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Tribes Lost And Found

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

Ari and Ari visit the ancient community of the Bnei Menashe at home in India. One of the Ten Lost Tribes?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

tribes

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We arrived in Manipur unannounced, to get a bona fide glimpse into how the Bnei Menashe really live. We found young boys in yarmulkes and tzitzis, men devotedly going to shul each morning for a 90-minute Shacharis, women running their homes according to halachic standards. Are these indeed the Lost Tribes on their way back home? We knocked and waited nervously because we hadn’t notified them ahead — yet we weren’t disappointed. As the door opened to the little hut, a kippah-clad man smiled broadly and said, “Baruch haba!” He led us through a courtyard to a small, well-kept synagogue. We were not in Monsey, but in a far-flung corner of India on the northeastern border state of Manipur, preparing the ground in advance of our curious delegation — a party of 35 Western Jews and one of the rare groups to visit this little-known Indian community known as the Bnei Menashe.

 

We were both excited and relieved by the warm welcome, as their story is exotic and spans thousands of years of Jewish history. It is a direct link with our Biblical past and raises interesting halachic and philosophic conundrums about our future. Welcome to our search for part of the Ten Lost Tribes.

It all started with a call from the OU Israel Center inviting us to lead a “Halachic Adventure” tour. We asked the organizers where they would like to go, and they replied, “Where would you like to lead us?” The answer for us was simple: to return to India where the richness and diversity of Jewish history is largely unknown to much of the Jewish world.

Our goal was to give our fellow adventurers a unique, exciting, and off-the-beaten-track experience. However, taking a group of 35 people is very different from our typical “Mesorah Quest” — our usual method of travel when we’re on our own: we make critical contacts, hop on a plane with a few cans of tuna, and show up for a whirlwind visit in which we meet and really get to know the local individuals. Sometimes we have to adjust our plans at the last minute.

So the logistics of being responsible for such a large group and knowing we’d surely encounter unscripted adventures along the way made us a little nervous, but in the end, baruch Hashem, things worked out even better than we could have dreamed. Our group got to see the backwaters of India and visit the communities of Bene Israel and the Jews of Cochin (we reported on all that over the past year). And while many people have come across Bnei Menashe halachic converts in Israel, seeing their ancient communities on the ground was a special treat for both us and our newest group of halachic adventurers.

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