CHURACHANDPUR, India — In his tin-roofed workshop at the end of a dusty lane, K. Elisha Singson sometimes went without work for days, sitting in front of his idle sewing machine, ruing his prospects and those of his offspring.
Mr. Singson is a community leader of the Bnei Menashe (children of Menasseh) tribe, which was recognized recently as one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
He embraced Judaism a decade earlier, remained a devout follower of his adopted religion and goes to nearby Beth Shalom synagogue to pray three times each day.
He and about 200 other members of his tribe also attend a Hebrew school run by Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization that has been trying to locate descendants of lost Jewish tribes around the world and bring them to Israel.
Israel’s ‘lost tribes’
When Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi, announced recently in Jerusalem that he accepted the Bnei Menashe as one of the 10 “lost tribes” of Israel, Mr. Singson began to believe that God had finally smiled on him.
The tailor, who hopes to settle soon in Israel with his wife and three children, has been in a buoyant mood since learning of the chief rabbi’s recognition of the Bnei Menashe of India’s Mizoram and Manipur states as exiles from Israel millennia ago.
“When I read it in the local newspapers I thought it was a hoax, but after phone calls from Israel confirmed it, it turned out to be the happiest news of my life. … We shall win the right to ‘aliyah’ [return to Israel] very soon,” Mr. Singson said.
Although many Bnei Menashe want to “return” to Israel, only about 800 have been able to emigrate there in the past few years. Israeli visas were denied to most others.
When news of the March 29 announcement of Israel’s recognition of their tribe reached Bnei Menashe villages spread across the two hill states of northeast India, people erupted in celebration.
“It is the greatest gift from God in my life. I never believed that He could be so kind to me so soon,” said Rakhel, 21, who dreams of emigrating to Israel with her four brothers, two sisters and parents and working as a nanny there.
32 Indian synagogues
At special thanksgiving prayers as Bnei Menashes flocked to 32 synagogues across northeast India, community leaders said the tribe had become closer to Israel after rabbinical recognition.
“This recognition clearly means we have got into the process to return to our homeland [Israel], ending our 2,726-year exodus,” said Mr. Singson, who is chairman of the Beth Shalom synagogue in Churachandpur.
On April 23, as Jews around the world celebrated Passover — their departure led by Moses from slavery in Egypt in the 13th century B.C. — Bnei Menashes in India celebrated the holy day with unprecedented enthusiasm, believing that it was their last in “a foreign land.”
Shavei Israel believes that all Chins in Burma, Minos in Mizoram and Kukis in Manipur — three prominent tribes of South Asia — are descendants of Menashe.
The biblical ‘tribes’
In Genesis, God promised Abraham that his descendants would become “a great nation,” but the line begins with Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, does not have a tribe bearing his name. Instead, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are blessed by Jacob as his own and each fathers a separate “tribe.” The Menashes are descendants of Menasseh.
According to an Israeli organization formerly called Amishav — “My people return” — there are 1 million to 2 million Bnei Menashes living in the hilly regions of Burma and northeast India.
After an Assyrian invasion circa 722 B.C., Jewish tradition says 10 tribes from the northern part of the kingdom of Israel were enslaved in Assyria. Later the tribes fled Assyria and wandered through Afghanistan, Tibet and China.
About 100 A.D. one group moved south from China and settled around northeast India and Burma. These Chin-Mizo-Kuki people, who speak Tibeto-Burmese dialects and resemble Mongols in appearance, are believed to be the Bnei Menashes.
Most became Christians
According Shavei Israel, India has more than a million people who are ethnically Bnei Menashes. Because they lived for centuries in northeast India, mingling with local people, many of their Jewish traditions became diluted. And after Welsh missionaries arrived in the area in 1894, nearly all Indian Bnei Menashes converted from their animistic beliefs to Christianity.
In the early 1970s, some Kuki and Mozo Christians noticed that many of their customs — like male circumcision, animal sacrifices, burial customs, marriage and divorce procedures, observation of the Sabbath and the symbolic use of the number 7 in many festivals — were similar to those of Jews around the world.
“When we were translating the Bible into our tribal language, we found that the stories in the Old Testament, the customs and practices of the Israeli people, were very similar to ours. We became sure that we were one of the lost tribes of Israel,” said Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing, a Bnei Menashe Jewish leader in Imphal, the capital of India’s Manipur state.
The 80-year-old retired bureaucrat who embraced Judaism 15 years ago said he wants to be buried in his “homeland” after he dies, and therefore wants to “return” to Israel as soon as possible.
Faint genetic links
DNA studies at Central Forensic Institute in Calcutta conclude that while the tribe’s males show no links to Israel, the females share a family relationship to the genetic profile of Middle Eastern people. The genetic difference between the sexes might be explained by the marriage of a woman who came from the Middle East to a man of Indian ancestry.
Further genetic studies on the Indian tribes are continuing at the University of Arizona and the Technion Institute in Haifa, Israel.
Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, a dayan or rabbinical court judge and spokesman for Rabbi Shlomo Amar, said the decision to accept Indian Bnei Menashes as a lost Jewish tribe followed a careful study of the issue.
“The chief rabbi sent a delegation of two dayanim [judges] to India last year to conduct a thorough investigation of the community and its origins.” After that, “it was decided that the Bnei Menashes are in fact descendants of Israel and should be drawn closer to the Jewish people,” said Mr. Birnbaum.
The chief rabbinate has also announced it will send a beit din (rabbinical court) to northeast India to formally convert the tribe to Orthodox Judaism. Then, the Bnei Menashes can apply for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right of citizenship to all Jews.
After Israel’s Interior Ministry allocated an annual quota of 100 immigrants from the Indian tribe in 1993, Shavei Israel helped about 800 Bnei Menashe young men and women convert and settle in Israel — mostly in the occupied Palestinian territories.
But in 2003, when the Interior Ministry decided to end the Bnei Menashe aliyah (“right of return” to Israel), Shavei Israel activists started intense lobbying through the chief rabbinate to get the Indian group accepted by Israel as one of the lost tribes. They succeeded when the March announcement came from the chief rabbinate.
A clash of religions
Since Christian influence is strong in northeast India, only about 9,000 of the Bnei Menashe population — less than 1 percent of the total — adopted Judaism in the past 30 years. But some tribal leaders expect more Christian Bnei Menashes are likely to convert to Judaism.
“Now they know that they have been recognized by Israel, many will feel an inner urge to return to their roots,” said Mr. Hangshing.
But some Christian leaders object to targeting Christians for conversion.
“Acceptance of our people as Israelites is the work of Satan,” said P.C. Biaksama, a former government bureaucrat who now studies Christian theology. “We don’t believe these people ever came from Israel. Christianity is at stake here, and we should never take what is happening now lightly.”
Some Israelis object
In Israel, too, recognition of the Indian tribe by the chief rabbi has been assailed by some groups.
Social scientist Lev Grinberg told the BBC in an interview last year that right-wing Jewish groups were promoting conversion of distant people simply to boost the Israeli population in areas claimed by the Palestinians.
Despite the controversies, local Jewish leaders and Shavei Israel activists in Manipur and Mizoram are working hard to prepare the newly recognized Indian Bnei Menashes for conversion to Orthodox Judaism and help them “return” to Israel as soon as possible.
“They have proved themselves to be dedicated Jews and committed Zionists. They are a blessing to the state of Israel. We aim to bring all of them to Israel by the end of this decade,” said Michael Freund, the Shavei Israel chairman.
At Beth Shalom synagogue in Churachandpur, Khaiminlal Yigal, 30, was busy with other volunteers building a large mikvah (ritual bath) to be used soon during the mass conversion of the Bnei Menashes.
During a tea break, he said: “Internally, from my childhood I feel I am an Israeli — not an Indian. I cannot wait any longer to return to Israel, my motherland.”