei Menashe started to sing, their voices rising ever louder as they recited the Hebrew words of the ancient piyut (Jewish liturgical poem) “Shomer Yisrael.” “Guardian of Israel,” it cries out, “guard the remnant of Israel!” Many onlookers were stunned, particularly the Israelis waiting on the same line for the flight to Tel Aviv. After all, it isn’t very often that the boarding process turns into a sacred songfest.
After overcoming the shock of seeing this batch of kippa-wearing northeastern Indian Jews bursting forth into melody, several of the Israelis joined in with them, producing a chorus that could have penetrated even the stoniest of hearts.
This episode is but the latest saga in the millennia-old story of the Bnei Menashe, who are returning to Israel in increasing numbers. Theirs is a remarkable tale, one that underlines the profound power of Jewish history and the unbreakable pull of Jewish destiny.
The Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE, toward the end of the First Temple era.
Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for so many centuries, the Bnei Menashe remained dedicated to their heritage, stubbornly clinging to the faith of their forefathers. They observed the Sabbath and kept kosher, celebrated the festivals, practiced the sacrificial rites and even argued a lot among themselves, just as Jews have done since time immemorial.
The Bnei Menashe never forgot who they are or where they came from, or where they would one day return.
The resilience they demonstrated in preserving their identity is now being recompensed, as they make their way back to their ancestral homeland.
The 38 Bnei Menashe who arrived in Israel last week comprise the latest group that Shavei Israel, the organization I founded and chair, has brought on aliya, in what we are dubbing “Operation Menashe.”
Over the past year, with the permission of the Israeli government, we have brought more than 300 Bnei Menashe from India, with another 860 slated to come here in the next 15 months.
Once Operation Menashe is complete in early 2015, there will be a total of 3,000 Bnei Menashe living in the Jewish state, with another 6,000 still in India awaiting permission to come.
Sadly, the Jewish establishment in the United States, such as UJA-Federation and others, have thus far failed to participate in this historic mission, rebuffing pleas to help us transport the Bnei Menashe and settle them in Israel.
As a result, we have had to rely on various Jewish philanthropists in Europe, the United States and elsewhere, as well as some of Israel’s Christian friends, with the ICEJ covering the most of the costs of the immigrants’ flights, while Bridges for Peace, Operation Exodus, Christians for Israel and others have provided funding to support their absorption.
Last Thursday, after the flight carrying the Bnei Menashe landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the 38 immigrants were taken to the old terminal, Terminal 1, where they were processed by officials of the Interior Ministry and the Absorption Ministry, before being taken back to Terminal 3.
As they emerged into the arrivals hall, the Bnei Menashe were greeted by a flood of tears, as friends and relatives embraced them, congratulating them on finally making it to Israel.
For 76-year old Yaffa Hlondo, a widow, it was a particularly moving scene. Her beloved husband, who had dreamt of making aliya, passed away last year in India, his life-long ambition left unfulfilled. In his last moments on earth, she told me, he had assured Yaffa that she would make it to the Promised Land, and that his spirit would be with her throughout the journey.
When Yaffa emerged into the arrivals hall, she was welcomed by her son, whom she had not seen since he had made aliya back in 2006. Standing next to him was his son – Yaffa’s grandson – in his olive-drab uniform. He serves in an elite IDF infantry combat unit, defending the Land of Israel and the people of Israel. As I watched them embrace, I had no doubt that a fourth person, the spirit of Yaffa’s late husband, was also there to partake in that special moment.
The return of the Bnei Menashe is a telling reminder of the power of Jewish fortitude, of our people’s ability to defy history and overcome the odds. And it is a tangible sign that God has not forsaken His people, nor His promises to restore them to their Land.
As we press forward in the coming months with Operation Menashe, I hope and pray that Jewish organizations will at last open their eyes and lend a hand to this historic reunion of Manasseh’s children with the rest of the people of Israel. The Bnei Menashe’s journey home has been long and arduous. It is time for the Jewish people to welcome them back with joy and open arms.