Sunday, September 25, 2005

CHURACHANDPUR, India — Rabbis from Israel have begun converting to orthodox Judaism about 9,000 members of an impoverished tribe that is thought to be one of the 10 lost tribes of biblical Israel.

A Beit Din, or rabbinical court, arrived in India earlier this month to begin the conversion process, which will enable Bnei Menashes, as they are known here, to move to Israel.

“This time only a small population of us are being converted in India. But Beit Din will return to India again to conduct similar conversions in future,” said Lyon Fanai, a Bnei Menashe leader.

“We all will finally get the right of aliyah and settle in our long-lost homeland,” he said, referring to the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel.

About 700 of the impoverished Indian Jews living in India’s economically backward northeastern states of Mizoram and Manipur are being converted this month.

In April, Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi, announced in Jerusalem that he accepted the Bnei Menashes, or the “Children of Menashe,” as one of the lost tribes.

David Haokip, 23, a Bnei Menashe youth leader, embraced Judaism five years ago and goes to the synagogue to pray three times daily.

“When we knew we were recognized by the Chief Rabbinate it was the happiest news of my life. Now the Beit Din will change my life [by] selecting me for the conversion, I hope,” Mr. Haokip said.

Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that has been trying to locate descendants of lost Jewish tribes and bring them to Israel, believes that all Chins in Burma, Mizos in Mizoram and Kukis in Manipur — three prominent tribes of the region — are descendants of Menashe, an ancient Jewish leader.

According to the organization, there are up to 2 million Bnei Menashes in the hilly regions of Burma and northeastern India.

After an Assyrian invasion around 722 B.C., Jewish tradition says, 10 tribes from Israel were enslaved in Assyria. Later the tribes fled Assyria and wandered through Afghanistan, Tibet and China.

Around A.D. 100, one group moved south from China and settled in northeastern India and Burma.

These Chin-Mizo-Kuki people, who speak Tibeto-Burman dialects and resemble Mongols in appearance, are though to be the Bnei Menashes.

After almost a decadelong investigation, which included DNA tests of the people, Israeli authorities became convinced that the Indian Jews of northeastern India are one of the 10 lost tribes from Israel.

In Mizoram, about 1,000 Bnei Menashes applied for conversion this month, and more than 800 were rejected. In Manipur, 2000 young men and women have submitted application with 500 selected for conversion.

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